In our Money Mic series, we hand over the podium to people with controversial views about money. These are their views, not ours, but we welcome your responses.
Today, one woman shares how her boyfriend’s refusal to talk money ultimately ended their engagement—and made her realize that any future relationships would have to be based on total financial transparency.
As so many couples do these days, Jack* and I met online, about six years ago. I was drawn to him partially because of our shared interests—we both loved to travel, staying fit and having fun in New York City—but I also liked that we seemed to be at similar stages in our lives. When we met we were both in our late 30s, had gone through divorces and were raising teens.
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It was nice to have someone who could relate to my experiences as a parent and a busy professional. I was, and still am, an attorney; he was a business consultant. Because we both had good careers it didn’t seem like money would ever be an issue for us. Plus, our hectic schedules made it hard to find time for each other, and it’s not like I needed someone to support me—so why spend that time talking money?
Looking back, though, I wish I had, because over the course of our four-year relationship money grew from a nonissue to one that ultimately split us apart.
The Warning Signs
In the beginning of our relationship, we spent money on dates pretty evenly. I’d grab a check here, he’d grab a check there. There was no weirdness or “oh, I forgot my wallet” moments. And when we’d go on weekend getaways to places like Florida or Montauk, New York, we’d each pay our own way.
As our relationship progressed, however, I realized I didn’t know the basics about his money—not even a ballpark of how much he made. What we did talk about was the fact that his divorce had financially drained him and that it might take a while to rebuild his assets. I also realized that things were not all they seemed at his work. He complained about not making enough, disliked his role at the company and felt that his job was ultimately a dead end.
Whenever I would try to bring up questions about anything money-related—his bills, his salary or even whether he was a spender or a saver—he would suddenly get evasive. Yet I saw a disconnect between what little he said about his finances and what he was actually doing with his money. For example, we started eating in more and more because he’d complain about how dining out was draining his wallet. But then days later, he’d show me a new guitar he’d just bought—not to mention that he had a Porsche sitting in his driveway.
About two years into our relationship, we planned a vacation together to Europe. I booked the full amount on my credit card and then told him how much he owed me for his portion. It took about a month for him to pay me back because he never seemed to have the money whenever I brought it up (and he never seemed to broach the topic himself).
At that point, I’d started feeling a tinge of resentment: Why wasn’t he quicker to foot the bill for our quality time together, yet seemingly perfectly content to spend on clothes and home renovations?
I was even more irked when he started spending four to five nights a week at my house but gave me push-back when I suggested he contribute something to the household bills. His response was, “But you don’t need the money.” It’s true, I didn’t—to me, it was more about fairness. I wanted him to consider my home his home but that included pitching in to cover the costs of living there. Clearly, he felt differently.
Despite these incidents, I always gave him the benefit of the doubt. I chalked them up to him still piecing his finances together post-divorce. Or, I figured, maybe I just wasn’t aware of how large his expenses were. Plus, the one thing I did figure out was that I made more than him, so I never pushed these issues further—until we got engaged three years into our relationship.
Getting Serious … and Serious About Money
Despite his reticence about money, I was looking forward to spending my life with Jack. He was funny and fun to be with and by now our lives were intertwined. We went on family vacations with our kids, he was spending the majority of his time at my home and we were starting to look at houses together where we could start our new life.
At this point, I knew I had to wrestle his financial information out of him, because once we said ‘I do,’ our money lives would be intertwined. I tried to casually drop in questions about his salary and bonus or what his major expenses were. But I got more of the hemming and hawing: “I don’t know what my bonus is because I get it throughout the year. I don’t know my expenses. My bank statements haven’t come in yet.”
I mostly let this slide—but I had a major light-bulb moment when his parents gave us a check as an engagement gift. I don’t even recall the amount because I never saw it. He held onto the check, never even suggesting that we use it jointly in any way. I’m not sure what he did with that money.
That’s when I finally made it clear there could be no more putting this off. We were engaged, and I needed to know why money was always so tight for him. I asked him to document his income and expenses for me on paper so we could review them together.
That’s when it really started to get absurd. When he’d say he didn’t have time to track down the information, I’d pepper him with questions: Why can’t you look it up online? Don’t your bills come every day? You tell me you get paid once a month—what’s in that paycheck? Your child support payment and your mortgage are the same every month, so how much are they? What exactly is your budget?
He complained that I was treating our relationship like a business plan, that it wasn’t right and that I was asking too much of him. I finally explained that if he was going to continue withholding financial details, I wasn’t comfortable getting married. His lack of transparency was, to my mind, the same as being dishonest, and I couldn’t move forward in a relationship where there was a lack of trust.
So I ended the relationship. To be sure, his reticence about money was just one of our issues—but it was a big one. He was shocked, but that still didn’t motivate him to share anything with me. Many months later, he wanted to get back together. But guess what he didn’t bring? His budget. I told him that I didn’t think anything would change, and to this day, I’m still not sure exactly how much he makes or how large his expenses were.
The story has a happy ending: I’m dating someone now who is very forthright about every detail of his finances. He knows about my previous relationship and is making sure he assuages my concerns—not because I need his money, but because I need to know he isn’t hiding anything.
Love & Money Lessons Learned
One thing I am grateful for about my experience is that it showed me just how crucial it is to get the money talks taken care of before things get too serious—advice that I now heed as well as impart to my clients. Issues like income disparity, past debt or even having differing money personalities can all become elephants in the room if you don’t tackle them as a couple sooner rather than later.
Here are some quick tips I often share when it comes to broaching money in a dating relationship:
Get to know your partner’s spending habits. You don’t need to figure this all out in one sitting; you may even be able to glean insight simply by shopping with your partner at the mall and seeing how easy or hard it is to spend cash. The important thing is understanding what his or her relationship is with money so you can see how it jibes with yours.
Don’t be afraid to share your numbers. This can include your salary, expenses, debt, credit score, etc. The more serious you are, the more important these details will become, as they affect your financial future together. But even just knowing your partner’s income can help you early on, since it can help manage expectations for what your partner can actually afford to do, whether that’s fancy dinners or weekend getaways.
Talk about your financial dreams and goals. Do you want to travel, buy real estate or save for some other big goal? If so, tell your partner about that, and figure out whether you have a joint goal you could work toward together—for instance, that big tropical vacation. Your objective, ultimately, is to create a healthy, harmonious and long-lasting relationship—which is dependent on putting everything, including your financial details, on the table.
*Names and certain identifying details have been changed.
Leslie Tayne is a financial attorney and founder of Tayne Law Group in New York. She is also the author of “Life & Debt: A Fresh Approach to Achieving Financial Wellness.”