By BILL WARD, Star Tribune
Last update: May 15, 2009 – 6:00 PM
WHEN AND HOW TO TALK MONEY
Just do it. “People who don’t speak up probably don’t have a good sense of self-worth and tend to take what they can get,” said the Rev. Margaret McCray of Westminster Counseling Center about recession dating. “They tend to feel, ‘If someone loves me, that’s enough for me.'”
Trust your instincts on timing. Too early is almost certainly better than too late. Collect your thoughts and observations before initiating the discussion.
Debt trumps income. It’s more important to know about financial obligations than renumeration, at least for singles. (Besides, it’s almost a given these days that we’re making less money then we thought we would be, or formerly did.)
Once you start, don’t stop. “Continue that communication throughout the relationship,” said family-law attorney Jane Binder. “Don’t ever assume that your partner is taking care of things.”
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Nothing torpedoes a relationship more thoroughly than communication problems. Unless it’s money problems.
When you combine the two with a faltering economy and widespread debt … well, that explains why figuring out when and how to have the first frank discussion about finances is now a crucial hallmark of a budding relationship — right up there with decisions about whether and when to have sex and when to introduce your new flame to your parents.
“Finances can be such a huge strain in the relationship,” said Aurora Young, 32, a consultant from Woodbury. “Someone who’s not good with money, that can be a sign that there will be a burden later. Spending the first five years of a relationship paying off his debt is not exactly fun.”
So when should a couple speak up to defuse this potentially explosive topic? “Just when it feels right,” Young said.
Bridget McDevitt, 25, and Blake Iverson, 33, both have student-loan debt, with his load larger because he attended law school. When they started dating just over a year ago, talking about money “was out there pretty quickly,” she said, “and it’s been a topic of conversation ever since, with the economy tanking at the end of last summer and me looking at going to law school [this fall]. It’s been pretty open.
“There are some taboos. You don’t really ask people how much they’re making. I don’t think there’s a big sense in my generation that money is a taboo subject.”
That’s not always the case with the baby boomer generation, like McDevitt’s parents’ friends who, she said, “speak in hushed voices” when talking about financial matters.
“The longer ago people got married, the less likely they are to have known a lot about the other’s finances,” said Jane Binder, a family-law attorney in Minneapolis. “I see a lot of surprises, where one of them thought the other had more money. Or they thought they both did.
“Especially in more traditional relationships, women find that tougher to talk about.”
Once burned, these women are twice as shy about entering another relationship, though.
“My divorced friends don’t want to get ‘stuck,'” said the Rev. Margaret McCray, 61, of Minneapolis. “They just don’t want to get involved in a relationship where we’re taking care of somebody, whether financially or health-wise. Women are more interested in somebody who would be an equal.”
‘Put together the pieces’
There’s plenty of incentive for single folks of all ages to want to see what’s “behind the curtain” with a partner. That young woman’s Jimmy Choo shoes might not signal wealth so much as crushing credit card debt; the “highly successful” middle-aged man’s nice house might be about to go into foreclosure because he can’t keep up with a mortgage and alimony and child-support obligations.
“I have girlfriends who got into situations where they thought one thing, and then they find out the guy was in dire straits and had thousands and thousands in credit card debt,” Young said. “I have friends in their early 30s who are paying off their 20s. You can tell the difference between that and someone who is living outside their means.”
As with most matters of life and love, experience and common sense can hone the instincts needed to spot potential problems.
“You can put together the pieces pretty easily: job, car, etc. You get a pretty good sense if you have your eyes open,” Young said, adding that “I don’t date guys who drive fancy, expensive cars, generally speaking.”
Speaking up, though, is always preferable to wondering about a mate’s finances. McCray has observed through her work at Westminster Counseling Center that “mature young people have talked this through. Young couples are just more aware of financial issues.”
It doesn’t hurt, McDevitt noted, that her generation shares bonds that go beyond their age: “a pile of debt” and an economic downturn.
“The more people read about the economy and experience it, it’s kind of a way to relate to other people,” she said. “It’s kinda human to have these debts and be struggling. It’s such a common experience, I don’t think it’s something people are ashamed of.”