For Love & Money is our new weekly series exploring how we navigate one of the most intimate and rarely talked about aspects of our relationships: our finances.
Jason never thought of himself as bad at money until he got in a serious relationship in his early 30s. He was used to working as a film producer on a project-to-project basis and knew how to have fun with a windfall and tighten his belt when work was slow. But even when he started making more money more consistently, he kept his old spending habits and would still only break even every month.
Then Jason, now 38, met his girlfriend, who noticed his spending habits early on. “She saw how I’d throw away my money after a big job and laugh it off,” he tells me. “But once we moved in together, she’d hate it when I’d make a big purchase or bet money on a game.”
According to Certified Financial Education Instructor Steffa Mantilla, Jason is lucky his girlfriend didn’t break up with him, especially because he didn’t tell her about his bad financial habits early on. “Having a partner who can’t handle money is a huge stumbling block,” warns Mantilla, a former zookeeper who often compares taming animals to taming finances.
The best way to tell a romantic partner that you’re bad at handling your finances is to do so directly and before getting serious in the first few months, Mantilla tells me. It would be like not telling them you work over 50 hours a week, are still friends with your ex or have an extremely close relationship with your mom that requires you to call her multiple times a day — some potential romantic partners might be fine with it, but waiting until they’re invested in you emotionally to reveal these quirks is deceptive. “For some people, this is a dealbreaker, and they may not want to continue the relationship,” Mantilla says.
The thing is, it’s not totally our fault. “Most of us don’t grow up learning about money in school or at home,” Brittney Castro, a certified financial planner at Mint, points out. Such illiteracy around saving and financial planning also fuels an inability to talk about it, and even when you try, “learning how to communicate about a topic you aren’t as confident about is difficult.”
Marriage and family therapist Omar Ruiz agrees that social stigmas as well as personal shame over income and spending can cause many people to hide money problems from their partners. Instead, they let their (oft-bad) behavior do the talking, which typically results in their partners reacting negatively. “Shaming someone for how they manage money doesn’t help them learn better ways; it makes them feel like they’re a bad person,” Ruiz says.
This only builds resentments and makes it that much harder to tell the difference between a minor miscommunication about spending and a glaring red flag. All of which can deteriorate relationships, even if the other person decides to stick around. So whether you’re talking about these issues sooner or later, Ruiz recommends trying to keep emotions out of such discussions. “Conversations within a relationship about finances have to be viewed more like logical planning rather than emotionally driven,” he says. From there, setting goals like buying a car or going on a vacation are good ways to encourage continued conversations about money and saving, while reinforcing your commitment to each other.
Since so many financial problems are rooted in naiveté about money, Mantilla suggests taking a class on budgeting and managing money, as there are many courses accessible online and available for free. You could also hire a certified financial planner. “They’ll be able to tell you what you need to change in order to reach your future goals,” Mantilla says. But since that alone can cost thousands of dollars, it’s worth bringing up to your partner first.
Castro also suggests going on “money dates,” in which you and your partner spend set time to check in on your budgets and your progress toward your financial goals. “This way, neither of you are in the dark on your financial situations — so there’s no added weight around avoiding a tough money talk,” Castro explains. “It becomes ingrained in your relationship to review your finances together and support one another.”
For Jason, money dates helped save his relationship with his now-wife, though they weren’t as intentional as Castro describes. “We’d stay in and make dinner to save money, and that naturally started the conversation about spending and saving,” Jason says. After a while, it was clear his partner wasn’t going to get angry or abandon him for his mistakes, and he slowly started to open up — though not without a few fights. “Before we got engaged it was the worst because there was so much pressure to save for a ring, but also the wedding and rest of our lives,” he recalls.
But by then, it wasn’t their first conversation about money, and they both knew it wouldn’t be their last. In fact, they knew there would be countless more — usually over a drink and a home-cooked meal.