Balancing hearts and checkbooks

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Newlyweds Jarvis Jackson and Nicole Bradshaw Jackson look over financial statements in their Atlanta home. Nicole Jackson remembers how she and her husband figured out how to mesh their individual money styles into their marriage. "It wasn't that pleasant," she said, "but it was worth it."

When she was single, Nicole Bradshaw Jackson didn't put a lot of thought into her spending decisions.

"It's your money, and you get used to spending it the way you want," said Jackson, a 31-year-old health communications specialist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

That has changed since she and Jarvis Jackson, 34, an information technology project manager at the CDC, said "I do" last October.

It's not just that Jarvis Jackson is a saver, which he acknowledges he is. Or that he opposes her spending, which he doesn't.

"We've talked a lot about this, because now we have financial goals we want to achieve," he said. "We need to do it together."

One of the hardest things couples must do is merge their often-differing ideas about money - and, experts say, the sooner they do it, the better. Those who don't often end up in hurtful battles over unresolved financial issues or in fights so nasty they lead to divorce court.

Timothy J. Maurer, a certified financial planner in Baltimore, said couples needed to realize early in a relationship that when they start talking about money, what comes out often isn't about money.

"When two people come together, they come with baggage - the psychological aspect of money," Maurer said.

He said, for example, that both he and his wife, Andrea, grew up in homes that didn't have a lot of money. But his father, an electrical engineer, was very analytical and a bit of a penny-pincher, while his wife's father, a doctor, was open-minded about a lot of things, including money.

"So our expectations and the values about money that we brought into our married life were different," he said. "That had to be reconciled."

In some cases, a person's feelings about money can be negative, colored by memories of parents fighting over money or misusing the family's money, he added. And what makes one person happy, say opening a savings account, may not mean the same thing to a mate.

Maurer suggests couples begin their talks by creating a "personal money story" in which they think about memorable money moments in their lives and rate them on a scale ranging from minus 10 to plus 10. The results can be the basis for a money talk.

"And knowing that none of us are ever going to be perfect, that gives us some grace for ourselves and our spouses," he said.

The Jacksons said they had their first serious money talk before they were married. A premarriage counseling program through their church touched on finances, but they wanted more.

"So one weekend, for two days, we hammered out our goals," Nicole Jackson remembered. "We looked at what I considered necessities and what he considered necessities, and credit and normal ranges for spending. It wasn't that pleasant, but it was worth it."

In the end, the couple decided to use three accounts - his, hers and ours.

"There's stuff we have to buy - you've gotta have rent, pay your utilities, have gas for your car," Jarvis said. "That comes out of our account."

The separate accounts are to pay for their individual needs. Or, as he put it: "She can get her hair done, and I can go bowling twice a week with no pain."

Amanda and Jason Tirotta, both 28, of Ashtabula, Ohio, got married last July and have had to combine very different money styles.

Amanda Tirotta, a branch manager for a credit union, describes herself as "a budgeter by nature."

Jason Tirotta, on the other hand, is not the type to sit down and balance the checkbook, though as a bachelor he always had a good grasp of the approximate balance in his account "and never bounced a check."

And while Amanda Tirotta would put all extra dollars into savings, her husband said he believed that "if you have some money, and can afford to get something you want, go get it."

They have decided to pool their accounts - and work hard to communicate about how the money is allocated.

"At first, I felt a little bad, worrying that if I'm going golfing on Saturday, I'd be spending the money she worked hard for," he said. "But I came to realize that vice versa, I'm OK with her getting her hair done or going to a spa girl's day."

Amanda Tirotta said she expected they would work it out, saying: "I've learned a little from him and he's learned a little from me."