When should you talk about money in your relationship?

If you’re in debt the last thing you want to do is fess up to it when you’re staring into your partner’s dreamy eyes. But the earlier you start talking about money, the better, says Angelique Ruzicka.

When your relationship is new and going well you probably don’t want to bring up the subject of money, particularly if you’re in debt. It’s embarrassing (to say the least) to admit that you’re not that great with balancing the books when it comes to your personal finances. But is it right to divert the topic to a later date, or never approach the subject at all?

Talking about money can be awkward. But if you don’t have the talk at some stage then it will come back to haunt you. There are many studies that show that finances are a leading cause of stress in a relationship and one of the main reasons why people head for Splitsville.

It’s probably fine not to start the money conversation on the second or third date but when you reach important milestones such as before moving in together you should sit down and have an adult conversation about your mutual financial goals, where you’re doing well and where you’re failing in managing your money.

Ideally start talking about money as early as you can because it’s in the early parts of the relationship (the ‘honeymoon stage’) when you’re still kind to one another, curious, helpful and considerate. You don’t want to lump in money problems when you’re deep in the throes of regular spats. Then it may be too late to save the relationship.

If you’re worried about when to approach the subject, simply bring it up casually. Do it when you’re talking about shared goals. Shared goal conversations can encompass most things but would include topics like getting married, engaged, moving in, moving country, switching jobs, etc.you can jump in and turn the subject into financial goals. You could say something like: “I’m looking forward to moving in together but I’d like to pay my credit card off first so that we have one less thing to worry about.”

Don’t make it awkward. Just talk about it like it’s the most natural thing in the world. As the relationship progresses you’ll want to open up the conversation even more. Make sure you talk about: income, debt and assets, savings goals (including debt goals), credit scores and histories. 

You should even approach the topic of financial obligations to family members, especially if you are part of what is now referred to as the ‘sandwich generation’, which describes those aged between 40 and 60 that need to support both the generations below and above them (e.g. parents, grandparents or children).

If you fit that description, you are not alone and this is something that you can point out to a partner who may not understand the situation fully at first. According to Stats SA, 32.2% of South African households are multi-generational.

While this is the norm among rural black communities, the trend is increasing among the urban white population from 4% to 8% in the last decade. While there has been an increase in older parents moving in with their adult children, there has also been a rise in adult children moving back home with their parents as a result of job shortages and the high cost of living.

Keep the conversation going
When your relationship gets more serious it’s important to keep that money discussion going. Sitting down on a monthly basis to go over the budget is typically achievable. To make things easier, have a date in the diary where you talk over the family budget (the good and the bad). At this stage it’s best not to keep any money secrets – they always come out of the woodwork in the end.

Should you get involved with someone in bad debt?
It’s not ideal, but we often don’t have a choice about who we fall in love with. You have to ask yourself ‘What do his or her money habits tell you about their character?’ How do you think their money habits will impact on your relationship in the long term? Then find out if they are doing something about their debt or whether they just burying their heads in the sand.

While couples can and do differ – one is usually the spender and one the saver – it’s important to have an element of financial compatibility too. As Gail Vaz-Oxlade, money guru and author of Money Rules warns: “Don’t hitch your cart to a horse headed into a ditch.” In other words, if you see your partner is heading into financial trouble, there’s a good chance that he or she could drag you down with them and this can be particularly dangerous for couples married in community of property as everything is shared – even the debt obligations.

So how do you know if someone is beyond help? If your partner has a ‘money is no object’ approach then you should be concerned. Unless you are dating Richard Branson’s son or daughter, if your partner is flippant about money and spends frivolously this could be a warning sign.

Does your partner act like he or she is well off without the job or inheritance to back it up? This is another warning sign. It’s inadvisable to get into a relationship with someone like this as it will only end in heartache, or at worse in the divorce courts and finally, financial ruin.

If your partner overdraws on accounts or often has cards that get denied at till points this is another red flag. A computer glitch should happen once, maybe twice, not several times. Also, if they receive collection notices and avoid picking up calls (probably because they are avoiding debt collectors) you should again be concerned and find out what’s going on.

Other signs of financial mismanagement include when your partner is typically and regularly derailed by unexpected expenses or if they have an unstable employment history. If they clam up or are dismissive the moment you mention money or budgeting, it’s probably best to walk away.

Is merging the finances a good idea?
It depends on your views about money and if you trust your partner. If you have expenses that you both contribute to then it makes sense to have some sort of a joint account. But there are plenty of benefits to having some money set out separately. Sometimes you need that independence for your own stability and peace of mind and for your own little treats and rewards.

Key tips to maintaining healthy finances in a relationship
It’s important to talk about money; don’t ignore any problems. Don’t give up on the relationship or leave immediately if you head into financial trouble, unless the problems are habitual and the cycle never ends.  Find out what your partner is doing about their money problems. If they reject going for help or if they are constantly borrowing from Peter to pay off Paul then you know the relationship could head into trouble. If you are both bad with money go see a debt counselor or financial adviser together and draw up a joint budget and stick to it.