Treat your marriage like a business

My artist husband likes to say that if I were in charge of our spending, we’d be sitting on milk crates instead of furniture and that if he were in charge, we’d have no retirement accounts.

The fact that we have both nice furniture and retirement funds is a testament to compromise — and the wealth-building power of marriage.

Married people are significantly wealthier than single people in every age group, and the gap tends to widen as people approach retirement age. Married couples age 55 to 64 had a median net worth, excluding home equity, of $108,607 in 2011, the latest available Census Bureau figures show. By contrast, single men in the same age bracket were worth a median $14,226 and single women $11,481.

Income and education also contribute heavily to wealth — and to the likelihood that people will marry. But a 15-year study of 9,000 people found that even after controlling for those and other factors, marriage itself contributed to a 4 percent annual increase in net worth. The same study found that wealth typically began to drop four years before a divorce, which ultimately reduced people’s wealth by 77 percent.

Since marital status is so powerfully associated with financial status, people would be smart to view marriage as a business arrangement in addition to a romantic one. Taking a few pages from the business world has certainly made our 19-year marriage stronger as well as wealthier.

In my latest for the Associated Press, a look at what works for us and how to apply it to your own marriage.

Q&A: Talking money before marriage

Dear Liz: My daughter is getting married in September. She recently confided that she and her fiance have never discussed their respective debts (if any), credit scores or financial goals. She is hesitant to bring this up with him but realizes it’s a discussion that needs to happen before they marry. I suggested they consider meeting with a financial counselor so they can have an honest talk about money as a practical matter rather than an emotional one. Would a fee-only financial planner be appropriate in this instance?

Answer: Absolutely. If you’d like, you could make a session with such a planner your engagement present to them.

Of course, they don’t need a professional to start talking about their financial situations. Presumably she knows him well enough by now to have some idea about how best to broach the topic. It could be as simple as “Hey, I was just paying some bills and I realized we probably should talk about our financial situations.”

A way to start the decision is to talk about dreams and goals. Would they like to raise a family? Buy a home? Start a business? Travel a lot? Retire early? All financial planning stems from knowing what your goals are, and then you can figure out how to achieve them. Your daughter shouldn’t be too worried if they aren’t on exactly the same financial page, since few couples are. What’s important at this stage is knowing what’s important to each person.

It can be trickier to talk about the present. Most people have made mistakes with money, and many have more debt and less savings than they’d like. Being a sympathetic listener and suspending judgment can go a long way toward putting a partner at ease in these discussions.

After they’ve had a few talks and feel comfortable, they probably should take a look at each other’s credit reports. Those would give them a fairly good idea of how much each person owes. That can help them understand roughly how much of the family budget will need to go toward retiring those debts and how much is available to achieve their goals.

Q&A: Social Security and marriage

Dear Liz: Each year, I track my estimated Social Security benefit on the website. At full retirement age of 67, my estimated benefit is $1,504. Is it true that my actual benefit may be reduced by 50% since I am married?

Answer: Good heavens, no.

If you’re married, your spouse may be entitled to a benefit that equals up to half of your check. But your check is not reduced to provide this spousal benefit. Instead, the Social Security Administration typically would calculate the benefit your spouse earned on his own, compare that to his spousal benefit, and then give him the larger of the two amounts.

If you have ex-spouses from marriages that lasted at least 10 years, they too could be entitled to spousal benefits. But those benefits wouldn’t reduce your check or your husband’s.

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Gay marriage: more taxes, more benefits

Champagne glassesThe Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate the Defense of Marriage Act means that gay married couples will have access to the federal benefits now enjoyed by other marrieds.

These benefits include tax breaks, Social Security benefits and estate planning advantages that until now were denied gay couples, even if their marriages were recognized under state law.

Among other things, gay marrieds will now be able to:

  • claim Social Security benefits based on a spouse’s working record and qualify for survivor benefits.
  • fund an IRA or Roth IRA for a nonworking spouse.
  • split a retirement fund or other assets without triggering tax bills if they divorce.
  • exempt health care benefits for a spouse from their federal income.
  • bequeath their estate to a spouse without triggering potential federal estate taxes.

These gains may come with a cost: as NerdWallet puts it, “federal income tax brackets are in fact easier on high-income individuals than they are on most high-income married couples.” NerdWallet figured that same-sex couples earning more than $146,000 may see their tax bill go up by over $1,000.

One of my gay friends, a financial planner, just posted to her Facebook page that her taxes are likely to go up by several thousand dollars. But she was happy, as she put it, to “take one for the team.”


Split credit accounts when you split with a spouse

Dear Liz: I just finished paying off my last credit card and checked my credit report as I am now separated from my wife. I found we had one joint account that she had not been paying. There are two stretches of five months each of no payment.

I immediately called up the creditor and paid off the balance and the creditor closed the account due to the lack of payments. This one account killed my credit score. I also found two old accounts on my credit report that are both still active but I have not used them for years. Both accounts are in good standing.

I was thinking that if I started using the accounts again, paying them off each month, it would boost my credit score faster. I am looking to buy a house this summer and would have an easier time with a better score. Do you think using the old accounts would help improve my score faster or do you think my score would be better if I closed those accounts?

Answer: Closing accounts can’t help your credit scores and may hurt them. You should avoid closing any credit account when you’re trying to improve your credit rating.

Your experience shows why it’s so important to separate financial accounts when you’re separating from a spouse. Failure to pay any joint account can hurt both parties’ scores. This would be true even if you were divorced and had a divorce decree making her responsible for the debt. Your creditors don’t have to pay attention to such agreements.

Lightly using a few credit cards can help you recover from missteps like this one. “Lightly” means charging 10% or less of their credit limits, and you should pay the balances in full each month, since carrying credit card debt doesn’t help your scores. You shouldn’t expect your scores to bounce back overnight, however. If you had good scores before this incident, it may take you a few years to recover completely.