Q: I know it’s a good idea to talk about financial habits before getting engaged or married. But how early in a relationship should I broach money topics?
A: So much goes through your head when you’re dating someone new. Do they get my “Seinfeld” references? Are they good in bed? Are they saving for the future in an individual retirement account or a 401(k)?
You might think that last one is specific to personal finance columnists. But almost 70 percent of online daters said financial responsibility was a very or extremely important quality in a potential date — even more than attractiveness or ambition — according to a recent survey by Discover and Match Media Group, which runs online dating platforms Match.com, OkCupid and Tinder.
Talking about money helps you understand whether a potential partner is responsible and reliable. It sets you up to approach finances honestly and fearlessly as a couple. But deciding when to get down to the details is hard. Here’s when, and how, to build an understanding of a partner’s finances — while you consider whether you can stay with someone who wears socks to sleep.
Just a few dates? Listen and learn
In the first few months of dating, pay attention to the basics, like whether the other person says they keep a budget or are saving up to buy a home, says Matt Gellene, managing director with Bank of America Consumer Banking and Merrill Edge in Boston. You’re looking for indications that they apply some discipline to their money habits, which is important throughout a long-term relationship.
That’s because if you stay together, “there’s going to be fluctuations in your financial picture,” Gellene says. Each person’s ability to adjust their budget and lifestyle will help prevent strife if, along the way, one partner loses their job or incurs hefty medical expenses, he says.
Notice whether your date drives a car that seems too luxurious for their income, or if they mention having credit card debt. Make a mental note to ask about the backstory behind their spending habits or debt. That can provide insight into whether they experienced a one-time setback or have chronic money woes, says Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and chief scientific adviser to Match.com.
Getting serious? Now is the time for the talk
Most of us are taking more time to understand our partners before tying the knot and legally commingling our money.
“Where marriage used to be the beginning of a relationship, now it’s the finale,” Fisher says.
That means there are many smaller milestones you can peg a money conversation to. Here’s one option: Learn about each other’s finances within the first six months of a relationship. That was the earliest online daters said they would be comfortable discussing their debt, income and spending habits, according to the Discover and Match Media Group survey.
Another is to talk about financial red flags, like poor credit, before love enters the picture, Fisher says.
“Because once you’ve fallen madly in love with somebody, very often it doesn’t matter, at least for the time being. Nothing matters. He’s cute even if he’s got three heads,” she says.
Definitely have the discussion before you move in together, when you’ll naturally make more joint spending decisions. A partner’s subpar credit could affect whether you would even qualify for the apartment you want.
Share how much credit card and student loan debt you have, plus your credit scores, incomes and progress toward savings goals. Also seek to understand your partner’s money personality, and how their family’s approach to money might have affected them, says Olivia Mellan, a psychotherapist and money coach in the Washington, D.C., area.
Mellan offers this handy script as a template: “ ‘I know this might seem weird, but I think it would be really healthy of us if we talked about our attitudes toward money and our money history, up front, early on in this relationship. Because it’s so often a source of conflict in relationships, and I don’t want us to have undue conflict.’ ”
You can do it. Just have the talk before the answers would break your heart.
“Ask Brianna” is a column from NerdWallet for 20-somethings or anyone else starting out. I’m here to help you manage your money, find a job and pay off student loans — all the real-world stuff no one taught us how to do in college. Send your questions about postgrad life to email@example.com.
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