With a wedding coming up, you'd think Jay Buerck would be obsessing about the usual details: Writing vows, choosing appetizers, or figuring out seating charts to accommodate challenging relatives.
But what worries the 29-year-old St. Louis marketing professional isn't any of those things: It's money.
Not that he and his bride-to-be Liz Downey won't have enough; they earn comfortable salaries. What really freaks him out is the inherent challenge of joining two people's finances.
"Money is the reason why many people get divorced," says Buerck. "I have a buddy who got married and didn't tell his wife about the extent of his debt, and they had a rough go of it when he came clean. That's something I want to try and avoid."
The couple has already taken steps to prepare their finances. That's a smart strategy, according to financial experts, especially now that U.S. couples are waiting longer to marry, and many people have thousands of dollars in student loans and credit card debt by the time they take their vows.
Money causes more arguments than other typical flashpoints, according to a recent survey by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and Harris Interactive.
A full 27 percent of respondents said their spats started over money, more than problems with kids (16 percent) or chores (13 percent).
Couples who lock horns over finances at least once a week are 30 percent more likely to get divorced, according to a 2009 study by researchers at Utah State University,
"I probably spend 15 percent of my time with couples actually talking about money, and the other 85 percent talking about personal issues," says Chris Kimball, a certified financial planner in Lakewood, Washington, who also has a Masters of Divinity degree.
"It all ties into money. It's a very powerful thing that can do great things in people's lives, or can really mess them up."
Shockingly, nearly one-half of all people have lied to their significant other about money, according to an April poll by Self Magazine and Today.com.
And a survey conducted this spring by CreditCards.com revealed that 6 million Americans have hidden financial accounts from their spouses or live-in partners.
The deception isn't usually malicious. Often it's prompted by guilt and embarrassment about spending. Compounding the problem is that financial behavior is very deeply set, and can't be altered easily.
So where do couples go wrong, when it comes to money -- and how can they make it right?
Have the money talk
Only 43 percent of couples talked about money before marriage, according to a May 2010 survey conducted for American Express.
But lack of disclosure about your financial issues -- maybe you're struggling with $100,000 in student debt, or maybe you filed for bankruptcy at some point -- isn't really any different from lying. Be up front about your financial situation, have the "money talk" long before the big day, and tackle any challenges as a couple.
"My significant other didn't tell me about the money problems we were having, and then one day we had no credit left and had lost pretty much everything," says Holli Rovenger, an author and speaker in Greenville, S.C. "If we'd worked together, maybe our finances wouldn't have spiraled out of control."
Minor money differences can be overcome as long as you have the basics covered: You have your daily needs met, you're bringing in more than you're paying out, and you're able to build a nest egg for the future. But once overspending and debt enter the picture, all bets are off.
"I was always a black-belt shopper, and hated to miss a sale," says Jenny Triplett, an entrepreneur in Powder Springs, Ga., who's been married to husband Rufus Triplett for 22 years. "I'd have bags full of new clothes in the closet, and only bring them out one piece at a time. But eventually we came to a compromise, and I got my spending under control."
That's exactly the right template for resolving money disputes, planners advise. Even with differing money styles, if both partners take strides toward the middle and agree on broad outlines of a budget, it could prevent countless disputes.
Hiding from help
Money is such an emotional issue that it could be difficult for couples to untangle all the knots on their own. A trained third party can help you figure out the core issues, and mutually agree on a financial plan.
"I've had clients yelling at each other in the parking lot, who came into the conference room and then wouldn't say a word to each other for the first hour," says Kimball. "But eventually we were able to work through it. Talking to someone can help air these financial issues in a safe environment."
Check out the Association for Financial Counseling and Planning Education, which has a database of trained financial counselors.
Being on the same page
It's helpful to have basic guidelines in place that will keep you on the same page. For instance, purchases under a certain dollar amount can be left to each spouse's discretion, while larger ones should to be cleared with your partner.
Some couples might be comfortable pooling all of their money, and others may not; neither is the "right" choice, but that should be decided explicitly.
"Understanding your partner's values on money is so very important," says Andi Wrenn, a financial counselor in Boston with a master's in marriage and family therapy. "Talk about how they learned money management, and what they plan to do in the future with the money they have and earn. Not often do people marry that are from exactly the same background."
That certainly applies to Jay Buerck and his bride-to-be. She's traditionally been more of a budgeter, and he's more laissez faire when it comes to counting pennies. But since they set up a joint account and moved in together, finances have "actually become less stressful," he says. "It's all about being open and honest."