I Do, but You Don't.

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 10, 2008

Alezandra Russell and James Guzman immediately bonded when they met at a barbecue in May 2004. Both grew up in suburban Maryland. Both have Latino parents. Both love to travel, go to the theater and eat out.

But it became clear, soon after they got engaged in August that year, that they were completely different in at least one way: their finances. Russell, now 26, was paying off student loans and credit cards and renting an apartment. Guzman, 35, had no debt and owned a house.

Since getting married two years ago, they have had many discussions -- and disagreements -- about money.

"I overspend. I really don't budget that well," she said.

"I'm just a little bit more disciplined when it comes to that," he said.

Money is the last thing couples want to talk about when they're falling in love. But it's one of the first things they should discuss when planning their lives together, experts said. That's because modern relationships have become so complicated. No longer are there defined financial roles, with the husband as breadwinner and the wife as homemaker. These days, there are many more two-income households, and the man isn't necessarily the one making the most money. There are also more financial pressures, what with so many households overloaded with debt and with the economy taking a turn for the worse.

People are increasingly considering a potential mate's finances before committing to a relationship. In a Money Management International survey released last week in time for Valentine's Day, 70 percent of the 1,049 respondents said they consider financial savvy an important trait when searching for a mate. Fifty-eight percent said they consider financial security more important than a person's looks, though it was women driving that phenomenon. (Men were still more inclined to consider looks more important than money.)

Once couples commit, money doesn't become any less of an issue.

"Money is one of the top three common sources of conflict that brings couples into therapy," said Karen Osterle, a licensed psychotherapist in Dupont Circle. "In fact, some people find it easier to talk about sexual matters than they do about money."

Therein lies the problem, several financial advisers, counselors and therapists said. America has become a society in which people openly dissect their sex lives but are reluctant to discuss how much money they make or how much debt they have.

Sure, it's not sexy, experts said, but people need to realize that when they cohabitate or get married, they are not only entering a romantic relationship, but also a financial partnership. There are many decisions to be made. Should they have joint or separate bank accounts? Which credit cards should they apply for? Who should pay the utilities? How should they divide the rent or mortgage? Should they buy a house? How much should they set aside for retirement? When should they start saving for their children's educations? "The couple that plans together is much more likely to stay together," said Osterle.

There are no uniform answers, experts said. One couple might be comfortable having separate bank accounts while another is not. One couple might want to buy a house; another might be happy renting. Either way, each couple has to come up with a plan. If left unanswered, these questions can cause tension, or worse, destroy a marriage. A GfK Roper poll commissioned by the Web site Divorce360.com and released last month found that money was one of the main reasons people get divorced, second only to verbal or physical abuse.

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