“Must love dogs and travel — and have zero debt, earn six figures and have at least $50,000 in your retirement account.”
Though this might not be the tagline on most online dating profiles, money matters are a very big deal in relationships. Unfortunately, financial conversations are not the easiest — or sexiest— talks to have with partners, which leads too many of us to postpone or avoid the topic altogether. But the reality is that if your partner has a lot of debt, it can impact big decisions that you’ll want to make together — where to live, when to buy a house, whether or not you can afford to have children, and more. Don’t get us wrong, money certainly isn’t everything in a relationship, but it should definitely get a mention on the laundry list of compatibility considerations.
So how can we approach this often touchy topic? It shouldn’t be something you bring up on date No. 1, but if you’re seeking a long-term, committed partnership, it is a discussion worth having sooner than later. We checked in with experts who broke down for us why finances — and specifically debt — should factor into your dating decisions before you get too serious with Mr. or Mrs. Right.
Money Problems Are The Biggest Challenge To Relationships
It’s hard to miss the staggering divorce rate statistics in the United States (55% of all marriages end in divorce) but here’s another one that may be surprising — when couples were polled on the “last straw” that led them to call it quits, an incredible 40% blamed money disagreements. Because while partnerships mean love, matching slippers and Netflix-and-chill nights, they also mean — in some way or other — combining finances. (Even if you keep separate bank accounts, your finances impact your partner and vice versa.) So, when one partner owes a substantial amount of money, it can really stress the relationship — even one that’s just beginning. According to Kelly Lannan, the vice president of Young Investors at Fidelity Investments, the firm’s 2018 Couples and Money study found that 36% of duos were concerned about debt, and credited money as their biggest relationship challenge. In short, if we don’t address finances before we decide to date a person, say “yes” to the dress, or otherwise get seriously involved, any problems lurking will eventually find their way to the surface.
A Little Debt (Or A Lot Of Certain Kinds of Debt) Isn’t Always A Deal Breaker
Before we start to lay all of our cards out on the table and inquire about our potential match’s 401(k) and stock portfolio, it’s important to remember that not all debt is a bad thing. As Lannan explains, debt is a part of life for almost all of us, and many people will choose to take on debt in order to help reach their life goals. Generally speaking, she says student loans, mortgages and small-business loans can be good forms of debt — as long as they are managed smartly. Lannan says if a love interest has $100,000 in debt for school tuition, but they’re on a strict path to have it paid off as quickly as possible and you can see that they’re making progress, that speaks well for their financial savvy.
If your partner says they “have debt” but don’t want to divulge details, press a little further to find out exactly what kind it is. Lannan labels “bad debt” as any expense that involves taking money from our future self to spend more dollars than we have today. These include credit cards and car loans for a luxury ride if a simple sedan would do the job. “Many need a car to get around, but you shouldn’t be taking on a loan for more car than you actually need,” she explains. “If your partner does make the choice to take on a car loan, make sure they are in a position to make the payments.”
It’s OK To Talk Debt Early In The Relationship — But Do It Strategically
Whenever we go on those first few dates, we should be trying to determine not just if we “click” with our match, but also, experts say, if they’re responsible, emotionally mature, and honest. According to psychologist Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D., these adjectives often describe someone who is smartly handling their debt.
Though we don’t want to open up a date with the invitation to go over tax returns and account balances, Thomas says it’s better to broach the topic before anyone is fully invested — no pun intended. The trick is to inquire without interrogating, which can sometimes feel like a fine line.
“It is important to discuss things in a way that allows you to gain an understanding and clarity about that person’s situation while having him feel emotionally safe and not judged,” she continues. “Otherwise, the other person may be unwilling to share or be as honest with you as is needed for you to get a true picture of his financial situation.”
Consider asking questions like: “When you think about the next five years, do you see yourself buying a home?” or “I feel really lucky I didn’t come out of college with a ton of debt, what about you?” or even more to the point: “It may sound a little nerdy, but I love things like investing, saving, and budgeting. Is that kind of thing a part of your life?” This makes the discussion a conversation, rather than an inquisition, and gives us the opportunity to stress why finances can be a deal breaker within a partnership.
Thomas says it could also indicate if our date has reasonable debt — like student loans — or frivolous spending habits that make their credit card bills unmanageable. If they’re in the latter group, it could indicate a problem beyond budgeting that verges on you not being able to trust the person.
“If the lifestyle they live includes excessive travel, luxury shopping and other extras, and that doesn’t align with the job they have, then there might be a problem,” says Jeremy Straub, CEO of Coastal Wealth. “Someone that dodges financial questions and avoids the subject at all costs — there might be something more to the story they don’t want to be discovered.”
How Their Debt Can Impact Your Future Life Goals
When it comes to your partner’s debt, are we really talking about a ‘til death do us part’ situation? Sort of, says Zuzana Brochu, CFP, a client wealth strategist and senior vice president at People’s United Advisors. Think of it this way: Any debt that was accrued before the marriage belongs to the individual. However, any debt taken out during the marriage can make both partners responsible, depending on the circumstances. Also, if a partner has a terrible credit score, it could negatively impact your ability to purchase a home or start a company.
And What If You’re The One With Debt Issues?
If you have a lot of debt, you may find it difficult to speak candidly and openly about your situation. Even so, you have to be honest. Thomas suggests having the conversation in the early stages of dating to avoid misleading your match. If you need help diving in, she suggests a script along the following lines:
“I want to let you know that I like you, and that I need to tell you something that isn’t comfortable for me to talk about, but I think you should know. Right now, I am currently dealing with a lot of debt from college loans and a car payment. However, I am able to pay my loans without having to use credit cards, and I am paying things off on time. So I am managing my debt in a positive way without adding more debt onto my plate. I just wanted to let you know this information, and let you know that I’m happy to discuss the subject further with you if you’d like.”
Bottom line? Communication — and smart money habits — make for a happy union.
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