8 Financial Red Flags in a Relationship

Carrie Sloan

Love is blind—and never more than when it comes to our money.

But how do you keep from choosing a dubious financial partner while falling head over heels? It isn’t easy, as any of us who’ve loved and wound up in the red can tell you.

That’s what this list is for. In between the flowers and the heart flutters, take the time to see if the person you love fits any of these eight signs.

By the way, this advice is steeped in real-life experience, as well as a survey by TD Ameritrade about the biggest financial dealbreakers in Americans’ love lives. Not to mention research from the National Marriage Project about the most likely predictors of divorce—many of which center around money.

After reading these signs, if you’re tempted to say, “Oh, but my lovebunny isn’t really like that…,” call your mom or your closest friend and discuss. One sign alone doesn’t mean your relationship is in jeopardy. For each, we’ll give you a recommendation of what to do next if your true love fits the profile.

Check out the signs the one you love just might be bad for your financial health.

1. She’s in Major Credit Card Debt (and Not Doing Anything About It)

We know: Life happens. Icky things like a job loss or divorce can put you in the hole quickly. (Which is why we always recommend you build at least a six-month emergency fund.) We’re not saying you shouldn’t date anyone with debt to her name. The red flag in this situation is someone who continues to accrue it—and doesn’t have a plan to undo it.

Not only does the habit suggest you’re falling for someone who can’t handle money responsibly, there’s also evidence it can hurt you both long-term. “Consumer debt is an equal-opportunity marriage destroyer,” according to a 2009 report by the National Marriage Project. “It does not matter if couples are rich or poor, working class or middle class. If they accrue substantial debt, it puts a strain on their marriage.”

Credit card debt increases the likelihood a couple will fight over money—as well as issues other than money—and decreases the time they spend with one another, shows a study published in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues. And the couples in the study who had accrued debt actually grew less happy over time as compared to those without it.

What You Can Do: The flip side of that same study shows that couples who made a plan and tackled their debt together remained happier with each other over the long-term. Debt definitely needn’t spell the end of a relationship, but it does mean you need to have a talk about how either partner got into debt in the first place and what you’ll do together to pay it off. Our “Get to Your Goal” calculator is an easy way to see how long it could take you.

2. He Spends Like a Drunken Sailor

Whether it’s literally getting drunk and buying a round for the whole bar, or just a serious taste for pricey new gadgets, spending as though money is going out of style can be a warning sign.

“When individuals feel that their spouse doesn’t handle money well, they report lower levels of marital happiness,” say the researchers. In fact, one study showed that feeling like your partner spent money foolishly increased the likelihood of divorce 45% for both men and women. Only extramarital affairs and alcohol or drug abuse were stronger predictors of being headed for splitsville.

What You Can Do: If your partner is fabulously wealthy, his spending is well within his budget or he has otherwise healthy financial habits, you can probably relax. But if your heart rate goes up every time he opens his wallet or unveils another new “toy,” it’s time for a talk.

People overspend for a lot of different reasons. Your first goal should be to communicate that his habits make you uncomfortable. One easy way to start the conversation? Take our “What’s Your Money Belief?” quiz together to reveal the emotions behind the financial decisions you each make.

3. You Have Vastly Different Attitudes Toward Money

While opposites do attract, and this needn’t spell doom, having vastly different worldviews when it comes to your finances can cause friction. Maybe you’re the spender and your partner saves, or vice versa. Either way, over time, being nagged can wear thin. The problem is that resentment builds up.

Take a pair of married friends we know: “She has no concept of what a budget even means!” he’ll rail when he discovers yet another shopping bag. She, on the other hand, defends herself, saying: “I work so hard, I deserve to buy what I want.” They’re caught in a money stalemate.

What You Can Do: The goal isn’t to decide who’s ultimately right, just to get on the same page so you’re not fighting every time you head to the ATM. One of the easiest ways is to look at how you pool your money. If you need to have this talk, or you’re just headed for the altar soon, our free “Getting Hitched” bootcamp—which tells you everything a couple needs to know to combine their finances—is a great place to start.

One quick rule of thumb? Allocate money that is yours, mine and ours. LearnVest recommends 75% be shared for household expenses and meeting financial goals, with 25% as discretionary income you can spend on your own.

4. He’s Frequently Unemployed

Lose a job once? Can happen to anyone. We’re talking more about a serial pattern of unemployment, which has been shown to have serious impact on the future of your relationship.

First, the common sense: A pattern like this could suggest there’s something underlying his patchy employment history other than a bad economy or bum luck. Whether it’s a problem with authority or a lack of responsibility, neither bodes well for your long-term happiness. (If multiple employers don’t find him reliable, odds are you won’t either.)

Plus, according to a study by Liana Sayer of Ohio State University, while a woman’s employment status had no effect on the likelihood her husband would head for the hills, a man’s unemployment, on the other hand, increased the chances his wife would initiate divorce and the chances he would leave.

Even men who were relatively happy in their marriages were more likely to skedaddle if they lost a job. The researchers chalk it up to the fact that there’s still more societal pressure on men to be the breadwinners.

What You Can Do: Look at the big picture. Was he affected by the recession? Does he work in a particularly volatile industry? If neither of those explains the pattern, talk to your partner about your concerns and see whether he has a good explanation … or gets defensive. If it’s the latter, you may want to recommend he seek help from a therapist to figure out the underlying issues.

5. He Doesn’t Want to Get Married

This is an interesting one: Dating a commitment-phobe can actually mean you’re hurting your chances not just of walking down the aisle, but also of accumulating wealth.

Researchers have found that getting married improves your fortune in more ways than one. First, there are economies of scale (two can live more cheaply than one, and each specializes in what he or she is good at—like fixing a computer or changing a light bulb, so you can save on hiring someone to do the task.)

But there’s also something about committing to a life together that has a halo effect on your finances. Overall, married couples save and invest more for the future (and, at the same time, act as built-in insurance for each other against uncertainties like an illness or pink slips). And something about committing to a partner makes men more virile economically: Married guys actually earn between 10% and 40% more than single men with similar education and job histories.

What You Can Do: Only you can answer whether marriage matters to you. But for anyone in a committed couple, the best things you can do are to be honest about your approach to your finances, make a joint plan to tackle debt and create lifestyle and savings goals you want to reach together, like saving up for a down payment, or socking away $20,000 in your emergency fund.

Happily, building assets together, researchers say, is one way to grow closer as a couple. “Assets … sweeten and solidify the ties between spouses,” says the National Marriage Project, “by minimizing any sense of financial unease that couples feel, with the result that they experience less conflict.”

6. She Declared Bankruptcy or Got Foreclosed On

Most of us are already on the same page about this one. In a “Couples & Money” survey by TD Ameritrade, women said their top two biggest financial dealbreakers in a relationship were bankruptcy (42%) and foreclosure (32%).

Men, on the other hand, cited bankruptcy and high credit card debt, at 24% and 21% respectively.

There are two considerations at work here: what it says about your partner and what it means for your joint future. Bankruptcy suggests that, at least at one point in their life, the person you love got so deep in a financial hole he or she couldn’t see another way out.

In certain professions (like some areas of finance) a bankruptcy may hinder your efforts to get hired: A District Court ruling found that a non-government employer may choose not to hire someone based on a past bankruptcy. And, since it remains on your credit report for up to 10 years, and a foreclosure for seven, it can also impact whether the two of you would be able to get a loan for a car or a house of your own someday.

What You Can Do:  Have a frank talk about the circumstances that led up to the crisis: Was it a slew of medical bills after an unexpected surgery, or pure financial irresponsibility? “Ask yourself: What was the situation, is it likely to be repeated—and are you jeopardizing your own financial well-being?” says Stephanie Kirkpatrick, LearnVest’s Director of Financial Planning.

7. You’ve Caught Her in a Lie

According to a new poll by CreditCards.com, 92% of Americans say they never hide the details of their financial lives from a significant other. But the 7% that do means that 6 million Americans are hiding something. The most common things they conceal? A credit card account (67%), a secret savings account (45%), a hidden checking account (38%) or a plain old financial secret.

Whether she’s hiding how much she makes, how much she owes, or you caught her red-handed withdrawing money from your account—true story of a friend’s ex—it can lead you to question: 1) why and 2) what else she’s concealing.

What You Can Do: Have a talk about “financial infidelity.” How honest do you expect your partner to be? Are there any money uglies in your past you need to talk about? Here’s a good guide on how to broach the topic.

The issue here isn’t so much your bottom line, but trust, which underlies the foundation of every relationship. If you catch her in a lie that shakes your belief in who she is, it can be hard to rebuild your faith in each other, let alone a solid financial future together.

8. He’s Always Borrowing … From Someone

There’s cheap. And then there’s the eternal mooch.

This is the type who’s always asking his friends to “spot him” and promising to “get them back next time.” If you’re dating, he’ll routinely forget to repay you for that time you covered dinner. And brunch. And he’s no stranger to loans from friends and family—often in the form of help from his parents.

While there aren’t many stats to prove the deleterious effects of the mooch, odds are, if you’re seeing one, you know the drawbacks well yourself. Not only does he sap your bottom line, he can also do a number on your energy. That’s because, often, a financial mooch thinks the world owes him something … or sees himself as a victim who’s unable to pay (or make) his own way.

What You Can Do: In this case, it’s worth it to have a frank talk, and tell him how his money behavior is galling you. If he’s not truly broke, and the behavior still doesn’t change, it’s time to refer him to a good therapist.

Have you dated someone who was a financial red flag? If so, tell us how you coped—and what happened.


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    Looking for some much needed insight.
    I am 29 going on 30. My boyfriend of almost 2yrs is wonderful except when it comes to money. We both came into this relationship with some debt and after being out of work for three months at the beginning of this year we are in a tight bind. Its not impossible to get out of this debt, but both of us have to work together. We have talked about this several times and have made budgets that we have stuck by. But my trouble I keep running into is that he agrees with me, will do much better then the last time, but when it comes to something he really wants it’s like I am talking to a brick wall. For an example, he smokes and uses dip. No matter how many ways I break it down ( money wise ). He will still have his mind made up that he will be buying himself those things since he portrays as though it’s a need not a want. I want to get ourselves out of debt, I worry constantly about it, but he doesn’t see the problem. He just assumes that it will take care of itself. I don’t know when to walk away from this relationship. I don’t want too, I love him deeply. But I want to have a future with marriage, kids and a house. How can I make him see the big picture? What can I do to help motivate instead of nagging?
    If you could respond, it would be very much aperciated.
    Thank you