3 Fixes for Marriage Money Fights

Cash (or lack thereof) is a key cause of marriage stress. Here, Carmen Wong Ulrich on how to tackle three common dilemmas
By Carmen Wong Ulrich

FinancesFinancesAh, love and money. They've never been the easiest partners, and as times continue to be tough, the number of us going from just talking about money to fighting about it was up 16% last year, reports an American Express survey. Enough of that, I say. Here, answers to reader questions that ought to help many couples keep the peace - and keep the piggy bank full:

Q: I practically have to plead my case before a jury before I can buy a pair of shoes. How do I get my husband to loosen up about "fun" spending?
Viva the right to spend! But getting someone with a tight hold on the purse strings to understand this impulse can mean altering your marriage's power balance, which is tricky. First, find out why your guy is so strict. If he manages the household budget, it's time to get involved. At a relaxed moment (but not right after work), say, "Hon, it seems things are tight lately with our budget. Can you run me through it so I have a better idea of what we have to pay and plan for?" This puts you both on the same side - as a team. Then things hopefully won't look so dire, and buying shoes occasionally (on sale, of course!) will seem reasonable.

If you have less than six months' worth of living expenses saved up and/or you're carrying credit card debt, keep your "fun" fund small - $25 a month, max. So that you won't be in the awkward position of asking your guy for spending money, consider using a debit card for such purchases.

What to do if your husband won't discuss your finances? See a couples counselor to work on his control issues (try therapistlocator.net).

Related: Simple Solutions for Tax Troubles

Q: I'm a homemaker. Will I have access to the money in my husband's 401(k) retirement plan?
What your husband saves in his 401(k) during the course of your marriage is marital property. If you were to divorce, this asset would be divided between you in some way. If he were to pass away, it would become an asset of the estate. That said, you can have retirement savings in your own name as well. The IRS allows you what's colloquially called a "spousal" IRA. As a nonworking spouse, you're entitled to make a tax-deductible contribution to your own IRA of up to $5,000 a year, or $6,000 if you are over 50 (that was the 2011 limit), as long as you file a joint tax return and your joint income is less than $169,000 annually. (Head to irs.gov for more information - enter "pension plan limitations" in the search box there.)

I advise any homemaker to set up a dedicated IRA in addition to a spouse's retirement plan. This can greatly increase how much you both can save every year (since retirement accounts have contribution limits) and gives you many options in terms of where you can invest to grow your money over time. Don't reduce his contribution to below what his company will match (if he has that option). A company match is in effect free money - gotta love that! But he can afford to consider putting some funds aside to build your IRA. Remember: 401(k) contributions are of pretax dollars, meaning you'll be taxed when you withdraw those funds in retirement; an IRA contribution is posttax money - you are taxed on it before it goes into the account and then again when you withdraw it. However, if you open a Roth IRA (available to those who fall under certain income limits; go to irs.gov for details), your withdrawals will usually not be taxed. Some of the top lower-cost providers of Roth and traditional IRAs are Fidelity and Vanguard.

Related: How to Avoid Banking Fees

Q: We have huge medical bills from a car accident, and I'm worried sick about how to pay them. My husband says we just have to "ride it out." Advice, please!

Medical debt is a major problem, and you are far from alone. You and your husband need to know these two rules when it comes to medical costs. First, never charge your medical bills and/or hospital costs to a credit card; just tell the provider, "Send me a bill." Here's why: Once what you owe is charged to a credit card, you've lost your most powerful asset - the ability to negotiate. Which brings us to rule number two: Hospital and medical bills can be negotiated down. If you are uninsured, first call the hospital or care provider to ask what uninsured discount is being offered, and have that applied to the bill (typically it would be 35% to 40%). If you are insured but are using an out-of-network provider, say, "I'm requesting that you take 40% off my bill to bring it down to what is usual and customary."

Whether you have no insurance or good coverage, really study your debt. Ask for a detailed itemized bill. This will list everything from the cost of a box of tissues to the anesthesiologist's fee. Scan for any charges you don't recognize. If you have insurance, check the detailed itemized bill against the EOB (Explanation of Benefits) mailed to you by your insurance company to make sure the totals match up. Usually your health insurer will have negotiated a rate for each service. If you are in-network, make sure the facility is giving you the correct negotiated rate, and if you are out-of-network or uninsured, you can go line by line and ask the provider if there is a reduced rate available for each item. If there's a fee you don't understand, ask the hospital billing office: Say, "I see an immunization charge of $350. Can you tell me what that was, exactly, and how it related to my care?" Then ask for any extra charges to be removed.

Also know that programs may be available to help you dig out of this debt. Help with medical coverage is managed state by state: Ask the hospital about its charity assistance programs, and seek out your state attorney general's office and the state insurance commissioner (go to map.naic.org). Since negotiations can be long and hard, you need to get your husband on board. He must consider that if these bills go unpaid, you could be staring at thousands of dollars in fees and contending with collection agencies. Make it clear to him that this could lead to bankruptcy; that should spur him into action.

If you feel you can't attack these bills yourselves, get help from a pro. Medical-billing advocates (find one at billadvocates.com) can use their insider knowledge on your behalf to lower the bottom line. Typically, they charge either a flat fee (about $150 or higher) or an hourly fee (ranging from about $50 to $175), or work on a commission basis, earning 15 to 35 percent of the amount they save you.

And if you've already charged this medical debt to a credit card (or two), head to the website of the nonprofit National Foundation for Credit Counseling (nfcc.org) to get local, low-cost help with crafting a payment plan.

CARMEN SAYS: If your guy doesn't want to deal with your debt, make it clear that "riding out" tough times can lead to bankruptcy; that should spur him into action.

Related: Two-Hour Money Makeover

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