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Ask Sarah – Money, Money, Money

Dear Sarah,

At what point in the course of dating is it fitting to start talking finances, i.e. income, net worth, assets, debts, etc?  This is a part of reality that can’t be ignored. But it also isn’t appropriate for a new relationship. So the question is, where between date one and engagement would you slot this convo?


money 5I had a professor in graduate school say that the majority of all conflict between couples has to do with one of two topics:  Sex and Money.

So, it stands to reason that there’s quite a lot to consider in the course of relationship about both of these areas.  And for today’s purposes, I’m going to suggest that we view them in the SAME light – and that’s this:

Both sex and money-talk, should happen/progress commensurate to the level of intimacy in the relationship.

For instance… in the same way that it is healthy to pace yourself sexually to match the level of emotional closeness, I think you should parcel out your financial situation discussion AS you feel emotionally safe to do so.  What do I mean by emotionally ‘safe?’  You can see the longer version of that here.  But, in essence, it’s where both people feel loved, known/understood and valued by the other person, so much so that they feel comfortable being vulnerable, knowing that they will be cared for.Money 3

Most people would agree (even if they’ve broken their own rule) that sex on the first date is damaging to the long-term goal of a good relationship.  Why?  Because the physical intimacy is WAY ahead of some other basics that should be in place for the sexual relationship to really blossom – love, trust, care, emotional safety, committment, etc.  So, the relationship is off balance… which makes it vulnerable to misunderstanding, hurt, frustration and ultimately failure.  This is not to say that every time a relationship begins in an unbalanced way, that it’s unsalvageable, but that it makes it difficult to get back to a place of safety and love.

In that same way – talking about finances before you’ve established some intimacy/safety, can be just as damaging.  Especially when the two people are in different places, financially.  This is all much easier if you sense (and you will) that you’re in a similar situation as your partner.  People will make jokes about being poor (I know this from personal experience), or you’ll be able to tell by someone’s spending, that s/he is financially comfortable… so if you’re equally matched up, this conversation can happen sooner and probably more easily.  Two people steeped in debt can empathize with each other on how difficult it is to climb out.  Similarly, two people doing well for themselves can celebrate each others’ situation and enjoy the equity that brings to the growing relationship.
But, when one has money and the other doesn’t (QUITE often the case), talking it out can be really scary…

 

Let me back up for a moment.money 4

SOME financial talk is inevitable at the beginning of a relationship.  Heck – whether it’s spoken or unspoken, there is “talk” of finances on Date #1 when the check comes.  Who pays?  Is there an assumption?  Do both offer to pay and then there’s a short transaction of terms?  Money is always a present factor, whether we dive in fully or not.  But, there’s a difference between dealing with the immediate financial situation, and delving into the deeper waters of net worth, savings, debt, etc.

Side note:  Men… while there ARE women out there who don’t fit this rule, the quality single women out there value GENEROSITY much much more than WEALTH.  Now, a wealthy person has much more opportunity for generosity, so wealth itself isn’t bad or wrong, but when a man tries to show a woman JUST how well-off he is, it’s off-putting.  A man who insists on paying for dinner in a kind and gentlemanly way is FAR sexier than a man who brags about his cars, watch, 401k, etc. 

I’ve been on dates with men where they show me photos of their cars or shove their watches in my face expecting a reaction of awe… except that I know NOTHING about watches, so I can’t tell if it’s from a plastic box from WalMart or the felt-lined displays at Patek Phillipe.  So, it only serves to make me feel silly/awkward for not knowing how to respond.  Do I go with a “OOoooh, how nice!”  or “I like a man who can bargain shop!” (note…do not use this one unless you’re certain it’s a reasonably priced watch.  I’m just sayin’…. it doesn’t end well.  I ought to know.)

But a man who pays for the date without complaining about menu prices – that’s ‘money.’  (<—yes…I’m using that as an adjective.  Meaning… it’s good.)

Alright – back to the issue at hand.

money 6Part of the advantage of waiting for this talk until you know the person better… is that you’ll learn the character of the person BEFORE hearing the financial situation.  You’ll start to see whether the person is greedy, kind, impulsive, overly-cautious, free-spirited, calculating, etc.  So, when the conversation finally does happen, you’ll be able to weigh the cold hard facts against what you know to be true about the person.  That’s no small thing.  Think about it this way, you would have a grossly different reaction to finding out that your potential partner has major medical debt that s/he’s still fighting, if you know the history:
Option 1 – she was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease that took a few years to figure out, treat, and come up with a maintenance plan for.
Option 2 – after a car accident, she became addicted to prescription pain-killers and struggles with substance abuse.

Neither is insurmountable, but they’re awfully different, right?  And KNOWING the person will shed light on the financial situation.

I’ll tell my own sad tale as a way of proving my point… (prepare for disillusion) — I am a divorced single mom with 3 jobs.  I don’t have any fancy 401k’s or money sunk into the stock market.  I have student loan debt (how do you think I got THIS smart?), and other annoying financial burrs in my side.  As much as I like to think I’m wise with my money (not using credit, saving, etc.), there just never seems to be enough…   So, for someone like me, there’s no way I’m going to feel comfortable putting all the details of my grim financial situation out there for someone until I know I’m loved, cared about and there’s a level of commitment that’s NOT conditional on my financial standing.  Once I feel safe with someone, I will start to give him pieces of the overall picture.
With an ex-boyfriend, we were almost a year into our relationship when we finally started putting actual NUMBERS out there.

money 2

So, unfortunately, there’s no clear timeline answer on this.   YES, you have to talk about it as you become increasingly closer and more commited to each other, but NO, you should talk about it until there’s a layer of safety and understanding/love there to protect that conversation.

Building the relationship should be the number one focus of your energy, and as you grow in trust/love, and as intimacy increases, so will physical connection, as well as openness about topics like money.

2 Responses

  1. Bonnie

    Great post!

    April 15, 2013 at 9:01 pm

  2. Jordan

    Overall a pretty good post. However, I think you drastically over estimate anyone’s ability to size people up financially.

    April 17, 2013 at 8:32 pm

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