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Jennifer and Scott Bartone, newlyweds from North Bergen, N.J., are figuring out how to tackle $30,000 in credit card debt and save for the future.

Benjamin Norman • New York Times ,

Financial opposites in a life together

  • Article by: TARA SIEGEL BERNARD
  • New York Times
  • May 4, 2013 - 5:14 PM

Jennifer and Scott Bartone were married in October after a seven-year courtship. But they did not have a serious conversation about money until this week.

And boy, did Jennifer, a 32-year-old legal recruiter, and Scott, a 43-year-old bartender, have a lot to talk about. I was in their living room, in North Bergen, N.J., to witness it all as part of a “fiscal health day” exercise, where I promised to spend several hours helping readers organize their financial life.

The goal: try to reconcile their different money philosophies before they opened a joint bank account to handle their household expenses. They needed to figure out a way to track Scott’s earnings, most of them in cash. She also wanted a better way to track their spending. And both of them had accumulated significant credit card debt, which had to be tackled before they could begin to think about saving for a house.

“Financially, we are opposites,” said Scott.

He acknowledged that he was the spender. Jennifer described herself as determined and goal-oriented. But they now owe more than $30,000 on credit cards.

“I have been really cautious about not stepping on his pride,” she added.

But they volunteered to put it all on the table for their personal fiscal health day. Here is what we managed to get done in one afternoon:

Money talk

The biggest accomplishment, by far, was having the newlyweds sit down at their dining room table to actually talk about their financial life, their differing outlooks and how their views were influenced by their upbringings.

Credit card debt

The couple have lived together for several years, yet each still did not know exactly how much debt the other had. Jennifer created two lists of each of their credit cards, along with the outstanding balances and interest rates. She has already started to pay down the cards with the highest rates first, and she said she would help her husband set up his own plan of attack. A financial planner suggested they should use only cash and debit cards and stow the rest of the cards away.

Credit scores

The couple said they did not know each other’s credit scores, though the topic had come up from time to time. “She’s always asking me mine,” Scott said.

We decided it was a good idea to check their scores, even though it would cost them $40. After I left, the couple purchased their scores through MyFico.com, which costs $19.95 a score. Though several factors determine your FICO score, outstanding credit card debt can pull it down. Even with their debts, however, their scores weren’t too bad: Scott’s was 697 and Jennifer’s was a respectable 732 (on a scale of 300 to 850).

Tracking spending

Their two-bedroom apartment is furnished practically, with bare hardwood floors and oversize beige sofas. Pictures of their “children” — three cats named Bouncer, Chloe and Stormy — hang on one wall, with engagement photos on another. There is not much obvious physical evidence of overspending, with the exception of the 55-inch 3-D television, which replaced a 37-inch screen that was in perfect working order.

“That was a couple of years’ battle,” Scott said. She added: “He took tax refund money to buy the TV.”

Tracking income

They both have variable incomes. Scott has good days and bad ones behind the bar. Jennifer works largely on commission. So budgeting is hard, but a big part of their problem is that they do not really know how much they collectively have to work with.

Mint.com allows users to add cash income, and it will track any deposits either of them makes. But if adding Scott’s cash income manually was too much of a hurdle, I suggested he write it all down on an index card he could keep in his cash drawer.

Joint accounts

The couple has individual accounts at three brick-and-mortar banks. Keeping an account at one of them was important because Scott needed a place to physically deposit his tips. I suggested staying with the bank with the lowest fees (or finding a new one entirely), and then opening another joint account at an online bank that pays a higher interest rate on the balance. I suggested choosing a bank that allows customers to label different savings subaccounts. That way, they can also start building an emergency account, even before accelerating repayment of their debts. Their goal should be to accumulate at least three months of expenses and work their way up to six months.

Retirement

Jennifer has a 401(k) and an individual retirement account at Vanguard, which I was happy to hear. Her company does not offer a match and she is not saving much now. I suggested they also open an IRA at Vanguard for Scott even if they do not put money in it right away. That way, when he is able to pay off more debt, the IRA will be waiting for his deposits (which should be automated).

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