For some, the economic slowdown has been impacting more than just bank accounts and retirement funds: It's costing them their marriage.
"The economy and family life are very much intertwined and what we are seeing right now echoes what we saw during the Great Depression when couples were splitting up," said Pamela Smock, sociologist at the Institute for Social Research.
And it's not just the couples who were on shaky ground to start with who are feeling the heat from the cooling economy.
“Even with good marriages, that overwhelming sinking feeling of having a diminishing 401(k) and future plans becoming hazy ... that starts a cycle of doubt; any time you are insecure about money will lead to problems," said Catherine Williams, vice president of Financial Literacy for Money Management International.
Before he got married last September, Loren Bendele made sure he and his future wife talked openly about money to make sure there were no surprises down the road.
“It’s the No.1 issues couples fight about; we knew that, and we wanted to make sure everything was out in the open and we agreed on how our finances would work,” said Bendele, who serves as the CEO of Savings.com.
So far, he said, the open-communication formula is working. Between them they now have three bank accounts: his, hers and a joint account.
“You need to have freedom that you can spend on your own,” he said. “I just don’t get paying $300 for a haircut, but then again, I buy a $1,000 guitar that I don’t really play.”
The couple uses the joint account to pay for things like rent, utilities and vacations while the other account is for their own spending fun. “You can’t count every dime the other is spending, that is just recipe for disaster.”
Financial stress tends to aggravate other would-be-minor issues in the marriage, according to the experts, which during economic turmoil can lead to higher divorce rates.
“People sometimes have an easier time talking about their sex life than about money,” said Barbara Cunningham, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “You need to approach the topic without an agenda, you want to have a general curiosity about how your partner grew up with money."
Cunningham, who is based in San Diego, said she has seen a huge increase in patients -- spanning all age groups --struggling with money issues. Many families, she said, are also facing home foreclosure, which can be especially devastating to a relationship.
“When you lose your home, it’s not just a financial loss, it’s a loss of stability and memories and often involves uprooting the kids,” said Williams, who’s seen a 20% increase in housing-loss counseling this year.
However, some therapists are also seeing an increase in couples staying together simply because two households costs more than one.
“I have one couple that is sticking it out together only because they can’t afford to divorce, the husband is unemployed so there is a lot more together time, which is just adding more stress to the relationship,” said Cunningham.
Here are five tips to help defuse tension over money issues.
No. 1: Meet Weekly
Make sure you make time weekly to talk money management.
“It doesn’t have to be a formal sit-down meeting,” said Williams. “Just stand around the counter, go over what is due and what still needs to be purchased that week so you can budget and plan accordingly.”
No. 2: Keep the Checkbook Open
Often couples delegate which spouse will be in charge of the finances and that is a mistake, according to the experts.
“Keep the bills, checkbook and credit card statements open and available at all times,” Williams said.
When one couple dominates the bookkeeping, the other spouse can be caught off guard if they are suddenly deep in debt.
No. 3: Consider Having Separate Accounts
Each person should feel a little emotionally and monetarily independent, said Linda Miles, psychotherapist and author of "The New Marriage, Transcending the Happily Ever After Myth."
“It would feel calming and good to have your own little discretionary fund — even if it’s just a couple hundred dollars — so they can carve out a little individuality.”
No. 4: Remember: There is no ‘I’ in Team
Avoid getting on your high horse, said Miles.
“Don’t start acting like a parent to your spouse and belittling their spending habits - that will only make things worse.”
No. 5: Avoid the Blame Game
Couples are bound to have contrasting spending habits and to value things differently, and knowing about discussing and working to understand those differences is crucial.
“Talk about what you’re spending, that way it avoids resentment building up,” Bendele suggested. “If it builds up too much it’s hard to overcome. You need to communicate what you think is fair to spend.”
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