For Shanice Miller, something just didn’t quite add up about her ex-beau’s finances.
When she would suggest they eat at $10- or $15-per-plate eateries, his reaction was as if she’d insisted they go to fancy five-star restaurants. And in order to take a trip to California, he had to scrimp and save for a full year. Although that wouldn’t seem out of the norm for someone on a tight budget, he made $75,000 a year, wasn’t paying much to rent his room, and seemed to have few other major expenses—at least that she knew of.
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“He told me I was ‘breaking his budget’ because we were going out on dates. Although he made a good salary, I wondered where all his money was going,” says Miller, 26, the owner of a trampoline business in Washington, DC. “To me, the money coming in versus the money going out wasn’t adding up. That really bothered me and made me not want to progress further with him into a relationship.”
The experience also made her realize just how important it was that any future partner have some financial savvy—a sentiment she seems to share with the majority of Americans. According to a 2015 study commissioned by Citibank, 78% of people in relationships say they prefer a partner who is good with money over one who is good-looking.
Trying to decide if finances are going to be a roadblock in your relationship? Here are three money topics to discuss before you get serious with your significant other. While we’re not suggesting that you bring all of these up on a first date, the pros we talked to suggest easing into them before you start imagining a white-picket-fence future together.
“When to bring [money] up is really individualized. But the key is if you see yourself possibly taking next steps into a longer-term relationship with someone—that’s the tipping point for when to ask these questions,” says Megan Ford, a licensed marriage therapist and president of the Financial Therapy Association. “You save yourself from a lot of potential conflict in the future if you broach the uncomfortable topics in the beginning [of a relationship].”
Dating Discussion No. 1: Your Family Money Histories
Forget about the exes for a moment—the history you’ll likely want is what your date’s parents taught him about managing money.
For instance, if he grew up with no money, he may have an inordinate fear of never having enough. On the flip side, if his parents always forked over cash, he may have never learned to delay gratification, says Cheryl Sherrard, a Certified Financial Planner™ (CFP®) and director of financial planning for Clearview Wealth Management in Charlotte, N.C.
Knowing what shaped his views can help you compare his experiences to your own and see where your differences may lie. “I think people tend to assume that everyone else will deal with money the same way they do, and don’t think about the fact that money—or the lack thereof—can carry huge emotional ties as well,” Sherrard says.
Your next-date to-do: Rather than straight up asking about his family’s past financial situation, casually cover more general questions about his childhood and upbringing, suggests Mary Beth Storjohann, a San Diego-based CFP® and founder of Workable Wealth.
“Money questions can be veiled in the typical, get-to-know-you situations,” she says. For example, you could ask what his worst after-school job was, whether his parents helped pay for college, or how often he went on family vacations. These questions can help clue you in to the money values he may have been raised with.
Those values will be some of the biggest influences on his money personality—whether he’s a saver or a spender, a money worrywart or a financial optimist, for example. The good news? A money personality isn’t necessarily set in stone, says Ford. The bad news? It may mean he has some deeply ingrained money habits that could be hard to break.
“What we experienced growing up, what the people who raised us taught us about money—our money personality is constructed based on all of this,” says Ford. “[Having different money personalities] isn’t insurmountable, but it’s helpful to know that it’s hard to change behaviors—and you should know what you’re getting into.”
Dating Discussion No. 2: Your Debt Situations
Debt can be a squirm-inducing, four-letter word in the realm of dating. But it ranks high on the list of important money conversations to have if you’re thinking of taking a major next step together. After all, the more tied together your finances become, the more your debt burdens become each other’s problems.
“I’ve seen people who’ve made assumptions [about their partner’s spending], and then a couple years in, they were horrified at how this person was running up debt,” says Sherrard. “You don’t want to be in for a shock later, so a little bit of discomfort when dating can go a long way [later in the relationship].”
Your next-date to-do: If you’re still in the very early stages of your relationship, look for cues that your date may have spending habits that could be conducive to running up debt.
For instance, does she pull out her credit card for every single purchase? Does her lifestyle not seem to jibe with her income? You might even share the struggles you had paying off credit card bills, or perhaps the pinch you feel now from student loans. What do her responses reveal about how she feels about debt? “You don’t have to pry into how much [debt she has], but observe and you’ll get a sense,” Storjohann says.
If you’re near the point of broaching long-term commitment, whether that means marriage or moving in together, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask about—and share—hard numbers like credit card balances and student loan debt. “You don’t want to be blindsided—[for example], getting married and finding out someone has $50,000 in debt,” Storjohann says. Even if you’re just thinking of taking on a big joint purchase together, you want to know details like credit scores, bank account balances and savings strategies, she adds.
Remember, however, that debt is not uncommon—so what’s important is how your future partner chooses to manage it. “There’s a difference between someone who has $30,000 in credit card debt with no plan to pay it off and who keeps accumulating it, versus someone who has $60,000 in student loans but knows [it will lead to] a good-paying job,” says Ford. “Debt in and of itself doesn’t throw the relationship away—it just means there’s more to talk about.”
Dating Discussion No. 3: Long-Term Money Goals
If you care about someone, naturally you want to know what hopes and dreams he envisions for himself—and that should include financial goals, too.
That’s because money and life goals are intrinsically tied, says Storjohann. Knowing whether he wants to buy a house some day or earn enough to support a family provides a window into his future—and could help you determine if that’s also the future you want. “These things are financial goals, but they also provide a full personal picture,” she adds.
Your next-date to-do: Ask about what gets him most excited when he thinks about his future, whether that’s five or 10 years down the line, suggests Ford. Is it traveling? Being a parent? Getting a corner office? “Everyone in a dating relationship should be talking in a more future-oriented way—but realistically, even long-term committed couples and married people aren’t talking about [their futures],” says Ford. “These overall life-goal conversations are really crucial, and they are definitely tied to money.”
Miller has been dating her current boyfriend for about a year, and they don’t see money as a taboo topic. “Creating a stable financial future is important to me, so we talk finances,” she says. “We discuss ballpark estimates of how much we make, and also talk about how we want to invest money, how much is a reasonable amount to spend on a wedding, and future plans. People end marriages over money issues all the time, and I don’t want to be a part of that statistic.”
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