Rodney Dangerfield once said, "My wife and I were happy for twenty years. Then we met." Dangerfield's characteristic sarcasm about relationships hits home for couples battling over the most common point of contention-money.

Imagine applying for a joint home equity loan or mortgage refinance and discovering that your partner has bad credit caused by compulsive spending or gambling. When one person spends and charges without the other's knowledge, it's disastrous on the relationship and the household debt profile.

This is why debt management for couples can be tricky. People come into relationships with pre-established spending habits and financial histories. And for whatever reason, couples often avoid having the money conversation-the one about the birds and the fees. Without agreed-upon spending limits, credit card debt can spiral out of control, forcing the couple deeper into the dreaded red than before the relationship existed.

Communication

The first rule of debt management for couples is to establish and maintain open lines of communication. Start by sitting down and having a heart-to-heart talk about what you owe, what you make, and what you spend.

Budgeting

Budgeting is the cornerstone of good debt management. It's common to feel reluctant about changing your spending habits, so this may be a sensitive subject. Try addressing the budgeting conversation in terms of mutual financial goals. Are you saving to buy a house? Is parenthood in the future? How does your financial situation need to change before these goals can become a reality? Ultimately, you'll need to agree on first setting aside money for bills, and then pay down debt. Personal spending has a place in the budget, as well, but it has to be the last priority.

Commitment

Once the two of you agree on a budget, you need to stick to it. Secret spending destroys trust and annihilates financial agreements. If the budget proves too restrictive, be honest about it. Then be prepared to work it out together.

When Rodney Dangerfield couldn't get any respect, he used his wife as a source for stand-up material. If you stay on the up-and-up with your mate, however, you can hopefully avoid being the punch line.

Published on March 12, 2007