How to Handle the Topic of Finances in Relationships

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Ahhh romance. The birds and bees floating around your head in merry little circles and daydreams of how your soon to be Mr. or Mrs. would surely greet you every morning with fresh breath and a smile for the rest of your connubial lives.

Too bad reality can be such a pain in the arse.

Seriously, romance is great. I’m a big fan of falling in love, being in love, meeting the love of your life… etc. After all, I write this blog for a reason. I’m also a realist. After so many conversations with marrieds who lower their voice, furtively look around to make sure the honey isn’t in hearing distance and impart wisdom to me that they really really REALLY wish someone had shared with them before they got hijacked by the marriage train express, I’ve become even more of a fan of romance mixed with a huge dash of practical thinking.

Practical thought of the day, if you marry someone with bad credit, YOU are going to be the one paying for it.

I’m not saying that the financially challenged should be destined for loveless lives or that you should dump the love of your life because their credit score isn’t equal to yours, but I am saying that talking about their history with finances is a very good idea.

I vividly remember having a conversation with a few friends one day, driving back from some fun on the lake, the subject of good questions to ask a boyfriend came up. I suggested attitude about finance and heard crickets chirping in the car. Not being all that savvy to my audience, I compounded my faux pas by saying that I couldn’t believe how many guys never asked their serious other about debt or credit rating since if you get married, you take on the other person’s bad history and become liable. Even louder crickets. At this point, I turned around and asked the girls in the back seat, has anyone ever asked you about yours? One girl finally answered, “No and thank God. I’d never want a guy to know how much debt I have.”

At that point, I wisely remained quiet, but the conversation has stayed with me since. Most people believe that we have a moral obligation to share if we have a contagious disease, mental imbalance or addiction issue. Most of us would consider the fact that we have children, mortgages or ailing parents we are caring for something pretty important for a future spouse to know. In short, things that can seriously impact the future are also things that should be discussed before tripping down the aisle. So why in the world would we walk blind into a financial relationship?

I know that this is going to be an unpopular subject and the romantics and/or fiscally irresponsible out there are going to kick and scream that this is a topic for gold diggers, etc. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m not saying don’t marry someone with a bad record, but do be prepared for the consequences if you do.

How do you ask someone about their finances? Delicately.

I’m a fan of the simple but honest approach. Something along the lines of, “I was reading this blog the other day and the author suggested that talking about financial habits and history is a good idea before getting too serious with someone. And I realized that we’ve never talked about it before. Do you think we are similar in how we approach finance?” (Also, if you want to lead in with personal information, it will seem less like an inquisition and more like a conversation… just don’t start with “Tell me about your credit rating.”)

This isn’t a question for the faint of heart and I don’t know many folks who are bold enough to use this topic as a screener on first dates, but attitudes about finances can be a huge deal breaker in a long term relationship. The spender feels judged, the saver feels unsafe without a safety net, the investor gets frustrated to not have the capital at hand due to a spouse who spends or squirrels all extra cash away… it’s really important to know what you’re getting into and talk about how you’re going to handle differing attitudes.

Quick Tips for the engaged or seriously minded couple:

  1. Set aside time to have an honest conversation about how you each handle finance.
  2. Talk to a pro. Set up a plan you can both live with.
  3. Know the consequences of marrying someone with a bad credit rating.
  4. Times are tough and things are getting tight for a lot of folks. That can be a really good thing for getting to know how your fiance handles stress and tight financial situations. Talk about it together.
  5. Don’t judge. The past is the past. If someone has a spotty past but has taken charge of changing their ways, get on board instead of pointing fingers.
  6. There are always reasons. Getting to the real reason behind a financial problem goes a lot further than trying to impose rules on a situation. If your boy/girlfriend got into financial trouble because they went broke surviving cancer, that is not the same as the trust fund kid who burnt through the windfall and expects another to bail him/her out.

A quick note for those of you who know you’re going to have to divulge some not so fun information; get it all out upfront. It may seem like something you should parcel out over time, but your partner will feel like they can’t trust you to tell the whole truth if you do it that way. Yes, I know that divulging thousands of dollars in debt and a shopping addiction is going to be a tough nut, but remember that secrets like that can’t be hidden forever and you’re going to need your partner’s help and understanding.