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How to keep the peace when it comes to money

Advice on getting the most out of give and take.

First Published Feb 22 2012 04:06 pm • Last Updated May 02 2012 09:11 am

Ah, love and money. They’ve never been the easiest partners, and as economic times continue to be tough, the number of us going from just talking about money to fighting about it was up 16 percent last year, reports an American Express survey.

Here are answers from personal-finance expert Carmen Wong Ulrich to reader questions that ought to help many couples keep the peace, and keep the piggy bank full:

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"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 spouse is so strict. If he or she 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 can have to pay and plan for?" This puts you both on the same side. 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" funds small, say, $25 a month, max. And so you won’t be in the awkward position of asking your spouse for spending money, consider using a debit card for such purchases.

"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 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 Internal Revenue Service 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 older than 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.)

Homemakers are advised 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 (because 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. But he can afford to consider putting some funds aside to build your IRA.

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