My good friend Dave once went on a date with a woman who straight-up asked him which tax bracket he fell into. Taken aback by the woman’s lack of tact and transparent criteria for a partner, Dave swiftly changed the subject. After he paid for dinner, they went their separate ways. As you can imagine, there was no second date.
While there are obvious faux pas with what money questions to ask while dating, it’s mission-critical to discuss finances when you’re coupled. Easier said than done, right? In the U.S., talking about one’s finances is typically considered more taboo than talking about politics or sex. But gently tiptoeing the subject of money in a partnership can have disastrous consequences.
Case in point: Studies reveal that money is the leading source of stress in a relationship, and can oftentimes lead to breakups or divorce. So what money topics should we discuss at different stages of relationships, and how can we tactfully breach such convos?
Here are some dos and don’ts when bringing up money when in a relationship:
Do: Talk About Who Will Pay for What
It’s probably best to start with the simple stuff, like working out an arrangement of who will pay for what on dates. Whether it’s going halfsies, taking turns, or one person agreeing to generously foot the bill, make sure you see eye to eye. Otherwise, you might get into squabbles early on. Hidden expectations will only cause confusion and potentially tiffs.
When we’re trying to woo one another, we all want to show our best side and keep our baggage out of sight. While you might be curious about your date’s credit score or student debt load, they might get prickly about the matter. So if it’s something you wouldn’t ask a friend, you might want to hold off on poking around their money past for the time being. Get to know their financial situation like you’ll hopefully get to know their family—gradually, and when the time is right.
Do: Listen and Observe
In the early stages of the relationship, you can learn plenty about your other half’s financial life without asking nosy questions. Observe their lifestyle preferences. Are they bougie, frugal, or somewhere in between? Do they openly talk about their debt? Or are they more closeted about their money situation? What’s their idea of a fun date? How do they like to spend their free time and discretionary funds? This will clue you in on what’s important to them, and how to best breach future money topics.
Do: Start With Shared Values
A major part of staying together is communicating shared values and honoring them. So while your boo might prefer to shop at a high-end market and you love the discount grocers, you both value healthy living and nutritious meals. So how can you meet in the middle spending-wise while still eating well?
Beyond coming up with ways to live your shared values, you’ll want to talk about shared dreams. What kind of life do you want to have, and how will money help you reach those goals?
Do: Time the Ask
If you need to discuss something particularly challenging, don’t do it over text in the middle of the night, or when one person is having a stressful week. You might want to wait until you’re enjoying some face-to-face time, and are both relaxed. It’s probably not the best idea to fire up a 20-questions sesh on touchy money topics while you’re on a fun date.
Set some time aside to hash things out by having #RealMoneyTalk with your partner. Whether it’s a concern you have about their spending habits, or sharing your own issues managing debt, you’ll want them to be prepared to have an honest heart-to-heart. Money might seem like a heavy subject, but it doesn’t need to be. By breaking down the taboo you can take the first step on a joint path to financial health.
Do: Slowly Get More Financially Intimate
If the two of you become an exclusive pair, you’ll want to get a little more serious about your money talks. Get financially naked, and air out your concerns and share any struggles you might have about your finances. Of course, you’ll want to share numbers. How much debt do you each carry? What’s your net worth, and how much do you earn?
I know, it’s super sensitive stuff. But if you’re going to get serious, this is important information. Otherwise, you’ll end up with feeling like your partner is hiding money skeletons, and you run the risk of being blindsided. Plus, how can you build a life together without knowing one another’s financial states?
For me, I’ve found that getting financially naked comes naturally during the course of my current relationship. But then again, I am pretty open about my money situation. If you find the need to pry that information from someone, you might want to arrange for a proper sit-down.
You’ll probably also want to try saving for something together, such as a short trip. It’s a great way to learn how you each work when it comes to saving goals. Plus, it’ll bring you closer together and strengthen you as a team.
Do: Figure Out Shared Expenses Before You Move In
If you’re going to shack up together, then you’ll definitely want to suss out how you plan on managing shared expenses. Will you split the rent and bills equally or come up with another arrangement? Do you plan on opening a joint account, and if you do, will you also have separate accounts? Will one person be the designated CFO of the house, or do you want to share managing the household finances?
In just talking to my pals who have moved in with their significant others, their money arrangements vary greatly, from having shared expenses to managing their finances independently.
Don’t: Impose Your Money Ways on the Other Person
While you might feel like you’ve solved the riddle of financial wholeness, let your partner find their own solution. For instance, my partner and I have drastically different money styles. He doesn’t own a single credit card, and wants to buy everything outright, from cars to his first home. I, on the other hand, put the majority of my bills on my cards and love racking up those points. I’m comfortable putting purchases on my credit card, as long as it’s done responsibly.
While the way we like to manage our money is drastically different, we’ve learned to offer one another a lot of autonomy and space. Otherwise, we’ll run the risk of feeling stifled and stampeded upon, which could lead to resentment.
When dating, it’s important to be sensitive when breaching talks about M-O-N-E-Y. Just make sure to be mindful of timing and where the other person is coming from before pouncing on them with your questions, especially if there is a wage gap between you two.
It’s crucial to be sensitive when talking about money with your significant other, but it’s just as critical not to let the M-word become a taboo subject in your relationship. You want to know more about their financial health—and that’s fair, but have patience and use tact. Time your questions appropriately and always take your partner’s unique experience into account. In turn, you’ll come out stronger as a unit.
Jackie Lam is a personal finance writer. Her work has appeared in Investopedia, Magnify Money and The Bold Italic, and she’s been featured in Money, Kiplinger, Forbes and Woman’s Day. She runs Cheapsters.org, a blog to help freelancers and artists with their money, and to balance their passion projects and careers.