Jeanne Sahadi Commentary:
Everyday Money by Jeanne Sahadi Column archive
Mine is yours, yours is ... theirs?
When you marry someone with financial obligations to a first family, make friends with reality.
By Jeanne Sahadi, CNN/Money senior writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) Anyone who has seriously contemplated or entered into marriage knows one thing: nobody comes without baggage.

Indeed, given the high rates of divorce and remarriage these days, we're talking Louis Vuitton on steroids.

But that baggage isn't just emotional. It's financial.

As wedding season kicks into high gear, there are many couples who will enter into matrimony not only with high hopes but with big obligations to ex-spouses and children from a former marriage.

Those obligations can have a significant impact on the couple's bottom line and on their relationship.

That's why it behooves couples to have a clear-eyed view of what they're getting themselves into, preferably before they charge up the aisle.

For starters, take the blinders off

There are several potential costs involved in marriage to someone with financial ties elsewhere. Among them:

Reduced income: Whether you're talking alimony, child support or both, "It's a fact. It's no different than having two mortgages," said Ruth Hayden, author of "For Richer, Not Poorer: The Money Book for Couples."

Divided loyalty: When you marry someone with family and financial obligations from a past marriage, you may sometimes feel like a second-class citizen who takes a backseat to the first family, said Ron Heilmann, a marriage and family therapist who runs the Mediation Network of Syracuse.

Cash-flow creep: Between alimony and child support, most people are more understanding about the latter. But no matter how reasonable new spouses are about child support for their partners' children, it's unrealistic to think that's where the cash outlay will stop.

Child-support payments typically don't include the time and money spent when non-custodial parents visit with their kids or take them on trips. And that can push some buttons, particularly when step-parents don't feel they have any say or influence over such matters, Hayden said.

Anger and resentment: Sometimes, the spouse who is making the alimony or child-support payments feels unfairly bound to his or her past. And that anger can be an emotional drag on the current spouse.

One woman, whom Hayden was counseling along with the woman's husband, "paled" and "sagged" when her spouse started to complain about his financial burden since she'd heard it umpteen times. "She was just wearing out," Hayden said.

Make friends with reality

There is the notion that marriage after divorce is a fresh start. And it can be, except that it's more complicated than other fresh starts when you carry into it obligations from the past.

"People tend to be unrealistic," said Heilmann. "They can't support as many people as they think they deserve."

Since there's only so much money to go around, he believes that the person with the obligations needs to be frank with any potential partner and make clear that "first families come first. You have to take me on these terms."

As for the person marrying into the situation, you have to be brutally realistic. "There's no magic solution. The only way you can make your peace with it is to make your peace with it," said Olivia Mellan, author of "Money Harmony: Resolving Money Conflicts in Your Life and Relationships."

If you're deciding whether to marry, watch how your partner handles the situation while you're dating. "See how they're dealing with it emotionally, because you'll have to deal with it," Hayden said.

Then, make the best of it

If you decide to marry, you can do a few things to make the best of an admittedly tough situation.

First, get clear on the extent of the financial obligations you're facing. Find out how long alimony will last, how inclusive child support will be and if there will be likely expenses on top of that, Hayden suggested.

Next, adjust your attitudes. Hayden often hears couples lead off sessions this way: "If we didn't have to pay this, we could. . . ."

Whether it's a teacher making $40,000 or a lawyer making $400,000, "it's the same song," she said. At some point, you have to say, "'All right. This is what it is. Now how are we going to have a good life?'"

That means, in part, making the most of the cash flow you do have. What Hayden has found in her practice is that 80 percent of success with money comes from self-management.

And if the cash flow isn't to your liking, as a couple you have two options, Mellan said: Make more or spend less.

Lastly, both Heilman and Mellan recommend you set up a three-pot system for money: Yours, Mine and Ours.

The money for alimony and child support should go into the pot of the spouse with the obligations. That way, Mellan said, you don't "have it in your face all the time."

Into the joint pot, you both should contribute money earmarked for your life together.

When children are involved, Heilmann said, you also should contribute commitments to spend time with each other.

Those commitments will need to be revisited frequently, of course, since life can get in the way. But as with most things marital, he noted, "It's a continuing negotiation."

Jeanne Sahadi writes about personal finance for CNN/Money. You can e-mail her at Top of page