February is a time for hearts and flowers and candy and swooning.
And while you're thinking about love, think about another emotional subject: money. As you prepare for a commitment such as marriage or living together, it's time to discuss dollars and cents.
Love, money and the military often intertwine happily … but not always. Discussions about spending, saving, debt and other financial topics should
begin before marriage or moving in with that significant other.
For military couples, these discussions are especially important, because of deployments and permanent change-of-station moves. With deployments in particular, one partner is left behind, and is generally handling the finances and paying the bills.
At a minimum, couples should have a system in place for paying those bills whether they're together or separated by military life. Do you pool your money into one checking account to pay the bills, or do you divvy the bills up? If the service member is the one responsible for the bills, will the spouse be prepared to pay the bills, and have access to the needed accounts, in the member's absence?
Beyond the logistics, couples should have a fundamental discussion about their attitudes toward debt and saving and other parts of finances, and find
common ground. If finances are rocky, it's best to get it out in the open and start addressing it.
That's not easy.
"People are scared to talk about debt they're bringing" to the relationship, said Andia Dinesen, an Air Force wife who is an accredited financial counselor and vice president of communications and operations for the Association of Military Banks of America. She has provided financial counseling and education to military members and their families in a variety of capacities at various duty stations.
People are also often afraid to talk about how they feel about money, but that might actually pave the way to an easier discussion about finances.
"The reason people spend money in a certain way, or save, is often tied to things that have happened in their lives," Dinesen said. Sometimes a parent's saving or spending habits have had a heavy influence. "Talk about why you think the way you do about money. That will make it easier to talk about it, and to find common ground."
In her situation, her husband's attitude about money was different because his brother died at a young age. He doesn't want to wait until he's 60 to enjoy life, and she wants to have a secure future, Dinesen said. So they discussed their philosophies.
"We agreed if it's not too much of a stretch, he can have the things he wants, as long as we can save for the future," she said. "He works really hard."
COME CLEAN WITH DEBT
Some couples already align when it comes to spending habits. But if a spender and a saver get together, that can lead to problems, especially if the spender has racked up a lot of debt.
Whether debts come from poor habits, or from factors like divorce or student loans, it’s best to be honest.
"The biggest problem I see here is that one will have significantly more debt than the other, and is not forthcoming," said Sandy Boenig, an Army wife who is the personal financial counselor for the 175th Wing at Warfield Air National Guard Base, Maryland. She often provides pre-marital financial counseling to couples, and works to make sure couples have their finances in order before deployments.
Like Dinesen, Boenig, whose husband is an Army reservist, earned her Accredited Financial Counselor credentials through the FINRA Investor Education Foundation Military Spouse Fellow program.
These issues should be addressed sooner rather than later, because military life can exacerbate the problem. One example Boeing outlined: When the
military member "saver" deploys, leaving the significant other "spender" to mind the finances.
"We don't want them to worry while they're deployed if the house payment is being made, or if the car will be repossessed," she said. "Sometimes the spouse in that situation needs to be reined in."
WHY A CREDIT CHECK?
When these couples come in for financial counseling, Boenig pulls their credit reports, if they agree to it. The report gives a good baseline financial picture and a starting point for discussing finances.
Often people are surprised by what's in their credit report, Boenig said – late payments or forgotten issues from the past such as credit cards with
remaining balances, or collection actions.
Why are these reports important? They form the basis of the credit score, a three-digit number lenders use to help decide whether to lend money for a car, credit card, mortgage or anything else.
Credit scores range from 300 to 850; the higher, the better. A lower score could also mean a higher interest rate, so the loan would cost more if it is granted.
"When they go to do things together like buying a car or renting an apartment, when they’re both on the contract, their credit scores are checked," Boenig said.
Being in tune with each other financially helps weather some of the unique challenges of military life, the financial experts said.
"We've PCSed nine times, and every time I'm flabbergasted by how much it costs us" out of pocket, Dinesen said.
Another point of discussion is the impact of frequent military moving on the finances in other ways – the civilian spouse may not be able to find a job immediately or at all in the new location. Steps such as agreeing to build an emergency fund can help keep you from going into debt thanks to such setbacks.
Financial counselors see the results when military couples don't communicate about money. Often, military personnel say they didn't think about talking in advance about their financial goals or spending habits, before marriage or moving in together, said Kylie Delgado, outreach coordinator in Catonsville,
Maryland, for Guidewell Financial Solutions, a nationwide nonprofit credit counseling agency that works with the military community, through its affiliation with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
"So there's some incongruency on how to work with that partner to get back on track," she said. For example, "some say, 'I'm trying to retire in 10 years, but at the rate my partner is spending, I don't know that it's feasible. How do I have that conversation?'"
Whether you've been together for 10 years or you're preparing for a life together, it doesn't have to be a tense conversation, Delgado said.
"When you're sitting on the couch hanging out, say, 'Hey, I'm thinking about retiring in 10 years. Here's what I was thinking. We're going to have to put away X dollars per month. What are your thoughts?'
"Discuss how you work together as a team. That's how you'll be successful in the long run," she said.