You've heard it before (and might even have personal "data" to back it up): Money is the number one cause of marital strife. Financial planner Jeff Motske, the author of The Couple's Guide to Financial Compatibility, offers five strategies that you can take to the bank—together.
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Illustration: merged piggy banks
Credit: Robert Samuel Hanson

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Illustration: merged piggy banks
Credit: Robert Samuel Hanson

1 Think Yours, Mine, and Ours.

A joint account is key so both parties know what’s coming in and going out. But couples should also have individual accounts with a set amount of money to play with every month. How much? Motske suggests 1 percent of a couple’s total combined income for each person. He makes a case: “If you don’t have your own ‘fun money,’ especially if you’re a free spirit, you’ll feel trapped.” This 1 percent is yours. You don’t have to explain what you bought or why, says Motske, “so you don’t have to fight about it.” If separate accounts seem like a pain (though automatic transfer makes the plan a breeze), apply the same practice with cash.

2 Talk Money Over Mojitos.

It seems as if “date night” is the answer to every potential marital bump, and finances are no exception. Motske suggests a once-a-month drink or dinner out where you talk about finances for at least part of the evening—saving for your next vacation, household budgeting, leaving a job. When you know there’s a specific time to go over money issues, there’s less chance for resentment to build, and you’re less likely to ambush each other over, say, an eyebrow-raising credit-card statement. And while you could have your money date at the kitchen table, says Motske, being in public helps keep the discussion productive and prevents a fight. It offers a way “to bring up concerns and grievances without getting emotionally fired up,” he says.

3 Highlight (Don’t Hide) Expenses.

This low-tech exercise brings clarity to spending patterns. Print out credit-card statements and go over them together with three different-colored highlighters. Use one color to mark essential purchases, another for things that make you truly happy, and the last for somewhat mindless purchases. “You’ll be shocked by how much you guys are spending on dumb stuff,” says Motske, who practices this highlighter habit with his spouse monthly. The findings keep all charges out in the open, make anything fraudulent easy to spot, and help you cut down on unnecessary costs so you can put the money toward something more important, like college tuition or a retirement fund.

4 Team Up Against Debt.

Obviously, if you can live without credit-card debt, fights over money decrease enormously. “Credit cards are a necessity in this day and age, but make sure you own them, not the other way around,” says Motske. That means paying them off every month. If this is not possible, get serious without getting mad at each other: Fill a clear container with water, toss the credit cards inside, and place in the freezer. (If you cut cards up and close accounts, your credit score will suffer.) This way, you’ll get a visual reminder that they’re frozen and an obstacle if you’re tempted to cave. When the balance is paid off, thaw the cards. (But not in the microwave—many cards contain metal.) They will still work.

5 Have A Safe Word.

When a fight about discretionary spending is brewing, a reminder of a shared goal can get you back on the same side. Consider having a safe word or phrase about your life dreams that strikes an emotional chord. (“Picket fence,” “Paris”—you get the picture.) Remembering that you both want the same tangible reward can quell the conflict.