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The National Marriage Project offers five tips for marital bliss

Want to strengthen your marriage? You might need to focus not only on your relationship, but also your finances. After all, money problems are the leading indicator of impending divorce.

The 2009 State of Our Unions, an annual report issued by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Institute for American Values, uses statistics about marriages, economics and self-reported happiness collected over the last 40 years to create a portrait of the ways in which American couples are thriving and the problems—new and old—they face.

W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociology professor at UVA, is the director of the National Marriage Project. He says that protecting marriage is critically important to the health of our society.

“First and foremost, children tend to do best when they are reared in homes headed by married parents,” says Wilcox. “For instance, boys are half as likely to end up in trouble with the law if they are raised by both of their married parents.

“Second, adults who form and maintain successful marriages over the course of their lives are much more likely to enjoy healthy, wealthy and happy lives than are their peers who do not get and stay successfully married.”

In the course of examining the relationship between financial and marital success, the 2009 State of Our Unions report reveals five ways to build fulfilling and lasting marriages.

Make Your Own Homemade Goods

In 2008, national restaurant sales fell for the first time in 40 years. While unsettling for restaurateurs, this reversal reveals a promising revival of the home economy. Media reports suggest that an increasing number of Americans are growing their own vegetables and fruits, cooking their own meals at home and even sewing their own clothes.

Families who craft homemade goods may one day look back at the recession as a blessing in disguise. That’s because research shows that household production strengthens the sense of solidarity between spouses, as well as between parents and children. In short, the family that makes together stays together.

Earn a College Degree

Over the last several decades, researchers have asked husbands and wives to rate their own marriages on a happiness scale and tracked the results. Their conclusion? Marriages in which both partners are college-educated appear better built to last.

The percentage of spouses from this group who rate their marriage as “very happy” has remained stable over recent decades. Meanwhile, the percentage of spouses from other segments of the population has dropped precipitously. Whether it’s due to the increased likelihood of financial solvency or the tendency of college graduates to marry later, higher education is correlated with happier marriages.

Pay Off Your Credit Cards

America’s love affair with credit cards reached new heights in December 2008, when U.S. consumers were carrying nearly $1 trillion in revolving debt. Consumer debt played a well-publicized role in the financial crisis, but recent research spotlights its destructive impact on marriage as well.

Newlywed couples who rack up substantial consumer debt suffer a decline in marital satisfaction over time, according to the data. But newlyweds who pay off consumer debt—or manage to remain debt-free—experience significantly lower declines in satisfaction over the course of marriage.

Reverse the Financial Gender Roles

When spouses divvy up household responsibilities, statistics show that husbands often manage the long-term financial investments while wives manage the day-to-day shopping. But recent research indicates that couples using these roles may be sabotaging their financial well-being.

Men tend to be overly confident, a trait that translates into high-risk investment decisions. Women tend to be more cautious and willing to seek advice from professionals, and thus often make better long-term investment decisions. On the other hand, women who are in charge of daily shopping tend to buy more—and spend more—than men do. Reversing these typical gender roles may be an effective means to achieve financial success and, in turn, longer lasting matrimony.

Work Outside of the Home

More than 75 percent of the recession’s job losses have been among men, especially blue-collar men, thrusting many unemployed husbands into unfamiliar roles with increased childcare and housework responsibilities. While this trend may foster improved gender equality, it may also prove dangerous for marriages.

That’s because husbands with children are 61 percent less likely to report that they are “very happy” in their marriages when they work fewer hours than their wives. On average, when a husband works at least as many hours as his wife, he reports no problems with the idea of working wives and is less likely to contemplate divorce.