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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: I am 24 years old and have been married for 2 1/2 years. I met "Rick" when I was 15. He was my first love.

We are not poor. Rick works two jobs and I work part-time and go to college. After our wedding, I paid all the bills and balanced the checkbook. But after a while, I got frustrated because I was a few cents off, so I let Rick take over the checkbook because he promised to find the discrepancy.

A few months later, I began getting calls at work and at home about unpaid bills and bounced checks. I'd tell Rick about them. He said not to worry, he'd take care of it; money was just tight.

Two weeks later, my car was repossessed. We got it back, after paying a large repo fee plus a month's payment in advance. Obviously Rick had lied to me about being up-to-date on the bills. I know he's not gambling or spending the money elsewhere; he was just late paying the bills and it snowballed.

Last week I typed up monthly and annual spread sheets to organize our budget, and made it plain that I would have to see every bill that comes in. From now on, I will write the checks and manage our finances. Rick agreed. He has apologized repeatedly, and is trying hard to become more responsible. I believe he is sincere, although my credit as well as his is ruined now. At the moment, we are stabilized and not in danger of losing our car or home, but I'm really scared.

He learned his behavior from his mother. (I'll call her Shirley.) When he was a child, his father died. Shirley is now on her fourth husband.

I work with her current husband, who makes really good money but is hurting financially because Shirley goes on spending binges. And this is the clincher: I found out today that Shirley was fired for embezzling money. She was cutting checks for herself and later replacing the money. Rick is terrified his mother will go to jail.

I'm terrified Rick will turn out just like his mother. Shirley is a compulsive shopper, while my husband is merely irresponsible. However, I'm still afraid for our future.

This is the only real problem in our marriage. Rick is a sweet, gentle, loving, funny man who will one day be a great father. I don't want to give up on him, but I don't want us to end up like his parents, either. His stepfather may leave Shirley over this.

Am I doing enough by controlling our finances myself, or are there other measures I should take? I know that people rarely change. Should I leave him? I am ... IN A PANIC

DEAR IN A PANIC: That would depend on how important an honest husband and financial security are to you. Before making any decision about starting a family, please consult an attorney and a credit counselor about safeguarding yourself from Rick's financial irresponsibility.

Contact the National Foundation for Consumer Credit. It is an umbrella group with more than 1,162 member offices in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. Many of them go by the name of Consumer Credit Counseling Service. NFCC is a nonprofit education foundation whose purpose is to educate, counsel, and promote the wise use of credit.

Members are also nonprofit and offer free or low-cost professional financial guidance and budget counseling to consumers nationwide. No one is turned away because of an inability to pay for these services.

For the number of the NFCC member office nearest you, consult the business pages of the local telephone directory under "Consumer Counseling Service," or from a touch-tone telephone, call 1-800-388-2227.

Abby shares more of her favorite, easy-to-prepare recipes. To order, send a business-size, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 ($4.50 in Canada) to: Dear Abby, More Favorite Recipes, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, Ill. 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

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