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Get Intimate, Financially

Britt Erlanson
Talking about money is the first step to managing it.

Many couples have trouble talking about their finances without strife. According to a recent survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, financial disagreements are among the top five reasons for divorce. This doesn't surprise CNBC's Personal Finance Editor Suze Orman, New York Times best-selling author of such titles as the newly released Road to Wealth (Riverhead, 2001). Orman says that in her writing and public speaking, she constantly seeks to illuminate the concept of "financial intimacy" for partners.

"Couples often know everything else about one another, but have no idea what kind of 'money person' their husband or wife really is," Orman explains. "Optimally, a couple would develop financial intimacy before making a commitment, because fantasizing about playing financial house is very different from actually doing it. But it's rarely too late to work at developing that intimacy."

Orman generally advises couples having difficulty communicating about money to see a marriage counselor first, before deciding whether to see a traditional financial planner. "Money is the physical manifestation of how we see ourselves," Orman says. "When a couple gets into counseling about disagreements over money, they often discover that isn't why they are fighting at all."

This was exactly what Ray and Betsy Tant of Knoxville, Tennessee, realized when they began seeing a marriage therapist almost a year ago. "At the first few counseling sessions, all we addressed was money. I thought our problems were due to her spending habits and the student loans she brought into the marriage," Ray says. "Instead, I found out that both of us were projecting our childhood experiences with family finances onto our own marriage."

Ray and Betsy discovered that although each of them grew up in homes where there was never quite enough money, Ray's childhood was chaotic and unpredictable, while Betsy's was stable and loving. Ray realized through counseling that his first reaction to even the mildest stress regarding money tends to be anger and depression. Betsy, based on her parents' example, isn't a worrier and assumes that any money concerns will ultimately work out. After this major breakthrough in understanding, Ray and Betsy felt a deeper connection and saw an immediate improvement in their ability to discuss finances.

Sorting out the underlying emotional issues with regard to finances is the first step to ending money stress. It allows a couple to start working on a financial plan, and use their insight to mold a budget that will accommodate current needs and help achieve the goals they identify together.

Money Talks
Ray and Betsy offer these tips -- gleaned from their own process of counseling and shared financial planning -- on communicating with your partner about money.

Plan "money dates." Schedule a weekly or biweekly meeting during which the two of you sit down to talk money. Be sure to choose a time when both of you can give the other your full attention -- no phones, children, or television allowed. Consider rewarding yourselves afterward by sharing a glass of wine, some favorite music, or a special dessert.

Stay focused. Make a point not to bring up other hot topics, such as sex, when you talk about money. This can exacerbate tensions and sabotage your ability to make progress.

Be sure you've understood your partner. Restate your partner's words to ensure what you heard is what was intended. When necessary, ask for clarifications.

Learn together. Study the basics of financial planning or investing together. Read and discuss a book on money management, or attend a seminar or class on personal finance.