One of the challenges at the beginning of a romantic relationship is having “the conversation” about one of most important issues for any couple: money. What is okay to ask a potential partner about money, and when? How do you bring the subject up without seeming like a braggart, a coldhearted miser, or someone looking for a meal ticket?
There really ought to be some rules of etiquette for exploring this essential topic; something like, “by the third date, it’s appropriate to start undressing financially.” Unfortunately, we don’t have such guidelines.
Money is a topic fraught with emotional richness. In other words, it’s a minefield. Money is one of the top sources of conflict for couples, so if you’re dating, it’s crucial to learn a potential partner’s earnings, net worth, money habits, and financial beliefs. At the same time, talking specifically about money is so forbidden in our culture that we have no idea how to initiate a conversation about it.
Here are a few suggestions that might help:
1. Figure out your own money beliefs first. Before you even sign up with a dating site or accept your friend’s offer to set you up with her brother-in-law’s second cousin, think about what you want and need financially from a partner. Do you care if someone’s net worth is much higher or lower than yours? Is a certain level of debt a deal-breaker? What lifestyle are you comfortable with?
2. Tell before you ask. Begin with appropriate self-disclosure, in small steps, about your earnings, your long-term financial goals, or your beliefs about debt or spending. See how potential partners react. If they don’t disclose in turn, seem very uncomfortable with the conversation, or have beliefs or money habits much different from yours, you may be seeing red flags.
3. Observe. Watch how people handle money. Are there any patterns around spending or the use of credit cards that seem to indicate either overspending or excessive frugality? Do they throw cash around, or do they leave restaurant tips that Ebenezer Scrooge would be proud of? Does someone’s home show signs of hoarding or stinginess? (A candlelight dinner of takeout Chinese at a card table is one thing for college students, but quite another for middle-aged professionals.) Do their cars or houses seem poorly maintained? Does their lifestyle seem more lavish than the typical earnings in their career field would support?
4. Listen. Despite the taboo on talking about money, we indirectly reveal a lot about our money beliefs by what we say. Notice how dates talk about saving or spending. Do they seem worried about money or reluctant to spend it even on basic needs? Do they seem angry about money or resentful of successful people? Do they boast about financial successes, things they own, or get-rich-quick schemes?
5. Finally, do ask, even if everything else is all moonlight and roses. When you meet someone who seems like “the one,” don’t set aside everything that matters to you about money. Instead, remember how important this issue is to the long-term health of a relationship. Even if you can’t do it gracefully, ask the money questions. Talk frankly about debt, spending, saving for retirement, and each other’s expectations around lifestyles and careers.
Being the one to initiate that difficult money conversation doesn’t mean you’re coldhearted, unromantic, or greedy. It simply means you recognize that money is too important a topic to ignore. When we enter into a romantic relationship, it’s tempting to think that love means not having to talk about money. In truth, love means having the courage to talk about money.