Getting a spouse to save
May 23, 2000: 11:19 a.m. ET

The joys and stresses of marriage are without number, but not so joint savings
By Staff Writer Jeanne Sahadi
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NEW YORK (CNNfn) - You knew about the clothes on the floor and the tendency toward hypochondria. You even made your peace with the in-laws from Mars. But you didn't really think about your spouse's money habits before you took that long walk down the aisle.

Now you get upset every time you glance at your retirement savings and realize they could be much greater if only your partner didn't hate dealing with money, would stick with a job for more than two years or didn't have to spend every dollar that comes by.

Even if you belong to the his-hers-and-ours school of finance, the truth is what your spouse doesn't save will affect you both in the long run. For starters, you may have to compromise your retirement lifestyle if one of you didn't make the most of your earnings. And if you, the saving spouse, lives longer, your financial cushion will be thinner than you deserve.

Of course, "you don't have control over the other person," said Chris Cordaro, a Chatham, N.J.-based certified financial planner. But he and others have found there are a few things you can do to get your spouse to save more.

Shock the monkey

For some people, all that's needed is a little peek into the future to spur them on. Mapping out how much more you both need to save to live well in retirement can serve as a wake-up call.

"Try and shock the unresponsive spouse," Cordaro said. "A financial planner can be helpful because he or she's an objective third party who can point out you're not going to make it at this [savings] rate."

graphicFor others, that may be the first hint of morning light but not enough to rouse them from their financial slumber. For them, a more gradual approach is in order.

But that means both of you will need to make some changes.

"It's common that one spouse is the financial enabler," Cordaro said. If you're the one who pays all the bills, prepares the taxes, saves the most and decides on all the investments, you fit the bill.

While you may be better at finances, that doesn't mean your spouse should get a free ride. That's too much stress on you, and it leaves them vulnerable if you, the brains of the operation, die first.

"We all need to become financial adults," said San Diego, Calif.-based CFP Peg Eddy.

Follow the leader

That means you need to start handing over the financial reins, going over bills and investments together, and eventually turning over the process for at least part of the year to your partner.

It also means budgeting for your joint savings and rewarding yourselves for goals met.

"You need to have more instant bonus payoffs rather than talking about retirement," Eddy said.

Honesty is key in the process. Not sticking to a budget you've both agreed to is tantamount to financial infidelity, she said. In other words, buying the most expensive bathing suit with joint funds or paying off your larger-than-expected credit card bill with your bonus just won't fly.

Automated bank withdrawals earmarked for an IRA - no matter how small - is one of the least painful ways for people to boost their savings rate. If your spouse is not amenable to this idea at first, show him or her what you've managed to put away.

"I encourage the saving spouse to start an annuity or mutual fund account because when they see that, the other person will want to do the same," said CFP Patsy Acers, who runs Bag Lady Financial Services.

Attending a budgeting class together at the local community college is another a good idea, Eddy said.

Get a reality check

Your chances of success will be greater if you both look at your situation with a cold eye.

If you're breaking your back while your spouse dabbles in dog-petting services and other passion plays, or if your better half is struggling with an unprofitable business, "you [both] need to recognize the problem or face always having to play catch-up," Eddy said. "I'm big on choices, not surprises."

graphicAgain, an outside counselor may come in handy, since it's hard to tell your partner that his or her career isn't viable. It is easier for a planner to say, "You're running a hobby, not a business," she said, adding that together you may decide a "W2" job for your partner is the smartest thing.

For those married to spendthrifts, the challenges are tougher still, especially if the financially wayward make good money and feel entitled to spend as they please.

One woman, a client of Sausalito, Calif.-based CFP Robert Timineri, earns and spends considerably more than her husband, who retired early.

"We had to structure her spending so she felt she was getting some results from her hard work," Timineri said. But her husband needed to feel the family's resources weren't being frittered away. "We had rules posted on the refrigerator like, 'Call Bob if you are making any expenditure over $500,'" Timineri said.

If compulsive spending is the problem undermining your joint savings, your spouse might speak with a trained adviser at the Consumer Credit Counseling Service or attend a spenders support group in your area, Eddy suggested.

Appeal to their self-interest

For those non-savers in a second marriage, the wake-up call might come when they realize their spouses' assets have to be divided among children from a first marriage.

Eddy had a client who decided to ratchet up her savings once she realized her husband, who was more well off than she, would bequeath to her the income earned off his assets but that his kids would receive the assets themselves when she died.

Once that became clear, she figured, "'If I haven't built up my 401(k), I may be in cat-food city by the time I'm 80,'" Eddy said.

Have patience

Whatever remedies you try, it pays to remember that changing money habits requires patience and reasonable expectations.

"The idea is to swallow the elephant one bite at a time," Eddy said.

Experts stress that a savings imbalance, like any other area of financial discord between spouses, can strain the marriage.

Ideally, couples should talk about money and their financial expectations before taking their vows. But that's still easier said than done.

"We can talk about sex, politics and religion," Eddy noted. "But money is still a taboo topic." Back to top


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Bag Lady Financial Services

Consumer Credit Counseling Service

Debtors Anonymous

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