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When Two Incomes Means Two Locations

Michelle Lodge,|Special to CNBC.com
Monday, 18 Jul 2011 | 9:24 AM ET
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When engineer Tom Holben lost his job in 2009 at a Colorado copper mine due a fall in the commodity’s price, he joined the ranks of millions of Americans who had to leave their families to work elsewhere.

Holben landed some 1,600 miles away in New York City, while his family stayed in Denver. As Tom and wife Donna saw it, their choice was between living separately or together, possibly, on one income in New York or Denver. With two sons in college, the decision was obvious.

“The company Tom works for did not offer to help sell our house" in suburban Denver, says Donna Holben, who manages an apartment building the couple owns in Colorado. “With the depressed housing market, we did not even attempt to sell it.”

Like the Holbens, American couples have increasingly been faced with parting temporarily to either make ends meet or find jobs in line with their skills.

About 5.6 million couples live separately, according to the March 2009 American Community Survey, administered through the U.S. Census Bureau, up from 4.8 million in 2005.

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“This recession has caused more widespread cuts and separations that we haven’t experienced before,” says Pepper Schwartz, professor of sociology at the University of Washington, in Seattle, and an expert on relationships. In addition, she says the rise in well-paying jobs for women has contributed to more separated couples, as women are less likely to follow a spouse than in years past.

If you find yourself faced with such a dilemma, making sure you agree on values, life goals and finances is especially critical, says Elizabeth Jetton, a certified financial planner in Atlanta.

Here is what you need to address:

  • Housing: Holding on to the family home until the market improves made the most sense for the Holbens. A “second” home for the away spouse should generally be modest, says Tina B. Tessina, author of "The Commuter Marriage" and a therapist in Long Beach, Calif., unless the couple is thinking of it as an investment or a family vacation home. But the away partner’s residence shouldn’t be too bare-bones, adds Tessina, because he or she could feel deprived and the other spouse may be reluctant to visit.
Your Job, Your Life - A CNBC Special Report
Your Job, Your Life - A CNBC Special Report

Transportation: Having a corporate car is a sound way to save, said Tessina. Failing that, using a secondhand one that gets good gas mileage is best for the spouse who’s living alone. Holben, for example, gets around the New York area in the car of his son who is living in Macau.

  • Children: If they are young, day-to-day upbringing matters are best left to the present parent, says Tessina. But it’s important that the away parent talk with the children daily, if possible, and arrange activities to do together when he or she is with them, regardless of the children's ages.
  • Communication: Do it daily, take advantage of email, online phone services like Skype and Jajah and videoconferencing.
  • Visits: If a couple has young children, it makes sense that the parent who is acting as a single parent be the one who travels the least. Otherwise, the partner who has the most schedule flexibility, says Jetton, is the one who visits more often. “Sticking with one airline to accumulate miles certainly helps by creating opportunities for free flight upgrades, which may simply make the travel more bearable,” she added.
  • Bills: Each partner should maintain separate checking accounts to handle daily expenses, says Jetton. “If one spouse is much better at managing the income and paying bills, then that should continue,” she added. She also recommends monthly “money chats,” in which the couple reviews statements and bills to make sure joint funds are being spent in a way that supports family goals.