Stowers Innovations
Sam Goller

Studies show money, even more than politics or sex, is one of those taboo topics people don't like to discuss.

Too bad. Let's get personal.

How are your finances? Not so good? Excellent? So-so?

Let's go a step further.

How is your relationship with your spouse in regard to cash? Can you manage to talk about money without getting upset?

While research varies as to whether money is a top reason for divorce or merely used to mask underlying communication issues, it's something therapists say is a clear-cut relationship stressor. And when the economy goes sour and budgets shrink, couples can struggle to maintain unity.

So what to do?

Communicate. Set goals. Live in a way to meet your goals.

That's what therapists, educators and happily married couples say to do.

"Unless we are very lucky, we will not marry our financial soul mate," said Ann House, an assistant professor with Utah State University Extension

Services. "My advice is certainly that couples need to talk about money."

To get the conversation started, House advises couples to first talk about their money histories. For example, how did your parents manage money? Were they thrifty, or did they spend a lot? Who paid for all the bills?

Another good question would be to ask your spouse or significant other what he or she would do if he or she suddenly received $10,000, according to House.

"You'll find out some interesting things and possibly some things you fought about for years," House said.

She believes talking about money histories can bring insight into why you or your spouse spends in a certain way. Perhaps you're a compulsive saver because you grew up with no money. Or you spend to compensate for a childhood with few material possessions.

When Mark and Gertrude Tripp of Wendover got married nearly 62 years ago, they didn't have many deep conversations about money. Instead, they were forced to compromise out of necessity. The couple raised most of their children in a 20-by-20 one-room bunkhouse and made a living doing farm and ranch work.

Gertrude Tripp said she learned to "take a lot" and live without things she was used to because she was committed to her marriage and family. Her husband's money went to pay the bills, and whatever she earned went toward household expenses.

"More or less, he worked on the farm, and I gave up my kind of life from Logan to life on a farm with no electricity," Tripp said. "You have to work together. You can't work for me. I work for me, he works for himself — that doesn't work."

Brett Markum of Salt Lake City said communication is key to how he and his wife, Sheri Hohmann, manage their money. The couple wed in 2000 and have two kids. Unlike most people they know, Hohmann and Markum try to split expenses, 50-50.

Markum said the system works because he and his wife earn similar amounts (although he has been taking on more expenses recently because of a higher salary). His wife pays the bills, and then he will reimburse her with a check from his own account.

"I hear of couples who do this tit-for-tat sort of thing," Markum said. "We don't really argue."

Sam Goller, the co-creator of the book "Yes You Can ... Achieve Financial Harmony" said open, non-defensive communication is key to starting a good relationship in regards to money. After mastering that, he believes couples should define and prioritize their long-term desires for life.

"At the end of the day, what do we want to feel proud of?" Goller asked. "Is it the ability to raise a family or fund an education? Is it that we have experienced the opportunity to travel or we have given back to the community in a meaningful way? It's how you want to define the success in your life."

But meeting those goals requires discipline, according to Sean Morris, a licensed marriage and family therapist and director of Blomquist Hale Consulting. Couples need to assess and reassess their spending and learn to say, "no," he said.

The only way out of learning this discipline is to "make a whole lot of money," he said.

"Unfortunately, not a lot of people fall into that," Morris said. "You have to be honest with each other, set goals ... and all that takes communicating."

When Soren and Fern Cox of Orem got married nearly 60 years ago, they borrowed $200 from Fern's father, and they then set off to school at Brigham Young University. After graduating, they traveled to Minnesota, back to Utah and then to Singapore for two years.

The couple have five children, 25 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren — and Soren Cox said they have no regrets. When it came to money, the couple learned to compromise, adjust to their circumstances and always keep in mind what goals they had for the future, he said.

It wasn't always easy, but "we worked together," Cox said. "It's not been my money or her money. She handles it, and we discuss it. Any major expenditures, we talk about."

Steven Jones, also a licensed marriage and family therapist with Blomquist Hale Consulting, said he believes when a couple learn to be open and honest with their finances, they will have a better relationship and will find that money is "not as big an obstacle" as they once thought. In addition, he encourages couples to take time each year to do things to strengthen their relationship and build a foundation of trust and openness.

Likewise, James Marshall, an assistant professor of family life at the University of Arkansas, said he believes couples should be willing to "do what's right by each other," and compromise and communicate when it comes to money matters. During tough times, he encourages couples to not abandon their relationship, but rather look at it as an opportunity for growth.

"Be willing to explore and find out what's important to your partner," Marshall said. "There is no one right way of managing money."