The Big Payoff

Talking about money is never easy, but mixing romance and finance makes it that much harder. In her new book, The Big Payoff: 8 Steps Couples Can Take to Make the Most of Their Money–and Live Richly Ever After (Collins; $22.95), award-winning CNBC correspondent Sharon Epperson aims to help couples tackle some of the common financial problems that can poison a relationship. What’s “the big payoff?” Epperson says it’s the peace of mind that comes with financial strength, which allows couples to enjoy their marriage, their family, and their lives.

You need to have a consistent method for keeping track of your spending and savings, so you won’t have to worry about one spouse imposing his or her financial decisions on the other. Lay down ground rules that you both will follow. Basic guidelines can help you come up with a detailed plan that is agreeable and attainable for both of you. These guidelines can also serve as points of reference to fall back on when you feel like you’re starting to falter. Following these three simple rules–“the Budget Commandments”–should go a long way toward helping you stretch your budget.

I: Thou Shalt Pay Thine Own Self First
II: Thou Shalt Stay Out of Debt
III: Thou Shalt Live on One Income, Not Two

The best way to start to save is to pay yourself first. You’ve undoubtedly heard this before, but do you and your spouse actually adhere to it? Do you have money automatically deducted from your paycheck each month for your 401(k) plan or other retirement savings programs? Are you contributing the maximum amount that your employer allows–or at least up to what the company matches if that is offered? Do you make monthly contributions to a traditional or Roth IRA? Do you have three to six months of living expenses socked away for emergencies?

Make sure your savings are diversified. Savings shouldn’t be limited to retirement planning. Many couples contribute to their retirement plans and then stop putting any money away. They think that fulfills their savings obligation for the month. It’s also important to save for a down payment on a home or a car or other items, like unforeseen medical expenses.

If you haven’t done so already, you need to open an interest-bearing savings or money market account and deposit a set amount into it each pay period. Also be sure to take advantage of other employer-sponsored benefit savings, such as flexible spending accounts, which help cover uninsured medical costs and also lower the taxes you’ll pay on payroll income.

Recognize your debt dilemma. The main reasons so few couples are able to save are simple: they overspend and they are in debt. It’s not rocket science. Many couples today are taking on far more debt than their parents did a generation ago to provide the same standard of living–and adding even more debt to buy a house in an expensive neighborhood and to send