Ask the Right Questions
Whether you’ve just started dating, are committed to each other or have already tied the knot, there is one topic that will keep coming up again, and again and again: money.
How do you spend it? How does he? What’s your savings strategy? What secrets lie behind your credit score? How much debt, exactly, is he bringing to the relationship, and how will you both handle it?
Of course, asking for a credit report on the first date isn’t exactly the way to ensure a second one. But there are money questions you should ask — and signs to be aware of — that can help you navigate each stage of your relationship and ensure that you’re both on the same path, whether the relationship lasts two months or ‘til death do you part.
You’re Dating: Who Pays for the First Date?
Boy, this is a loaded question. Some say whoever did the “ask” should pay for the date. Others say let’s keep chivalry alive and let the man pay, regardless. And others say, “I can pay my own way, thank you,” so let’s split the bill.
Picking up the bill is about “power in a relationship and how men and women want to think about their roles,” says Galena Rhoades, Ph.D., professor with the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. “If you offer to cover the bill, you’re either giving the message that you’re a nice person, or it can be taken as a sign of interest in the other person.”
If you offer to split the bill you could be signaling that you’re not interested in pursuing the relationship. And if you let him pay, you could just be responding to societal expectations. After all, even in our evolved world, the man expects — and in some cases is expected — to pay.
“Let him pay at least the first two to three times, and then on the third or fourth date by all means if you want to, absolutely offer to pay the bill,” says relationship expert Kailen Rosenberg. “But if he doesn’t want you to, [listen to how] he explains his reason why, because that can show some other signs of what he’s going to be like. Is he controlling, rigid, the powerhouse or just a sweetie pie who just wants to kind of love on you and take care of you?”
Who pays — or who insists, who offers and who doesn’t — can tell you a lot about how your date thinks about money and where both of you think the relationship is headed.
You’re Dating: Where Do You Work?
Yes, you’re curious about his career and his goals for the future. It tells you a lot about the type of person he is. But there’s a subtext to this question, isn’t there? After all, knowing what he does also indicates how much he earns doing it.
This is a perfectly acceptable question to ask, as long as you don’t ask about earnings in the first few dates. That’s just awkward. Instead, use the information you get to give you a good idea of where he is. For example, a social worker is going to be in a different tax bracket than an investment banker; someone new to his career will be earning less than someone who talks about his corner office and the size of the team he manages.
It might not yet be the time to start talking salary, bonuses and 401(k) plans, but you can find out a lot about your partner’s potential earnings simply by asking him what his dreams are for the future. What is his ideal job? What would he like to be doing in five years? If the answer is “running the company,” you know you have someone planning to climb the ladder. If the answer is, “I love what I’m doing and couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” you should consider that big promotions and raises might not be in his future.
You’re Dating: What Are Your Spending Habits?
You can’t actually ask that question without sounding like you’re from a credit counseling agency. But you want to know! A study by freecreditscore.com of 1,000 single adults showed that women rate financial responsibility as high as sex and intimacy when it comes to finding a compatible partner.
Take on a spending exercise. Planning a vacation together is a great way to size up his spending patterns in an unobtrusive way, says Rhoades. Does he insist on first class all the way or get frustrated by the idea that someone on that flight might have gotten a better deal than he did? Talk about a vacation budget beforehand. Who will pay for what? How much should you spend overall together? Does he relish the idea of creating a budget with you, or do dollar limits suck the joy out of the exercise? Observe his reactions — and your reactions to his reactions.
“A vacation gives you the opportunity to see how you think about how much is acceptable to spend,” says Rhoades. “Do you need to save money to be able to pay for it? How are you going to split the costs? Some couples decide that’s based on income, other people do it 50/50, other people might decide it’s a gift. I think it allows you to talk about many of the issues that couples have to talk about in their relationships around money without it being something that is going to get you stuck or necessarily increase your commitment.”
You’re Getting Serious: Do You Have a Lot of Debt?
Well, that’s a romance killer, right? Who wants to talk about the ghosts in our financial closets? If you have a few thousand in credit card debt from that post-college globetrotting adventure, admitting that can bring up feelings of shame and worry. Likewise, asking him to lay bare exactly how much his car payment is and how much he owes on that Visa card can be equally embarrassing. But knowing where you both are financially is key to preparing you for the next step — cohabitation or marriage.
“Before you make any kind of commitment, and definitely before moving in together, you want to know about any debt,” says Rhoades. And not just current debt. Does he have a history of maxing out credit cards or spending beyond his means? “You would want to know about how the two of you are similar or different in terms of your values around spending and saving. You’d want to know about any past financial trouble, whether that’s taking too big a risk or risks that you wouldn’t be comfortable with or spending too much and getting into debt, even if that debt has been solved.”
Comparing credit scores can be one way to find out where you both are and set a plan for where you want to go. Having already taken a vacation together and had some serious conversations about their student loans and spending ability, it was easy for Jill Jacinto, 28, of New York City to ask her boyfriend about his credit score.
“I was conversational about it,” she says. “I told him I had checked my credit score, and it was amazing. I told him, ‘You have to check yours.’ It wasn’t something I was terrified to bring up because it’s better to find out now than when you’re co-signing a mortgage.”
When she learned his credit was great, Jacinto was pleased. She’s not alone — in the freecreditscore.com study, 75 percent of women say a high credit score is an important quality in a mate (as opposed to just 57 percent of men). And one in four men and women consider a bad credit score to be a roadblock to the relationship progressing to marriage.
“When you see that someone has a good credit score, and is managing their money, that starts to build a profile of dependability, of someone who is stable,” says Becky Frost, senior manager of consumer education for freecreditscore.com. “Those are all good things when you’re looking for a relationship partner.”
You’re Getting Serious: Want to Move in With Me?
This is about more than sharing a tube of toothpaste. Once you cohabitate, you co-spend. Who will buy groceries? How will you split the rent? By moving in together, you’re expressing belief that the relationship has a future. But you’re also taking a risk that it won’t, a factor that many couples neglect to address.
“We see a lot of couples who don’t have these conversations when they first move in together because they’re hard to have,” says Rhoades. “But it’s a conversation that’s clearly important: If the relationship ends in six months, you have to sort out who’s taking what, who is going to cover the lease. Ending a cohabitation can be more difficult than ending a marriage because there’s no structure to it. There’s no mediator, and no attorneys, and you have to sit down and figure out how to untangle the finances.”
To avoid this, talk about everything before you move in. Will all expenses be split 50/50? 60/40? Will both your names be on the lease? Will you each have a savings plan? Write it all down and make sure you both agree.
You’re Getting Serious: How Much Do You Save?
A person’s saving habits can be just as telling as their spending habits. Does he live paycheck to paycheck or does he have a sizeable retirement account and six-month emergency fund? Ask your partner what “savings” means to him. For some people, a comfortable nest egg is enough money in the bank to pay for rent and groceries for a month. For others, it’s a year’s worth of expenses. What amount do you need to feel secure? And how will you get there?
“If you have different answers, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad fit for one another,” says Rhoades. “It’s then about how you can figure out a way to handle those differences.”
As you move toward marriage, it’s important to talk to your partner about his current spending plan. Does he put aside a portion of every paycheck? Does he only save what’s left over at the end of the month? Share with him how you save and together figure out a plan that works.
“Talk about your money, talk about your finances, talk about how you have been saving until you met each other and how you want to start saving together now,” says Rosenberg. “Talk about how we are going to not only invest this money, but how we are going to spend this money and how we are going to share this money.”
You’re Married: Yours, Mine or Ours?
How should you divide your money? Should you maintain separate bank accounts or go all-in and pool all your earnings and assets? Or a mixture of the two?
“I think it’s a sign of commitment when couples are able to manage their finances together,” says Rhoades. “It doesn’t mean you need joint accounts. But if they’re able to really talk about their money together and make decisions about money together, I think that’s a really good sign about the quality of their relationship and their commitment to one another.”
Others say it’s better for each person to always keep a separate nest egg as a way to maintain independence. “Each person should have their own private account and a mutual account, and I think that it has to be agreed upon truly and mutually,” says Rosenberg. “I even talk to people about creating their own little marriage manual or handbooks they each sign. It’s not legal, it’s not binding, it’s just their own little thing where you come up with all the agreements on how you want to live your life and experience it financially.”
By writing things down, you can agree together to what money should be shared, what money should be kept separate, how those accounts will be funded and what that money should be used for. By being open about how much money both of you have, and how you’ll spend it, you help to build trust within the relationship.
You’re Married: You Spent How Much?!
Will he judge your $300 designer purse, and will you roll your eyes at the gym membership that is billed to the credit card every month but rarely used? Or what about the gorgeous but budget-busting silver bracelet he buys you for your birthday? What rules or parameters will you set up for individual spending?
Establish rules that both of you need to follow. Maybe you have to check in with each other before spending more than $100, $500 or $1,000. Or conversely, you’re not allowed to comment on purchases that came from your personal money stash. But whatever parameters you set up, make sure you respect them.
You’re Married: How Should We Plan for the Future?
Some future planning is fun: Let’s save for a house! How about a dream trip to Europe? When Maggie Reyes of Miami Springs, Fla., got married six years ago, she and her husband invested in some inexpensive plastic furniture and then made a commitment to save up a certain amount of money per year that they could spend on the house.
“We committed to spending ‘x’ dollars every year and after that, we were done until the next year,” says Reyes. “We made a list of things we wanted, but we didn’t want the house to become a money pit. So we stuck to a budget.”
Most of planning for the future is preparing for the unexpected — a job loss, illness or worse — death of one of you or of the relationship itself. But don’t ask, “What if this marriage doesn’t work?” says Rhoades, because that invokes fear in the relationship. Instead, focus the conversation on the factor you can’t control — even if it is a morbid one.
“So things like passing away — I think that is important for couples to talk about,” says Rhoades. “It’s a terrible conversation to have but it is really important to plan for the future. Couples can do that well when they have a good relationship.”