Couples and Money: Critical Issues You Need to Address

Couples need to talk openely about moneyWith Valentine's Day almost upon us, you've probably given some thought to just how much money you're going to spend to show your sweetie how much you care. But if the only money question in your relationship is whether to spring for that big box of chocolates, you could be headed for trouble down the road, warns John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at

WalletPop caught up with Ulzheimer to talk about the issues unmarried couples should really be discussing when it comes to money, spending, debt and their relationship, especially if they want that relationship to last.Q: What's the most important question to ask your partner about money?

A: Question number one has to be, "What kind of debt are you in?" That's reality. Number two has to be, "What are your attitudes when it comes to personal finance?"

Q: What can a person ask to determine what their partner thinks about money and spending?

A: Ask them when they want to retire, how they want to retire -- as in, do they imagine a life of leisure or do they expect to still have to work. What are their attitudes to home ownership and credit cards? [And find out] how many children they're interested in, seeing as how a child is a $300,000 investment over 18 years.

Q: How soon in a relationship should these discussions take place?

A: In my mind, these are deal-killers -- it's that important. It has to be something that's brought up well in advance of any sort of commitment for a long-term relationship. I think it has to happen before you take that step. If the issue is a deal-killer to you and you wait two years to have that conversation, you've just wasted two years of your life.

Q: What are some red flags people tend to overlook?

A: Having a modest income but living an extravagant lifestyle and not explaining why or how. That could signal not only lackadaisical attitudes towards the use of credit, but maybe also irresponsibility. If someone has a modest income and drives a $70,000 car, you have to ask the question. I think when you do bring up the conversation, if you're challenged or if all of a sudden you have a filibuster, so to speak, where they say they won't talk about it, I think that's another red flag.

Q: You indicated that partners should share their credit reports with one another. Are there any other financial documents they should share?

A: A credit report is the most important because there's so much information in there about their credit, their debts and how well they're paying them off. What's not there are things like bank statements and brokerage statements. Those are things you want to ask to see as well because they show how well your partner saves and is preparing for the future.

Q: At what point and to what degree should partners pool their finances?

A: Except for a mortgage, I think you should always maintain credit independence. I think you should maintain an individual account as well but also maintain a household account. You don't want to run into a situation where one spouse dies and the surviving partner can't access their money, or if a couple gets divorced and one partner is liable for the other's debts. [Ed. note: We've discussed why it's important for both members of a partnership to establish their own credit as early as possible here.]

Q: How do you bring it up?

A: There is no clever pick up line to get around to it. The best way to go about it is whoever thinks of it first should be the one to overtly disclose their side of the liability sheet. Say, "It's important for you to know this about me." It keeps it from seeming aggressive. If you're the one putting it out first, it encourages openness. If you get the reaction of, "Great, but I'm not going to show you my stuff," I think that's a red flag. You never know, your partner may want to bring it up as well, but might not know how to bring it up.

Q: What kinds of conversations should couples have about spending and budgeting?

A: My wife told me in a story how she did it rather than show me a bunch of statements. She basically told me about how she bought a car, then paid it off but kept contributing the same amount as her monthly car payment into a savings account. It said a lot about her financial goals and discipline.
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