Just married? Make a plan for money matters

Six tips to help you manage the household finances as painlessly as possible.

Rachel Haig 6 May, 2010 | 6:00PM
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When couples tie the knot or otherwise join households, there is typically a period of give and take to determine who will do which tasks around the house to keep things running smoothly. Who will cook, do the dishes, take out the trash, and walk the dog?

After you've figured out a joint budget and whether to combine your accounts, there is yet another task to negotiate: how to deal with day-to-day account management and bill payments, including regular monthly tasks and ongoing investment management.

If you and your spouse are into the spirit of financial teamwork, you have the option of dividing tasks between the two of you, so that you each are responsible for a set of bills and accounts. Deciding how to allocate money tasks goes back to the discussions you and your spouse had when you were deciding whether to combine your finances. It obviously makes sense for both of you to be involved if you've decided to keep your money separate, or if you have very different investment philosophies.

For other couples, one person stands out as the natural money manager--just as the other person may be the designated chef or trash handler. If either you or your spouse wants the job and the other person agrees, that's fine, too.

There are plenty of money-related tasks to go around, from paying monthly bills, to scouting out the best credit cards and rates for mortgages and car loans, to selecting investments and keeping your portfolios on track. Another way to divide the tasks is for one person to handle the day-to-day bill payments while the other heads up the investment side.

Regardless of how you divide responsibility for money matters, these tips will help you manage the tasks as painlessly as possible:

Make a list of what must be completed every month. Include all your monthly bills and due dates, including your rent or mortgage, insurance, utilities, cell phones and credit cards.

Decide which accounts to pay bills from. Some couples pay everything directly from a bank account, while others charge some bills (smaller ones, such as utilities, not mortgages) to a credit card that they pay off every month. Paying from a credit card offers a few advantages, as long as you pay it off every month: You usually get rewards, and it better protects you against unauthorized charges. If you're charged more than you owe, contesting it through a credit card is much easier than trying to regain money incorrectly drafted from your bank account.

Set up automatic payments and savings. With a slew of accounts to deal with, it's easy to forget about savings or to let a payment slip through the cracks. Automating bill payments and diverting a set amount to savings each month can help keep things under control, but keep an eye on the account you're paying from. If paying from a bank account, make sure you have sufficient funds. If paying from a credit card, make a note of the expiration date and remember to change auto-pay settings before your card has a chance to be declined.

Sign up for electronic statements. Receiving e-copies of your bills and account statements doesn't just reduce clutter--it's also more secure. Receiving paper copies leaves you open to identity thieves who sift through mail for personal information. You should still take steps to ensure a secure virtual environment, however-- this article has more information.

Get into a routine. Try to schedule your bills to be due around the same time each month, and designate a regular "bill day." Establishing a habit for how you pay bills minimizes confusion and stress.

Keep tabs on your accounts. Review your checking and savings accounts, retirement accounts, brokerage accounts, credit cards, and any additional accounts for utilities monthly to ensure they are up to date and catch any errors. Check your investment accounts quarterly or annually and rebalance if your asset allocation is significantly out of whack. Read this article for rebalancing guidance.

If you're both managing the money, lay out exactly what each of you is responsible for to avoid accidentally double-paying or paying late because of confusion. The last thing you want is a late fee because each of you thought the other person paid. Designating a day each month to deal with bills together can also help ensure nothing is overlooked. Communication is also crucial if you share a brokerage account--make sure you both agree on investments and discuss any changes.

If one of you takes the reins, you'll need to make sure your spouse isn't left completely out of the loop. Taking care of money management while your spouse takes care of other household tasks can be a good division of labour, but you need to make sure he or she knows how to take care of money matters if you aren't able to. Your spouse should be aware of what accounts you have, where each is held, and what bills must be paid from each, and who to contact for help.

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Rachel Haig

Rachel Haig  Rachel Haig is assistant site editor for Morningstar.com.

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