Danny and Tricia's combined income places them firmly in the upper middle class, so most of us would assume their financial problems are over. Not so. Though they bring in a substantial amount each week, Danny and Tricia have never learned to effectively handle their resources.

Like many couples, Danny and Tricia don't keep close track of where their money is going. They have separate accounts, since each respects the other's right to "their own money." Tricia likes not having to answer to Danny for every penny she spends. Unfortunately, she doesn't answer to herself for every penny she spends, either. Dollars flow into their three checking accounts - hers, his and theirs -- then flow right out again without hanging around long enough to draw interest.

With all the activity in their accounts, Danny and Tricia figure they are doing okay. Bills are usually paid on time, and when the checking account balances disappear, they always have their good credit to draw on. When they receive their charge card statements each month, a fleeting discomfort sets in while reading the multiplying totals. But they've never had a problem making the minimum payments. After all, two more checks are coming in next week.

At least, they assume so.

Tim and Rhonda make half of what Danny and Tricia bring home, and yet are in better financial shape. That's because they regularly do the math to see exactly where they stand, money-wise, using a loose budget that guides their spending decisions without hog-tying them emotionally.

Early in their marriage, Rhonda and Tim pledged to openly discuss all money issues. Together, they planned and identified mutual goals. They use credit sparingly, and postpone big purchases until they can pay cash or at least make significant down payments. That doesn't mean they don't enjoy the occasional financial fling. It's just that those sprees are planned for, not regretted in a resulting 21 percent APR after-glow.

Because they know where the funds are flowing, this couple knew exactly where they could cut when Rhonda decided to become a stay-at-home mom. Budget modifications were minor, since they had never delved into serious debt. Freedom from monetary strangleholds enabled them to make family, not finance, focused choices.

Tim and Rhonda understand the fundamental difference between "wants" and "needs". You can bet this young couple can visualize themselves in the same luxury car their friends drive, and would savor the same 5-star meals and costly vacations that launch Danny and Tricia's account balances into the stratosphere.

Sure, Tim would look great in that car. But the paid-off one he already drives is dependable and economical. Yes, Rhonda needs a new outfit. But is she really getting twice as much quality by spending $100 on that dress, instead of $50? And though a special meal is nice every once in a while, how often should they spend $40 for dinners they could fix at home for $7?

Free-spiritedly riding the financial wave from week to week is both risky and restrictive. The most glaring potential peril is losing everything due to an unforeseen layoff or illness. But it isn't a prospective catastrophe that poses the most danger to a couple's emotional bottom line. Instead, it's the strain accompanying financial uncertainty and consistently living beyond their means.

To positively approach marital money management:

* Review finances together.
* Agree on spending priorities.
* Identify mutual goals.
* Make a budget.
* Regularly review the budget, tweaking it to reflect your current situation.
* Stay in tune financially with your partner.

It'll nurture the kind of money-handling relationship you each want and need.

Cheryl is the COO of the Gochnauer family, the captain of a cottage-writing industry and the author of So You Want to Be a Stay-at-Home Mom (IVP). Copyright 2000 Cheryl Gochnauer