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One Checkbook or Two?

Strategies for tracking and managing your money.

Two years ago, our family of seven made our eleventh military move in thirteen years. Near our new home in New Mexico, my husband, Bob, was starting his training in the snazziest jet on the block—the F117A Stealth Fighter, the "Nighthawk."

Just a few months into his training, while landing the Nighthawk, a gust of wind wrapped the parachute around the jet and scratched its sensitive, still-classified "skin." The tiny scratch cost about $45,000 to repair! It just goes to show that even a $55 million jet can have a bad day.

While some accidents can't be avoided, we can prevent other kinds of mishaps. This is true with the misadventures that can occur in marriage, especially in the area of finances. By taking steps to prevent financial wrecks, we can emerge without a scratch and minimize the inevitable stress and conflict that accompanies money woes.

The best way for couples to keep finances in top form is to:

1. Develop a way to track money.

2. Assign responsibility for spec ific money-related tasks.

3. Develop a custom-made money matters checklist.

These simple steps will allow you to keep an eye on your money so it doesn't fly out of control.

Tracking Your Bucks

A big part of financial management is keeping track of where money goes. There are a variety of ways to keep track of your dough that will vary according to preference, situation, and ability. Here are a few options to help couples keep their eyes on their dough.

Credit Card Managers

In this system, both spouses pay the majority of monthly expenses with a credit card. All expenses are assessed monthly when the credit card statement arrives and purchases are tracked.

Pros: If you are very disciplined and pay off your credit cards in full at the end of every month, then you may consider this option. By charging monthly expenses on a card that generates frequent flier miles or other perks, couples can have a "two for one" value—they track their money and earn flight credits at the same time.

Karen, who uses this approach, said: "We've never carried a balance, don't spend anywhere near what we make, and in the end earned enough miles for two tickets to St. Thomas—where we're going next month!"

Another benefit of this method comes at the end of the year, when the credit card companies break down annual statements into categories such as gas, food, entertainment, travel, etc.

Cons: If a couple carries significant amounts of credit card debt, then this is not the best tracking source for them. Also, if individuals are susceptible to impulse buying, then carrying a credit card everywhere is not recommended because of the likelihood of overspending.

Tip: If you decide to try this method of tracking your money, then purpose to do plastic surgery and cut up that card the very first month you cannot pay off the balance. For a list of cards that offer frequent flier miles, no annual fees, or other benefits, go to www.creditcardgoodies.com, www.getsmart.com, or www.cardweb.com.

Checkbook Managers

Similar to the credit card system, users write checks for all purchases over $10.

Pros: Most businesses accept checks, and this can be a good way to track spending. Bank statement reconciliation is a visual reminder of where the money is going. Getting a bi-monthly gauge on spending is as simple as opening the checkbook. Since both spouses cannot write checks as easily in a one-checkbook family, this system becomes helpful in eliminating impulse purchasing.

Cons: There is some inconvenience involved in sharing the checkbook for all purchases. It can be difficult to monitor individual checks that are removed from the book. Some people are not as good at remembering to enter the purchase amount into the checkbook—even if they have the checkbook with them.

Tip: If one spouse is responsible for the majority of expenditures and the other only needs an occasional check, then this could be the system for you. Since most check orders come with several check entry registers, let the "non-spending" spouse take an extra register and immediately enter the check amount. Then transfer the amount to the primary check register in a timely manner.

Computer Managers

Programs such as Microsoft's "Money 2001" or Intuit's "Quicken" are used to organize family finances. Among other helpful features, they organize the budget, track checkbook entries and balances, monitor investments, and assist in tax preparations.

Pros: For the computer literate and those who use their personal computers on a regular basis, this is an easy and efficient way to track money. The program allows for the downloading of bank information and categorizes spending with the click of a mouse. It can even produce a graph of where the money is going.

A special account can be created at www.moneycentral.com, under "Banking and Bills" or at www.quicken.com under "My Finances," for account balance access from your computer. This account could also be accessed from any computer so each spouse can check balances and neither will have an excuse to overdraw the account.

Robert Smith, a satisfied user of this system since 1987 said, "I'm able to track things much more easily and accurately by maintaining all my checking records on my computer. I am also able to make future financial projections much more easily than I could by maintaining a paper register."

Cons: If one spouse is computer-proficient and the other is computer-challenged, then it could hinder access to financial records for one spouse, which may lead to resentment. The key to this solution is the ability of both partners to use the system. A good compromise would be to tutor the less proficient spouse until he or she is comfortable with the program.

Regardless of your computer software and hard drive capabilities, if individuals forget to update records, they won't help—so be sure to maintain this discipline. Also, remember that a computer crash could wipe out months, or years, of records. Users need to use proper backup—save records periodically on a programmable source or keep hard copies on file.

Tip: If you and your spouse have a marriage made in computer geek heaven, then this system can save a lot of time and effort. Filing taxes becomes a breeze since proper software can cut out hours of work.

One? Two? What to Do

The decision to maintain one or two checking accounts is a significant question couples need to discuss. Some couples insist that when the "two become one," that includes everything—even the checkbook. Others insist they are able to manage their finances better with two accounts. Let's look at both sides of this financial consideration.

My One and Only

If one spouse works part-time, or stays home with the children, then having only one checkbook is a common option.

Pros: In many cases a single account works best for several reasons. The first one is economic, since there is usually a service fee for each checking account. Banks that do grant free checking usually require a minimum balance (which is harder to maintain for two accounts than for one.) Lower balances in two accounts, rather than a higher balance in one account, could disqualify accounts from interest bearing options.

Another advantage is that there is less book keeping with one account—one monthly statement to reconcile and one set of records to keep. Since in most marriages, one person is more adept at keeping records than the other, the one account option is easiest.

Lenn Furrow is a friend who runs a social services agency and has counseled couples for fifteen years. She says: "Money is such an intimate issue in marriage. I have found that most couples would rather talk about their sex life than money." Thus, some couples believe that sharing one checkbook is an extension of the intimate nature of their one flesh relationship.

Cons: With only one checkbook, there can be a blurry line of responsibility as to who is responsible for paying bills, entering checks, reconciling the account and managing the spending budget. While there is greater accountability for spending in this system, it is also harder to surprise a spouse with a holiday or birthday present without revealing how much was spent.

Tip: If the responsibilities for checkbook management are clearly defined, a one-checkbook approach can be the least complicated approach. If you do not have any existing conditions to justify two checkbooks, then this is probably your best option.

Two Will Do

In this solution, spouses deal with their finances with two accounts.

Pros: A two-income couple can decide to deposit both paychecks into one account, or maintain separate accounts. One option is to create a "household account" that each spouse contributes to. In this way, each spouse has the sense of sharing some part of the household finances.

This is also an approach used by some couples who marry in mid-life with already established careers and a large disparity in financial assets. Finally, if there is an at-home business, then a separate account is necessary for tax purposes.

Cons: If one spouse makes more money than the other, they must work through the sometimes overwhelming maze of who will contribute to meet the household needs. Another option is to divide the bills proportionally with income. However, there are more books to keep and a greater margin for error with these options.

Without thoughtful communication and accountability, two checkbooks can create feelings of "yours" and "mine" rather than "ours." A separate account is not a good idea for a spouse who doesn't manage money well or tends to overspend.

Tip: This approach works best for those who decide upon this system for the right reasons—ease and efficiency in tracking and managing household finances. It is never advisable to maintain two checkbooks because of a lack of trust. Dr. Robert Smith, a pastor and financial counselor says, "It may seem helpful to keep separate accounts when one partner has some insecurity, financial or otherwise. However, even then, a separate account only treats the symptom and doesn't confront the real issue involved—trust."

Time to Take A Check-up

It may never seem like the perfect time to sit down and discuss your finances—but then is there ever a "perfect" time to go for an annual physical? Yet it's critical to marital health to review money matters on a regular basis. Bob and I like to go out for coffee and try to make the discussions as informal and uplifting as possible. If there is a specific financial need or a problem with our budget, then we include the paperwork to help solve the problem. It is important to discuss finances at least on a monthly basis.

If your marriage is struggling under a load of debt, or if there is an out-of-control spender in your household, then it would be wise to consider talking through these issues with a professional. Ed Wilson, a financial counselor, says, "If a couple can't handle their payments (if they deal with late payments, collection agencies, or a poor credit history), I refer them to the Consumer Credit Counseling Service (CCCS) to be enrolled in a debt management program." Through the CCCS, couples can participate in plans that will help them pay off creditors, lower payments, and reduce interest rates. Couples can find helpful information from this organization at www.cccsintl.org or by calling 1-888-533-7502.

So take the time to take a money "check-up." With a good, strategic plan, mutual accountability, and prayer you can both experience the freedom of financial wisdom, and enjoy each other a little more in the process.

Ellie Kay is the author of Shop, Save, and Share and How to Save Money Every Day (both Bethany House). She, her husband, and their five kids live in New Mexico.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Budget; Debt; Marriage; Money
Today's Christian Woman, Fall, 2001
Posted September 30, 2008

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