THE HEIGHT of the wedding season will soon be here, along with the dilemma of what to buy the happy couples.
With more people marrying later or living together before walking down the aisle, there's a good chance they already own the traditional gifts of linen, place settings and fondue set.
So, don't be traditional. Consider a gift that will put couples on a stronger financial footing, or at least leave them with a better understanding of money. After all, fights over money are a leading cause of divorce. Anything to help couples weather financial rough patches could go a long way toward keeping the harmony.
Here are some gift ideas:
Buy the bride and groom one or two hours of a financial planner's time. The planner can guide them through critical discussions on budgeting, blending finances, attitudes about money and long-term goals.
Avoid advisers paid through sales commissions on products sold to clients, particularly when couples may be financial novices, said Amanda Walker, associate editor of Consumer Reports' Money Adviser.
Instead, choose a fee-only planner paid by the hour so there won't be an incentive to pitch products, she said. A fee-only planner in the Baltimore-Washington area would charge about $100 to $200 an hour.
You can search online for a fee-only planner in the couple's home state at www.napfa.org, the Web site of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, a trade group for fee-only planners.
Make sure the planner has experience with the couple's situation. You don't want a planner who specializes in, say, estate planning for elderly millionaires when a young couple needs advice on budgeting.
Ideally, the couple and planner would talk about money matters before the marriage, Walker said. The risk, though, is the couple may discover they are financially incompatible and call off the wedding. "Better to find out before," Walker said.
Some financial planners like the idea of giving stock, with the hope that a couple would continue investing in the company and use the proceeds years later for a long-term goal. Such a gift takes a bit of paperwork to transfer shares to the couple, experts said.
The bigger difficulty, though, may be choosing a stock for others, said Mari Adam, a financial planner in Boca Raton, Fla. Adam suggests sticking with high-quality blue-chip stocks, rather than buying a volatile high-flier that trades at $100 a share on the wedding day, and falls to $2 during the honeymoon. "They'll curse you all the time," Adam said.
One simple way to take the guesswork out of buying stocks is a new online gift registry, GiftsofStock.com. The registry is sponsored by the Moneypaper, a newsletter devoted to direct investment plans, sometimes called DRIPs. With a DRIP, investors buy shares directly from a company and avoid brokerage commissions.
The gift registry, at www.giftsofstock.com, works like this: The bride and groom select stocks they want to invest in and post them on the registry. They can choose from nearly 60 stocks, including Microsoft Corp., Johnson & Johnson and Pier 1 Imports Inc. More stocks are expected to be added later.
Wedding guests can log on, and click on one or more stocks they want to buy from the couple's wish list. Just like with any other gift registry, once a stock is purchased it will be marked so no one else buys it.
The buyer is only purchasing a single share of stock, the first step to setting up a DRIP account with a company. Buyers will pay the price of the stock plus a charge of about $25 to cover transaction costs and other expenses. Once the first share is purchased, the couple can use the DRIP account to start buying more shares straight from the company.
It's not a gift that will illicit oohs and aahs immediately, but one likely to be appreciated each tax season.
"Almost nobody has a good bead on how to organize the financial records in their house," said J. Michael Martin, a Columbia financial planner. One in 10 people are great organizers, he said, but "90 percent of the people have their motor vehicle title in their sock drawer."
Martin developed an organizer, called Homefile, years ago after seeing so many clients' records in disarray. The system has about two dozen categories, and an index tells you what category to file papers under. Homefile also spells out how long to keep records. It costs about $30 with shipping and is available at www.homefile.net.
Another recommended organizer is Kiplinger's Your Family Records Organizer. You can buy a print and CD-ROM version for about $15 each or $20 for both, not counting shipping.
Computer programs can help couples manage their money, track expenses and pay bills online. Experts recommend Quicken, Microsoft Money and Mvelopes.
Books and magazines
Books can launch discussions about finances and goals, and offer ideas for resolving differences, experts said.
Financial planners' picks for newlyweds: Money Harmony, by Olivia Mellan; Smart Couples Finish Rich, by David Bach; Love and Money, by Jeff D. Opdyke; Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes and How to Correct Them, by Gary Belsky; and Conscious Spending for Couples, by Deborah Knuckey.
Or, buy the couple a year's subscription to a financial magazine. Wrap up the first issue and a notice of the subscription together with some wine goblets, Walker suggested.
Some weddings will be second marriages, and one or both partners may have a young child. Find out if the parent has set up a college fund, such as a 529 college savings plan, suggested Walker. If so, a contribution to the child's education might be more appreciated than a gift for the parent, she said.
To suggest a topic, contact Eileen Ambrose at 410-332-6984 or by e-mail at email@example.com.