Then Martin Kelly, 28, a program designer for a local community center, and Nia Powell, 24, an administrative assistant and retail associate, met at a mutual friend's housewarming a year ago, they bonded instantly. Since then, the two have built a solid relationship based on open communication, shared values and friendship. Now, in what feels like the next step, they're shopping for an engagement ring.
But before they pick out wedding bands, Nia says she wants Martin to address the one obstacle that could prevent her from taking that walk down the aisle: Martin's money-management skills.
Never one to pass up a bargain or deny the love of his life any material thing, Martin is a man who typically spends well beyond his means. As a result of his impulsive shopping, the Howard University graduate is nearly $70,000 in debt. For his part, Martin thinks Nia worries too much. To Nia, however, who is working two jobs and attending community college part-time, Martin's lack of financial management is a major concern.
Martin is a wonderful man. He has every quality I ever envisioned in my ideal partner. He's attentive, family-oriented and understanding. Even when we disagree, he's willing to hear me out so we can resolve the argument. We get along so well that it's difficult to complain about money. However, because I tend to be very disciplined about acquiring and saving money, it's important to me to be able to trust my partner with my money as well as his own.
"I work two jobs-as an administrative assistant and at a department store-and am careful about what I spend. My strategy is to save the majority of my check and use whatever is left after paying my bills as spending money.
"I have offered to work out a budget plan for Martin so that he could lower his credit-card debt and generate some savings, but he declined. He believes that making more money rather than managing the money he currently earns would be the best solution. We tend to bump heads on this issue because I think he needs to work on changing his habits no matter how much money he brings to the table. I am concerned that if he's unwilling to take these small steps, our future together will be compromised.
"His behavior has me second-guessing our relationship. I worry that Martin's frivolous expenditures will cost both of us some great opportunities in the future."
Nia is definitely The One. We've been talking a lot about getting engaged, and I'm ready for a long-term commitment with her. I admit that my spending has been out of control, but that's primarily in the past. I have nearly $70,000 in debt, including student loans. I started using credit cards when I was in college solely for my travel between home and school, but when I got my own apartment after graduation, I went crazy furnishing the place using multiple cards. Right now I'm paying for my poor spending choices, just when I'm ready for a future with Nia.
"When I was growing up, my father was a shopaholic. My mother controlled the finances while my dad would always make unnecessary purchases. Last year, after 34 years of marriage, they divorced because they just couldn't communicate. I don't want to go down that road. I realize I need to prioritize my spending, but I don't always want to worry about the price of something that I feel is important. I think certain expenditures, like going to a movie and a nice dinner, are worth it-even if I have to forego making a credit-card payment to do it.
"I am inspired by Nia's discipline with money. It's amazing that she can shop and save money simultaneously. I recognize that she's willing to do the extra work to reach her financial goals. I'm willing to reevaluate my spending and work on reducing my debt if it would strengthen our future prospects. I'd hate to see our relationship suffer because of my financial irresponsibility."
Nia and Martin are at a critical juncture in their relationship. It is ideal that they work through this matter well before they make wedding plans, because when the minister pronounces a couple man and wife, the concept of "yours and mine" becomes "ours"-and that includes the debt.
Martin's spending attitudes imply that he is resistant to learning basic lessons about being financially responsible. Making more money is not a realistic resolution to his financial burdens. Martin can take a lesson from Nia about budgeting, which may also bring them closer and build a stronger bond of respect and trust. If he really loves her, he will respect her need for financial peace of mind.
Living happily ever after means talking openly and honestly about financial issues and agreeing on spending priorities. Nia and Martin and other couples facing this challenge should consider the following tips to avoid money clashes:
• See where you are. Access free credit reports at annualcreditreport.com, then discuss what it will take to curb outstanding debts. It's also good to set aside time each week to review income, bill paying, where savings should go, how much you'll invest each month, and other strategies for meeting financial goals like being able to buy a home or a car.
• Be responsible. If Martin is missing credit-card payments and instead blowing his budget on unnecessary purchases for himself or gifts for Nia that she doesn't need, he runs the risk of increased interest rates, which means it will take him longer to repay his debts.
• Get on track. Before setting a wedding date, Martin should consult a credit counseling agency like Consumer Credit Counseling Services (888-845-5669 ) to set clear goals for wiping out his outstanding debt through a payment plan.
• Shake things up. Martin should keep in mind that quality time together doesn't have to cost money-he and Nia should find creative ways to enjoy each other's company. A Sunday-afternoon picnic in the park won't break the budget, and it will be a nice departure from the routine.
• Plan, plan, plan. Nia might demonstrate the benefits of saving by paying for major expenditures in cash instead of by credit card, beginning with their wedding, which could cut costs by 12 to 25 percent. They can then use the money they save to make significant payments on credit cards and student loans. Ultimately, following a budget will alleviate the weight of debt and allow them to enjoy things that are really important.
Brooke Stephens, author of Talking Dollars and Making Sense: A Wealth-Building Guide for African-Americans (McGraw-Hill), is a New York financial adviser.