Money is the number one source of tension and stress in relationships. It’s not just a source of tension for couples with a low income, a recent survey by Magnify Money found that among divorced people who earned six-figure incomes, 33% of them said conflicts over money was the reason they got divorced. Clearly, money problems contribute to divorce.
In a sad and ironic twist, divorce also leads to money problems. Getting divorced is not cheap. Between splitting your assets, the possibility of child support or alimony, paying for lawyer fees the price tag adds up fast. The average cost of divorce is around $15,000.
For people in long-term relationships, the best thing you can do for your relationship and for your wallet is to have serious and frequent discussions about money with your significant other.
Getting financially naked
In her book, broke millennial Erin Lowry coins a phrase called “getting financially naked” with your significant other. The idea is just as it sounds, putting every detail out in the open when it comes to money.
Early on in a relationship, before either person is comfortable openly discussing money it’s important to look at the subtle but important clues that will give you an idea of your partner’s relationship with money. You can start looking for these context clues from the very first date.
What kind of date does he or she ask you on? An expensive dinner or a walk in the park?
When you go out for dinner or drinks, who pays?
I remember my first date with Trish we went out for drinks and we split the bill 50–50 (I offered to pay but she insisted we split). We have been splitting every bill 50–50 ever since.
When you get further into a relationship more context clues will reveal themselves.
Do all your dates involve spending money?
Does your significant other cook or order in for most of their meals?
How much money do you spend on each other at holidays or birthdays?
Personally, Trish and I have never spent a lot on Christmas and birthday gifts. At Christmas, we “treat each other” by going on a trip. Travel is something we both value so spending money on something like that is worth it to us. Buying some new gadget or jewelry is not worth it to us, so we have jointly decided not to buy lots of "stuff".
On birthday’s we treat the other person to a nice dinner. We try and opt-in for experiences over stuff as much as possible. Luckily, we value spending our money on similar things.
Full Frontal Financial Nudity
Once you realize your significant other is someone you could marry or live with, it’s important to graduate from gathering context clues and move to what Erin calls “full frontal financial nudity.”
This is where you put everything out in the open. You need to sit down and have a very uncomfortable and very honest conversation.
Here are some issues you might want to discuss with your significant other.
How much debt do each of you have?
What are the interest rates on each of your loans?
Have they ever gone to collections?
Do you have a plan for paying off the debt?
When do you expect to be debt-free?
Ask each other what your credit scores are.
Sharing your overall net worth with each other.
Sharing your financial goals.
When would each of you want to retire?
What are your career goals?
Do you want to ever own a house?
You don’t want to have all of these conversations in one sitting. Your significant other might feel like they are being interrogated and become very defensive. That's not a great way to have an open and honest discussion.
If this is someone you want to commit to, ask them to have a 10 minute weekly “money meeting”. During the meeting, you can discuss anything that is on your mind. Here are some topics that make sense to include in your weekly money meetings.
What you spent your money on last week.
Any big purchases you have coming up.
Identifying which money issues are currently stressing you out.
Getting on the same page with a debt repayment strategy.
Getting on the same page with an investment strategy.
Just make sure you keep your money meetings short and frequent. If the meetings are too long they will feel like a chore and you are likely to stop having them. If you don’t hold them frequently enough, it’s hard to turn it into a habit.
Trish and I started having money meetings before we bought our first house. One of the things we discussed during those meetings was my debt. I previously had about $50,000 in debt and was down to the last $5,000. I had about 9% interest on that debt, which we agreed was a poor use of our money. She had a lot of money sitting in savings accounts earning less than 1%.
So, we decided it made sense for her to pay off the last $5,000 in a lump sum and I repaid her over the next 2 years.
The math on that was a no-brainer, but for us to feel comfortable executing on that plan she needed to have a high level of confidence in me and our relationship to make that kind of investment.
How you talk about these money issues is what matters most. If your significant other reveals to you how much debt they have don’t make them feel ashamed or like a failure because they are in debt. Practice your poker face. When they reveal their debt number your first instinct might be to say “OH MY GOD!”.
Even if you don’t say the words the shock can be painfully visible on your face. Try your best to stay neutral during the tough conversations. It takes a lot of bravery to reveal your debt number to another person and if your significant other feels like you are judging them they will be reluctant to talk about money in the future.
What matters is the present, not the past. As long as your significant other is committed to working on improving their financial habits, everything will probably be okay. If bad money behavior continues or gets worse over the years, that’s when you should have an honest discussion about whether you want to stay in this relationship.
Debt should not be a dealbreaker but honesty and behavior should be.