Ed McMahon's Painful Financial Lesson

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I have no pity for Ed McMahon. His recent financial sob story seems all too avoidable.

Reports circulated this week that Citibank (C) is suing the entertainment icon for outstanding debts totaling $200,000.

The development is the latest in a month-long media blitz that gained new momentum when McMahon and his wife of 16 years, Pamela, appeared on Larry King Live to discuss foreclosure proceedings surrounding their Beverly Hills estate home. The McMahons are reportedly $644,000 behind in payments on their $4.8-million mortgage. Entertainment news Web site TMZ.com reported that McMahon also owes $750,000 to American Express (AXP).

Perhaps McMahon and Pamela, his third wife, could have spared themselves some grief and embarrassment by initiating an ongoing conversation about their personal finances long before they said, "I do."

True, I don't know what occurred in the private lives of Ed and Pamela McMahon, or what they may have been discussing throughout their married life. But it's hard to imagine that any couple with such a mountain of debt could have been speaking regularly to each other about their financial planning.

How did McMahon get into such dire straits?

For starters, as he admitted to Larry King earlier this month, on national television, he and his wife spend more money than they earn. Add that lifestyle to the financial consequences from a few divorces, a sinking housing market (McMahon told King he can't sell his), and an accident in which McMahon broke his neck (which apparently prevents him from working -- at age 85). Where else can the McMahons go financially but down?

A strong financial foundation, however, could have at least minimized the impact of the economy and an unexpected health crisis -- a rule that's true for just about any couple. Perhaps the McMahons could have reined in their spending by talking to each other regularly about their financial goals and habits, instead of talking to Larry King after the debt collectors came calling.

Unfortunately, many couples avoid the conversation, says Brian Day-Lewis, a financial advisor with Lifeline Financial Partners in Tyngsboro, Mass. A lack of communication can lead to financial disarray, he says. Sometimes, spouses or partners just aren't aware of the other's spending -- such as writing checks for children's haircuts or a mulch delivery.

In other cases, spouses and partners can be downright dishonest.

Day-Lewis says some spouses hide credit card debt from each other. The situation often becomes hostile when the other spouse learns of the problem after the couple is already in a hole.

"Then the conversations become serious," says Day-Lewis. "It's not a 'Gee, I spent $1,500 at the mall at Christmastime' problem. Now the situation is 'Gee, I'm $35,000 in credit card debt.' The problem is a whole lot bigger, and the solution is a whole lot uglier."

Day-Lewis says to think about your family finances in the same way that you'd contemplate an employment review. Sit down with your spouse or partner at least twice a year and see how you're doing. Determine how much you're bringing in and the money going out. Not sure of the latter? Commit to one month of jotting down your cash expenditures, such as fast food and the kids' piano lessons, on index cards. Then swap the cards, so you can each review where the other is spending cash.

Yes, the solution may seem tedious. But it's just like cutting the lawn -- someone has to do it, and, in this case, you can't hire a gardener.

Talking is especially important if one person handles the bill-paying, while the other does not -- a common situation in many households. Don't whine about being the family bean counter.

Instead, give your spouse a tool that he or she can use. Pay your bills online, and print out a list of what's going out in the coming weeks. Then, set up online banking alerts to notify your spouse via email of the checking account balance, low balances and overdrafts. And if you're really desperate for time -- and next week's paycheck -- tell your spouse via email that pricy lunches are out of the question.

Financial-planning sites such as Geezeo.com can help keep track of how you're spending and budgeting your money.

Summer is an especially tempting season during which to sit by the pool and forget about your family finances. Yes, you and your spouse may want to relax right now. But avoidance only increases your chances of meeting Ed McMahon's fate during your autumn years.

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