You know about their big-haired homecoming photo, the tattoo they “accidentally” got in Cancun, and the collection of figurines they claim is an investment, but you’re still in the dark about their finances. (Collectibles aside, of course.)
If you or your partner is hesitant to open up their account books, you’re not alone. The stats show just how many couples struggle to discuss finances. (Spoilers: it’s a lot.)
According to a 2013 study, 68 percent of recently engaged couples harbored negative attitudes about the big “money talk.” More amazingly, 5 percent believed that just having a conversation about finances would lead to breaking off the engagement.
And the numbers don’t get better when people get married. The frequency of fights over money is the most reliable predictor of whether a married couple will stay that way or not.
Opening up with your partner about money is crucial, but -- deep breath -- it doesn’t need to turn into a deal breaker. Jacquette M. Timmons, author and financial behaviorist, told us, “money is a great communication tool, and it can be a thing that actually deepens your connection and your intimacy. When you talk about money, you don’t just talk dollars and sense. Your identity is wrapped into it, your sense of self-esteem, your sense of self-love.”
We partnered with Discover Card to find out what you really need to know about your partner’s finances, from the hard numbers to the lifelong trends.
1. What’s the Score?
It’s the number that looms over a person’s entire financial life: the dreaded credit score. It’s so important that Charles Tran, founder of financial help website Credit Donkey, advises couples to just get it over with. “You just have to print out a copy, sit down, and go through it together,” he says.
While your partner’s poor credit score doesn’t ever “jump” over to you, it has consequences for your life together. Institutions use the number -- and the more detailed credit report -- to decide whether they’ll provide your partner with a loan, an insurance policy, a place to live, or even a job. If you and your partner jointly apply for a loan or a credit card, the bank may use your partner’s lower score to deny the application or, at the very least, push up the price you’ll pay in interest.
But remember that love conquers all -- even bad credit. Jacquette urges that a low credit score not be treated as a scarlet letter. (She admits that, at some points in her life, her credit score may have been low enough to make a partner say, and we quote, “aw, hell no.”) After all, credit scores fluctuate based on a variety of circumstances, so find out the reason before unfairly branding your partner.
2. What Do They Owe?
Let’s be honest: opening up about how much you owe is hard. 46 percent of Americans, stress over their debt -- and about half of that number suffers from “significant” debt-stress. That’s especially true for a younger generation saddled with high (okay, maybe even outrageous) educational loans.
Although coupling up won’t ever cause you to shoulder your partner’s old debt, it can cause trouble. If particularly high, your partner’s debt may take years -- or even decades -- to pay off. During that time, you may be required to assume a higher proportion of your relationship’s expenses, including big ticket items like automobiles and appliances. Your partner’s six-figure debt may affect where you can live and what jobs you can take. (If your partner has a mountain of debt, then it might not be feasible to follow your dream of becoming a full-time illusionist.)
But even big debt doesn’t have to be a big deal. Our experts advise to drill down on the kind of debt your partner has accrued. Was it amassed on frivolities? Without a plan? Or did your partner have a strategic purpose? How is your partner planning on paying it down?
“We have to manage our expectations on debt,” cautions Jacquette. “It’s going to take a little bit of time before you’re getting out of six figures of debt, so it’s all about having a game plan.”
3. What Do They Make?
For a comprehensive picture, you’ll need to find out exactly how much money your partner has coming in. But tread lightly, argue our experts, particularly if your partner’s actual income doesn’t match their view of themselves. (In other words, we’d advise against opening up with, “show me the money!”)
You might think you have an idea of their income already, but a flashy job title and expensive tastes don’t necessarily equate to high wages. In fact, studies show that people tend to overestimate the income of others. Since your partner’s income will help you determine how much you will pay for joint expenses and, you know, your future standard of living, it’s an invaluable thing to know in detail.
Beyond the numbers, a talk about income will give you a better sense of what your partner wants from work. Jacquette suggests asking them if their career feeds their passion or their curiosity -- or if it just feeds them. All are okay, they just might require adjustments on your part.
4. How Much Do They Save?
America excels at a lot of things -- burgers, freedom, indoor plumbing. But saving is, perhaps, not our strong suit. Even during the recession our nation’s personal savings rate only rose to about 5 percent, half that of many European countries and Japan. To compare, most financial advisors recommend that people begin saving between 10 percent and 15 percent starting in their 20s.
So, if your partner isn’t saving as much as they should, keep in mind that they’re probably not the only one. Still, check to see if they’re taking care of the basics, like investing in their work’s 401(k) or 403(b) accounts. Ask if they have an emergency fund. “Excessive spending and minimal saving might not be a stop sign,” cautions Jacquette, “but it could be a yield sign before intertwining your assets.”
5. How Much Do They Spend? (And Why?)
Another part in the puzzle is your partner’s expenditures. You need to find out whether their levels of spending can be sustained, or whether you might have to help them lock it down. “If they’re a starving artist, for instance,” says Jacquette, “and they’re going every month to the Four Seasons, that might be something to watch out for.” Determine how much of what they spend is on necessities, and how much they’re spending on the extras. (Like a $6,000 suit. C’mon!)
Again, go beyond the numbers. The most common financial disagreement is over whether a certain purchase is a necessity or not. This may (or may not) lead 30 percent of Americans to carry out financial infidelity -- hiding purchases from their partner. So suss out what your partner considers a necessity or not, so at least when they bring home that Super Ultra Mega Infinity HD Television you won’t be too surprised.
Keep track of how they spend, too. Relying on plastic too much might signal unbridled spending habits, but never using credit could indicate a person afraid to take any risks or make any big purchases.
6. What Happens If The Worst Happens?
You don’t want to dwell on it. We don’t want you to dwell on it either, but sometimes life takes a turn. It’s better to take care of all the serious matters of estate planning now, then go off and enjoy your happy beginning, middle, and ending.
This is especially true for the growing number of couples who live together without getting married -- now about 6.7 million Americans. Depending on your state, the rights awarded to the surviving partner (whether it’s you or your loved one) may be limited. Moreover, without a will, your partner’s property might pass through intestacy, a sort of “default” that gives priority to parents, siblings, and any prior children.
So it’s wise to figure it out early. Run through a checklist. Ask if your partner has a will, beneficiary forms for their 401(k) and life insurance policies, and documents granting power of attorney in case you have to step in.
7. What’s Your Partner’s Financial Past? What’s Their Financial Future?
“What you see growing up, what you experienced, shapes your financial expectations once you’re in a serious relationship, whether that’s marriage or living together,” says Jacquette. "We all forget that the 'money talk' isn’t just about documents and numbers, it’s about experiences."
Your partner’s parents and environment shaped the way they handle money. Ask questions about whether they were savers and spenders, whether they think cash or credit is king, and even whether they use Quicken or TurboTax. Talk about who should be handling the money: if they come from a family where their parents handled finances equally, they might assume that your relationship will be the same.
And, finally, find out what your partner deems financial success. It might mean they want more money than Warren Buffet, or simply the occasional buffet brunch. But it’ll at least ensure that there are no unhappy surprises down the road.