Take a moment to test your family's financial health.
- Are you living from paycheck to paycheck?- Are you constantly bickering about money?
- Are you using your savings to pay regular bills?
- Are your savings less than three months take-home pay?
- Are you constantly taking out new loans to pay off old debts?
- Are your installment loans (excluding housing) more than one-fifth of your take home-pay?
If your answered yes to any of these questions, you may be experiencing unnecessary financial stress. Says Diane Schouman, a Salt Lake management consultant: "Families don't plan to fail; they fail to plan. Financial stress is the No. 1 cause of divorce and can be a culprit in about every other family ill you can imagine."
So how can you alleviate financial stress and achieve financial happiness? Through planning, which includes goal setting, prioritizing and creating a budget to carry out your plan, says Schouman, who offers this advice to families:
-Set sound financial goals.
First, make a list of your basic needs - food, clothing, car, utilities, retirement, insurance - anything you can't live without - and estimate their cost.
Second, list your wants - the new home furnishings, bike, the $200 snowboard.
Third, define your dream house, college funds, retirement goals - anything that requires a structured commitment for a lengthy period of time. Use the future as a governing tool for setting your budget today. If you have a son who is 10, for example, don't wait until he's 16 to start a college fund.
Fourth, prioritize these three areas into goals: short range (0 to 6 months), medium (6 months to 2 years), and long range (2 years and up).
With both needs and wants, identify how much each costs and how long each will take to pay off. Set your goals on family needs first. You may want a Porsche, but you don't need that to survive.
Fifth, set your goals based on today's income - not any future planned income. "Finances are a snapshot in time and can change readily, so don't count on income you don't have," says Schouman.
Sixth, constantly evaluate and revise your goals.
-Create a budget based on your financial goals. If you need help in creating a budget, almost any financial institution will provide free information and forms.
A budget helps prevent careless and unplanned spending. It also takes the stress off a marital relationship when there is something in writing you both fully share and understand. Observes Schouman: "A budget forces you to be financially accountable to your partner without pushing and shoving."
-Balance income with expenses and savings.
If you're balancing expenses only against income, you're usually in the red, Schouman emphasizes. Financial independence doesn't come from paying bills - it comes from managing all your resources, including savings. Save at least 10 percent of your income. But if you can't do that, no amount is too small to save.
Have savings in case of a critical emergency equal to three months of your take-home pay, because it takes that long to get a cycle of income coming back if you lose your job.
Also create savings accounts for other future needs vacations, Christmas, taxes, church obligations, etc. - and have in place the amounts you need ahead of time.
-Get the support and interest of the entire family in achieving sound financial management. One way is to get input from the entire family in designing the budget.
Both spouses need to be willing to budget, and that's a hard commitment to make, says Schouman. "It's not easy to show your wares and say, `OK, I'm going to tell you how much I spend in the grocery store.' "
Particularly help children understand the budget. "Children need to understand that you're living within a defined income," says Schouman. "Teach them how you earn income and what it goes for. Help them understand that homes and showers aren't free."
Agree that neither partner will spend anything over a specified amount without checking with the other. Some families find $25 is a reasonable figure; others, $50; it is in this range a person may use a credit card rather than cash.
-Reject debt. "Hold hands, grab your children, and say, `I refuse to go into debt,' " says Schouman. "Couples fall apart constantly because it's too easy to get credit.
"It's hard to humble ourselves and say, `I'll drive a used car for five years until we have the money to buy the car I want,' " she emphasizes. But that's where financial independence begins and financial stress ends.
Rejecting debt means putting away your credit cards unless the monthly debts incurred are part of the preplanned budget and will be paid off immediately. It also means saving to pay cash.
-Compare your actual expenses and savings with the budget each month. If you're out of line, reprimand yourself and tighten your belt. And enjoy your successes.
"Monitoring a budget gives partners the chance to be pleased with where they're at - to watch their payments go down, to realize they're closer to owning their home or achieving some other shared goal."
-Dr. Larsen is a therapist practicing in Salt Lake City.