MONEY Love + Money

5 Super Easy Online Tools that Can Help Couples Feel More Financially Secure

hearts made out of money
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Can't seem to get on the same page with your partner when it comes to money? Help has arrived.

In order to achieve common goals, getting on the same financial page with your romantic partner is critical—but it’s also challenging.

As our own MONEY survey recently revealed, a majority of married couples (70%) argue about money. Financial spats are, in fact, more frequent than disagreements over chores, sex and what’s for dinner.

The Internet can offer some strategic intervention. From budgeting to paying off debt, saving to credit awareness, these five online financial tools can help everyone—and, in particular, couples—get a better handle on their money.

The best part: They’re free.

1. For help reaching a goal: SmartyPig

SmartyPig is an FDIC-insured online savings account that—besides paying a top-of-the-heap 1% interest rate—is designed to help consumers systematically save up for specific purchases using categorized accounts like “college savings,” “summer vacation” or “new car.” Couples can link their existing bank accounts to one shared SmartyPig account and open up as many goal-oriented funds as they desire. You see exactly where you stand in terms of reaching your goals, which can motivate you to keep saving.

Additionally, SmartyPig has a social sharing tool that lets customers invite friends and family to contribute to their savings missions. Don’t want people to bring gifts to your child’s next birthday? In lieu of toys, you can suggest a ‘contribution’ to his SmartyPig music-lessons fund and provide the link to where they can transfer money.

2. For help boosting your credit scores: Credit.com

If you and your partner need to improve one—or both—of your credit scores and seek clarity on how, Credit.com can help. The Web site offers a free credit report card that assigns letter grades to each of the main factors that make up your score: payment history, debt usage, credit age, account mix and credit inquiries.

A side-by-side comparison of each person’s credit report card can—even if the scores are roughly the same—actually reveal that one spouse scored, say, a D for account inquiries, while the other has a C- under debt usage. From there you can tell what, specifically, each person needs to improve upon. “It may lead to some friendly competition,” says Gerri Detweiler, Director of Consumer Education at Credit.com.

3. For help tracking your expenses: Level Money

Called the “Mint for Millennials,” Level Money is a cash-flow-management mobile app that automatically updates your credit, debt and banking transactions and gives a simple, real-time overview of your finances. It includes a “money meter” that shows how much you have left to spend for the remainder of the day, week and month.

A spokesperson tells me that couples with completely combined finances can share a Level Money account and see all bank and credit card accounts in one place. They can get insight into when either partner spends money and how that affects cash flow. The company says it’s continuing to build out tools for couples.

4. For help eliminating debt: ReadyForZero

If you and your partner need some nudging to get out of credit card debt once and for all, ReadyForZero may be of service. Launched three years ago, it’s an online financial tool that aims to help people pay off debt faster and protect their credit. The free membership gets you a personalized debt-reduction plan with suggested payments. The site tracks your progress so you can see how well—or how poorly—you’re doing and regularly posts “success stories” on its site to motivate users. You also get access to the ReadyForZero mobile app which sends you push notifications suggesting an extra payment towards your balance if you just placed a larger than normal deposit in savings or checking.

For couples, the tool can help one or both partners to stop living in denial and to come to terms with their financial obligations. Says CEO Rod Ebrahimi, “it demystifies the debt.”

5. For help syncing up generally: Cozi

When I asked attendees at the annual Financial Bloggers Conference last month about what sites, apps and online tools they like to use to keep their finances in check in their relationships, a few pointed to the website and app Cozi. It’s not a financial tool per se, but Cozi helps households stay organized, informed and in sync with master calendars and household to-do’s like food and meal planning, shopping and appointments.

Want to schedule a meeting to talk about holiday gifting and how much to spend? Put in in Cozi. Want to plan meals for the week so you’ll know exactly what to buy at the market and not be tempted to order in? Tap Cozi to make a list.

Ashley Barnett who runs the blog MoneyTalksCoaching.com says she and her husband have been using Cozi for years. “My favorite part is that the calendar syncs across all devices, so when I enter an event into the calendar, my husband will also have it on his,” she says. Cozi’s actually gone so far as helping the couple minimize childcare costs. “Before Cozi, if I accidentally booked a meeting on a night my husband was working late, I had to either pay a sitter or reschedule the client, which is unprofessional and hurts my business,” says Barnett. “Now when I pull up my calendar I see his work schedule as well. No more surprise sitters needed!”

[Editor's Note: Cozi was recently acquired by Time Inc., the company that owns MONEY and TIME.]

Farnoosh Torabi is a contributing editor at Money Magazine and the author of the new book When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women. She blogs at www.farnoosh.tv

MONEY Love + Money

Ladies, This Is Why You Should Let the Guy Pay on the First Date

He wants to impress you. So let him, says Love + Money columnist Farnoosh Torabi.

A confession to the men I’ve dated: If I ever insisted on paying my half at the end of a first date when you offered to treat, it may have been because I never wanted to see you again.

My persistence to pay was—at best—code for, “Let’s just be friends.” At worst, “Beat it.”

We all carry assumptions surrounding that first date bill and how it ought to be settled. When those expectations aren’t met, the evening could end awkwardly. She might be offended if he doesn’t let her pay; he might be annoyed if she doesn’t at least offer to chip in.

It’s an early stage financial crossroads that could make or break chances for a second date.

So, when in doubt, how should men and women best handle that first date tab? And was I right to offer to split the bill if I didn’t like the guy?

I tapped relationship experts Marni Battista, founder of DatingWithDignity.com and Bernardo Mendez of Your Great Life TV for some guidelines.

Men: Offer to take the lead.

Battista and Mendez both agree that it’s generally best for men to pay on a first date. Yes, even still in 2014—a time in which, as I myself have written, women often outearn men.

But the fact of the matter is that men typically want to pay: In a poll last year conducted by LearnVest and T.D. Ameritrade, 55% of men said they thought the guy should take the check. As Mendez explains, many men feel fulfilled and accomplished when they see an opportunity to provide, even if it’s in simple ways like paying for a drink.

Perhaps more importantly, paying is a way for him to preen. “Even a guy who doesn’t make much money if he really likes you will try to impress you to the utmost that he can,” says Battista

As for women? “In my experience, 90% will be offended if a guy doesn’t offer to pay,” says Battista.

The data seems to support her claim, at least to some extent. That LearnVest poll found that 63% of women expect the guy to pay. And when researchers at Chapman University recently surveyed more than 17,000 people on the topic of first-date finances, they found that 39% of women who offered to pay said they secretly hoped the men would not let them. Meanwhile, 44% of women said they were annoyed when expected to help pay the bill.

So guys, pick up the check. It’s just a first date dance move that—more often than not—leaves each person happy and satisfied.

The exception: If she asks him out and picks the place, the experts say, she ought be prepared to settle the bill.

Women: “Practice Being Courted”

In the olden days, men routinely paid because women, generally speaking, didn’t have the means to do so. But if he offers to pay nowadays, it’s not because he thinks she can’t handle it; and he’s not trying to offend. He’s most likely just doing what feels instinctively appropriate in the moment.

So when he offers to pick up the tab, says Battista, “Let him. Practice being courted.”

Mendez agrees, and says letting him pay initially can be a small way of letting a relationship blossom. “It does let him know, in a subtle yet important way, that you are the kind of woman who is confident enough to accept his generosity,” he says.

This is not meant to set some sort of precedent where he pays all the time.

Remember that you can—and should—reciprocate (assuming there’s a next time). Let him pay for the first date and then offer to treat him the very next time you go out.

Or, if you’re planning to stay out after dinner, offer to grab a round of drinks or dessert at the next stop. This way you both get to practice your generosity, and it feels a bit more romantic than going halfsies all the time.

But what if she’s just not that into him?

Okay, but say she decides midway through the date—or even five minutes in—that this relationship has no future. Should she accept his offer to pay, or would that be leading him to think she’s interested in seeing him again?

The experts don’t see eye to eye on this. According to Mendez, “If during the course of the first date you decide that you absolutely don’t want to see this guy again, insisting on paying for your half can help you signal more clearly that you’re not open to it.”

Battista, on the other hand, says women shouldn’t worry too much about sending mixed signals by accepting his offer to pay.

“A lot of women think, ‘if he takes me out, then I owe him something,'” she says. “You don’t owe him anything. If he wants to pay, either be direct [and turn him down] or just allow him to pay because that’s part of the game of dating.”

Farnoosh Torabi is a contributing editor at MONEY. She is the author of When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women.

MONEY

Hey Millennials, Watch What You Say About that New Job, Promotion or Raise

Trophy shelf
DGP&C—Getty Images

Your friends may not be as happy for your good news as you'd think.

You earn a raise or a promotion, and the first person you want to share the good news with is your significant other or a close friend. It’s instinctive.

But these days, it’s best to proceed with caution—especially if you’re a Millennial. If your bestie isn’t doing so well at work, news of your big promotion or bonus could strain the relationship.

“Work trajectories are incredibly unpredictable for all generations working today, but particularly for Millennials in the early years of their careers,” says Lindsey Pollak, author of the new book Becoming the Boss: New Rules for the Next Generation of Leaders. “With young professionals leaving jobs more quickly and the barrier to entrepreneurship quite low thanks to the Internet, it is likely that Millennial friends or significant others will have widely disparate levels of career or financial success.”

Friendships can be tested when there are income differences at play. When one friend has a lot of money to spend on fancy dinners, shopping trips and lavish vacations while other friends are struggling to pay the rent, says Pollak, it can lead to disagreements over how to spend time together or, at the least, a bit of discomfort.

So how should you break the news of a promotion, salary increase, or job change to a close friend who’s struggling financially or career-wise?

First, take a moment to empathize, Pollak says: “Ask yourself what you would want your friend to say if the roles were reversed,” she says.

Then, try to give the news a more sensitive spin. Concentrate on sharing it in a humble way, says Pollak. And as a general rule, leave out specific numbers, like the size of your salary increase. In other words:

“I’m really excited—I just found out I got a promotion to the associate role I’ve been wanting!”

or

“It looks like I’ll be getting a nice bonus at the end of the year. Can I take you out for drinks to celebrate?”

rather than

“I am getting a huge raise—like $35,000 more than I make now! Can you believe it?!”

Depending on the friend and how close you are, you may decide that it’s best to stay mum. “It’s really a personal choice depending on your relationship and how public the news is,” says Pollak.

But keep in mind that not sharing can be just as hurtful, in some cases. “No friend wants to feel that you excluded him or her from your career news because he or she isn’t as successful,” says Pollak.

Finally, what if your significant other is the one who’s struggling?

“Characterize your success in terms of ‘we’ — especially if you are in a long-term committed relationship,” says Pollak. “And use your promotion as an opportunity to thank your partner for being supportive and helping to make your success possible.”

If that doesn’t do the trick, she says, “then you might want to look at bigger issues in your relationship.”

Farnoosh Torabi is a contributing editor at Money and author of When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women. She blogs at Farnoosh.TV.

MONEY Budgeting

Financial Habits of Happy Stay-at-Home Parents

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When you're a stay-at-home parent, spending money on yourself can lead to feelings of guilt and resentment. It doesn't have to be that way.

Next time you complain about your 40-hour workweek, consider this: The average stay-at-home mom works more than double that rate —94 hours per week, to be exact. Her duties include (but are not limited to) cleaning house, cooking, teaching, behavior management, and laundry. For this, in theory, she should earn close to $113,000 per year, according to researchers at Salary.com. The same can be said for the growing number of stay-at-home dads.

In reality, though, full-time stay-at-home parents don’t receive a paycheck. And as a result, many struggle with feeling financially powerless or emotionally torn when it comes to spending money on themselves. A personal purchase like a new item of clothing or lunch out with a friend feels like it’s “taking away” from the family budget.

“I feel like I have to justify what I need,” one stay-at-home mom of two tells me.

“I feel extremely guilty buying things for myself,” shares another.

So how can couples set aside money for the stay-at-home parent in a way that avoids tension and emotional battles? Consider these steps.

Acknowledge Both Partners’ Feelings

If, as a stay-at-home parent, you feel guilty for spending on yourself, it may be that you’re not feeling valued for the work that you do. If that’s the case, you should be communicating that sense to your partner, says Edward Coambs, a financial planner based in Charlotte, N.C. “The issue may have more to do with your relationship dynamic.”

Coambs advises speaking up if you don’t feel empowered to spend more freely on personal things, or feel the need to ask for “permission” to shop. In exchange, he says, income-earning spouses should talk about what it feels like when their stay-at-home partner spends money on personal things. “From a place of empathy, spouses can usually find common ground in the way the family money is to be spent.”

Budget by the Same Rules

Creating a budget just for the stay-at-home-parent can lead to resentment and feeling like a second-class citizen. The solution: allow both partners equal access to the household money by creating equal spend/save funds for each person in the relationship. That sends a message that while only one person is bringing home a salary, both partners work hard and have equally important responsibilities. “When both feel they have the daily freedom to treat themselves…household well-being prospers,” says Manisha Thakor, author of Get Financially Naked: How to Talk Money With Your Honey.

How much to allocate? There’s no one-size-fits-all amount. The important thing is that you play fair. Each of you should factor in your anticipated personal needs such as haircuts, clothes, incidentals, etc. (maybe even over-estimate a tad to avoid shortfalls) and, together, decide on an equal percentage of the working partner’s income (say, 5% or 10%) that will go into your personal funds. Some months you might spend every penny; other months you might want to save up for a big purchase. The beauty is it’s yours to control. No questions asked.

Never Say ‘Allowance’

Call it a ‘personal expense account’ or ‘my personal budget’—but whatever you do, don’t call the money set aside for a stay-at-home parent an allowance. Coambs, who is also a former stay-at-home dad, says the term “allowance” is childlike and shouldn’t be used in an adult relationship. “It evokes a sense of ‘I have authority over you’ and takes me back to the days of living with my parents,” he says.

Thakor agrees. She likes to call personal accounts “joy funds.”

Earn by Saving

If the stay-at-home parent finds ways to save the household money (say via coupons or smart negotiating tactics), shouldn’t he or she be entitled to at least some of that savings? I think so. Growing up I watched my mom—an on-again, off-again stay-at-home parent—negotiate the cost of everything from bedroom furniture to deli meat. One time, after losing her job and becoming a stay-at-home parent again, the first thing she did was call up every monthly biller we had and insist on lower rates. In the end, she managed to talk our expenses down by $400 a month, which she and my father agreed should be allocated to her existing savings account each month. After all, she’d earned it!

Farnoosh Torabi is a contributing editor at MONEY and author of When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women. She blogs at Farnoosh.TV.

MONEY

3 Smart Ways to Protect Your Money When Taking Time Off Work

Taking time out from work to care for a loved one can have a serious impact on your finances and your career if you’re not careful.

Five months into her pregnancy, Karen Cordaway discovered that her mother was losing her battle with cancer. Plans for a brief maternity leave from teaching suddenly shifted to an immediate, unpaid one-year absence so she could be on call for her mom. Thanks to a big savings cushion and major budget cuts, Cordaway and her husband stayed afloat sans her salary. But the East Haven, Conn., couple depleted their emergency fund and dialed back their retirement savings. Cordaway has no regrets about taking that year off, but admits, “You don’t understand the magnitude of the decision until you go through the experience.”

In fact, Met Life found that for someone over 50 who leaves work temporarily to care for a loved one, the average lifetime setback is $303,880, including lost wages and retirement benefits. Should you need to lean out, keep damage to a minimum with these moves:

1. Avoid Red Ink

Start living on one salary as soon as you foresee quitting, says David Bach, vice chairman at Edelman Finan­cial Services. Meanwhile, bank your paychecks to help build a cushion before resigning. If you must leave suddenly, quickly retool your budget by setting aside funds for essential expenses first. “The three most important are housing, health, and food,” says New York financial planner Stacy Francis. Pare other costs to fit into what’s left over.

2. Get Help From the Government

You might not need to quit, depen­ding on how much time off you require. The Family and Medical Leave Act gives workers at companies with 50 or more employees who have certain family circumstances unpaid but protected leave for 12 weeks. California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island residents may also benefit from paid family leave laws in their states. Must quit? A “compelling personal reason”—like caring for a very sick relative—may entitle you to unemployment insurance from your state. Find your state’s benefits at servicelocator.org.

3. Reapply for Your Job

If you need to quit—but wish to return—make the case now for a comeback. And to leave your employer with goodwill toward you, try to give more than two weeks’ notice, says LinkedIn career expert Nicole Williams. Maybe even suggest a replacement. Also, “never let go of your network,” she says. “Maintaining relationships shows that you’re still involved in the industry. If a job opens down the line, they’ll be more open to recommending it to you.”

More Love & Money from Farnoosh Torabi:
Ladies, This Is Why You Should Let the Guy Pay on the First Date
When She Makes More: How to Level the Financial Playing Field
How to Raise Your Spouse’s Low Credit Score

MONEY Credit

How to Raise Your Spouse’s Low Credit Score

It's not just your partner's problem—it's yours too, if you ever plan to buy a house or a car together.

While married couples don’t inherit each other’s credit scores, one partner’s weak rating could sink the family’s financial goals.

If one of you has a less-than-perfect number—anything under the mid-700s on the FICO scale—it can affect your ability as a couple to qualify for joint accounts, like credit cards, mortgages, or auto loans, says Rod Griffin, director of public education at Experian.

For example, lenders might not approve you together for as large of a mortgage as you’d like or may only extend you one with a really high rate. And if you can’t handle those terms, “you might find yourself completing an apartment lease application while you work to rebuild your spouse’s credit history,” says Griffin.

As the higher scoring spouse, it’s in your best interest to help your partner improve his or her credit. Here’s how:

Do encourage diligence about credit card payments…

The strength of your credit score is based 35% on your bill payment history and 30% on your level of outstanding debt—particularly credit card debt.

Remind your partner to pay his or her bills on time each month (you might suggest setting up account alerts so that you don’t have to be the nag). And explain to your loved one that it’s important to keep outstanding balances on his or her cards under 20% of the limit on those cards, since the formulas reward a low utilization ratio.

“Attacking those two issues will help improve credit scores faster than any other actions,” says Griffin.

…but don’t step in to wipe away your partner’s missteps

Think twice before using up personal savings to clear your partner’s towering credit card balance.

If the debt stems from reckless and irresponsible spending, bailing out your spouse won’t teach any lessons. “You’ll be an enabler,” says Barbara Stanny, author of the forthcoming book Sacred Success: A Course in Financial Miracles. “[Your spouse] could fall right back into debt.”

A more effective way to help reduce your partner’s debt may be to cut costs from your family budget (primarily from your spouse’s discretionary spending) and use the savings to chip away the debt. While it’s a slower process towards rebuilding credit, the extra discipline and effort involved may be a helpful reminder in the future of why it’s never a good idea to overspend.

Another strategy, if you earn enough money: Consider taking on some monthly costs that you previously shared—like rent or the car payment—by yourself to allow your spouse to use more of his or her salary towards personal debt.

Do let your partner piggyback…

Another possibly efficient way to improve your partner’s credit rating is by adding him or her to one of your major credit cards as an authorized user. “Most scoring models incorporate authorized user accounts in the [credit score] calculation, so they can contribute positively,” says Griffin.

You simply call up your credit card issuer and request to put your partner’s name onto the account as an authorized user. He or she will receive a personal card attached to your credit limit in the mail.

Assuming you both use the account responsibly and pay the monthly balance on time and in full, both your credit profiles can benefit.

But you should know that your spouse will not be liable for payments.

Also just make sure to monitor his or her spending activity regularly. If your partner gets too swipe-happy you may want to cancel access so you don’t see your score come down or your balance go up beyond what you can afford to pay.

….but don’t co-sign on the dotted line

Taking on a new credit card and using it responsibly is yet another way to help improve one’s credit rating. But if your partner needs you to co-sign or be added as “secondary” borrower, think twice.

You’re lending more than just your name. If your spouse falls behind on payments, the bank could come after your money.

“It’s a horrible idea,” says John Ulzheimer, credit expert at CreditSesame.com. “When you co-sign you are essentially…guaranteeing payment on behalf of someone whom the lender feels isn’t credit worthy on their own.”

Co-signed debt can also come to haunt you, should you ever get divorced. “There’s no easy way to separate yourself from it,” says Ulzheimer. “When the two of you break up, you’re still connected via the liability, whether you want to be or not.”

A better idea: Introduce your partner to a secured card, designed for borrowers who can’t qualify for a regular credit card yet due to poor or insufficient credit histories. You load it with your own money—usually between $300 to $500—and proceed to spend. You can only charge as much as you put down as collateral.

Secured cards are available at many banks and credit unions. Money likes the no-fee one offered by Digital Credit Union, the interest rate on which starts at 11.5%. (You must be a member of DCU to apply, though you can join with a $10 donation to Reach Out for Schools.)

The catch with a secured card is that it’s very easy to charge up to the credit limit, but that’s no good for your credit score. Ideally, your spouse should keep his or her spending to less than 20% of the limit.

Consistently paying off the balance for about a year may then earn your partner an upgrade to a traditional credit card with a solid credit limit—maybe even rewards. But most importantly, your spouse’s behavior using the secured card will also be reported to the major credit reporting agencies, which in turn helps to raise his or her credit score.

Farnoosh Torabi is a contributing editor at Money Magazine. She is the author of the new book When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women.

MONEY 101: What is my credit score, and how is it calculated?

MONEY

WATCH: Three Ways to Stop Your Spouse’s Secret Spending

Nearly a quarter of husbands and wives spend money they don't want their partner to know about. These three tips will help ensure this doesn't describe your relationship.

Check out our full Love and Money special.

MONEY

WATCH: How to Keep Husbands Happy When Wives Make More

These strategies will help ensure both spouses feel valued and comfortable with their financial roles.

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