4. Forget budgets; create a spending plan instead
Before you can really get a sense of where your family stands financially, you need the hard numbers -- what's coming in and what's going out. Normally, such a thing is called a budget, but there's something about that word that's kind of awful: It's unyielding, bossy. Always trying to force you to live by its rules. To a spender (in particular), budgets practically ask to be blown. A spending plan, on the other hand, feels more reasonable -- something you can live with. This tiny shift in semantics helped Lisa Druxman of San Diego, a mom of two. "My husband's conservative and meticulous about money, and I'm carefree and believe you need to take risks -- which makes it hard for us to talk about," she says. "Creating a plan helped because now we both understand our income, expenses, and what's left over. And having one that we created together reminds us that we're on the same team working toward the same goal."
Getting started is pretty simple: Write down your fixed monthly expenses, like the mortgage and car payments, and subtract that amount from your income. Then figure out how much you can spend or save by factoring in the things you can't do without (diapers and food) and ones you can (ordering in lunch at work). Financial software like Quicken and Microsoft Money Plus can help, as can free websites like Mint.com and MoneyCenter.Yodlee.com, by pulling info straight from your online accounts. Doesn't matter how you do it, as long as it works for you.
5. Schedule "the Talk"
Having a regular time to meet, along with a set agenda, eases stress and helps make sure both people are prepared, says Mellan. Plus, both of you should have a general idea of your finances at any given time: What big-ticket expenses are on the horizon? How much debt do you have? What's in your savings account? If you sit down once or twice a month to talk, the bill payer doesn't resent having the stress of making ends meet and the non-bill payer doesn't question the other person's abilities -- or check out completely.
6. Divide your stash
Why? Because having cash of your own is a very, very good thing. "When my husband and I had just a joint bank account, we used to fight because we had to discuss every single purchase, whether I wanted a new dress or he wanted stereo speakers," says Fisher. "Then we decided that we'd each get a weekly allowance. This way, if I want something, no matter how trivial, I can buy it because it's my money. It was a huge change in our relationship because now we never fight about money like we used to." And before you discount this advice because you're a one-income family, hold up: Separate accounts can work well for you, too. Once you agree on allowance limits, the person at home with the kids doesn't have to feel guilty about spending money the other earns, and you both can stop keeping tabs.
To divide and conquer, try setting up three checking accounts: one joint account for expenses and two individual accounts for your personal stuff. In the joint account, deposit equal percentages of your incomes (not equal amounts of money) to cover household expenses, then put your allowance amounts in the others. With multiple pots, multiple needs get met with a whole lot less stress. And that's good news for your bottom line -- and your marriage.
Michele Bender, a mom of two, lives in New York City.