Deciding whether to build a future with someone goes beyond just physical attraction and common interests. The most successful couples often have similar financial goals and money habits.
Consider this: The top four reasons behind money fights among couples are spending habits (67 percent), not saving enough (37 percent), bills (33 percent) and debt (29 percent), according to the 2015 Fidelity Investments “Couples Retirement Study.”
So, assessing a potential partner’s financial attitudes early on can reveal clues that could later torpedo your union.
“How we spend money is a reflection of what we value,” says Joe Duran, CEO of United Capital, a financial life management firm and author of “The Money Code.”
And, adds Kathryn Bossler, financial counselor with GreenPath Debt Solutions, financial compatibility or incompatibility is something that can come up in the earliest stages of a relationship. “Just on the level of combined experiences, you’re making financial decisions together, even if it’s just going out to dinner,” she says.
Before you head into a relationship that’s destined for dollar-related doom, take note of these clues on your next date.
1. He walks around with wads of cash
If your honey is handing out hundreds like a Goodfella, that could be a sign of trouble. “It might mean that he doesn’t have very good credit, so he has to use cash to pay for things,” says Bossler.
Or, if there’s a lot of cash in the wallet and a card never comes out, you might wonder if he is trying to hide something more ominous. “There could be a significant other who you don’t know about looking at credit card statements,” says Julie Spira, dating expert and author of “The Perils of Cyber-Dating: Confessions of a Hopeful Romantic Looking for Love Online.”
Then again, being a cash-only spender could be a good thing. Bossler herself pulls out the amount of cash she needs for the week, so that she can track her spending more easily than she does swiping her cards.
Plus, some people just don’t trust the system and choose to live in a cash economy, says Duran. “People who walk around with cash are sometimes more conservative with how they invest and save,” he says.
Further investigation: Simply ask about his or her spending style in a non-confrontational way. Say something like: “I notice you use only cash to buy stuff. My best friend is like that, too, after someone stole her credit card.” Your date’s response should give you more insight if the explanation is that he only uses credit for emergencies or online purchases, or something like that. If it seems as if he ducks the question or gets defensive, your suspicions are probably warranted, says Spira.
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2. She orders the surf and turf
Some people are “superficial spenders” who like to give people the impression they are more successful or wealthy than they really are, says Duran. If you notice your prospective partner tends to overindulge despite not having a career that is likely to support that lifestyle, it could be a flag. Whether he drives an exotic car, or she’s dressed in designer items head to toe, it’s natural to wonder if every paycheck is going toward these splurges or if they’re carrying a lot of credit card debt, says Spira. Or worse — that your date’s expensive taste is not something you can or want to keep up with.
Further investigation: If you otherwise enjoyed the person’s company, a second or third date should help reveal if there’s a pattern of overspending to be concerned about, or if she is just trying to make a good first impression. Going forward, take note if she talks about impulsive buys she just “had to have,” or if she chooses expensive places to eat for no particular occasion. It might indicate a lack of a financial plan or impulse control if she is spending without a lot of prior thought on things most people would have to plan for, says Bossler. You may just want to come out and ask (in a lighthearted way) how she manages to afford such splurges. If her answer is a bit too carefree for your taste, consider yourself warned
3. He claims he’s too broke to go out again
If you seem to hit it off with someone who keeps mentioning money woes as a reason not to get together, it’s only natural to be on high alert (or just wonder if they’re just not into you). “It could be a sign of a tight monthly budget or a lack of discretionary income,” says Bossler. The more important question is why?
Being a careful spender could be a great quality if the person is saving up for something, or being diligent about paying off a school loans, she says. On the other hand, if that person also puts off important things such as repairing his car or seeing a dentist, that could signal a deeper problem, Bossler explains.
Take note if your gut tells you that your date is hiding a serious financial struggle. That’s what happened to Donna LaBella of New Jersey when she discovered that a potential new flame, close to age 40, was living at home with his parents. “He tried to play it off like it was a basement apartment, but when we were chatting, it came out that there was no kitchen or bathroom. So really, his bedroom was just in the basement,” she says. Although he claimed it was temporary until he was back on his feet after a job loss, the idea that he wasn’t financially independent sent her running.
Further investigation: While you don’t want to probe too much after just a date or two, you can try suggesting activities in a few different price ranges to get a sense of what the other person feels financially comfortable with, says Spira. He might show some relief that you’re OK with grabbing a coffee and seeing a matinee movie, rather than the more expensive dinner and club night. If you’re into the person, find things to do together that are inexpensive, such as attending a free concert or an art gallery, until things improve. Of course, if the temporary slump is revealed to be more of a chronic condition, it’s probably best to steer clear.
4. She has a wallet full of credit cards
If your date’s wallet is bulging with credit cards and you notice different ones being used in lieu of cash, even for small purchases, it could be a concern. “It might mean she is carrying balances on multiple cards,” warns Bossler. Or, it could be that your date is a savvy credit user trying to rack up points and rewards.
Those are two very different scenarios, of course, so do some further exploration. Does she often use the excuse of not having cash to get out of paying for things? Did you notice any elite credit cards in the mix, which would indicate that your date probably has a strong credit score?
Further investigation: Plan to go Dutch for lunch, suggests Duran, and see what happens. Does she put the whole purchase on credit and take the cash from you? If so, come right out and say something like: “I notice you put everything on credit. Are you trying to earn points?” Her comfort level with the question should indicate if there’s a debt problem (if she gets defensive or nervous), or if she’s just very savvy (if she goes on to boast about her rewards).
5. His tipping style is way different than yours
This one is more about compatibility than it is about financial dysfunction, but being on the same page counts. “If you witness someone under-tipping or calculating the tip to the penny, that could mean he is careful with his money, has money troubles, or is very cautious and conservative with finances,” says Bossler. And over-tipping could indicate that the person is generous, trying to impress you or is just carefree with money. The real question is whether or not it’s a behavior you’re OK with.
Further investigation: “If his generosity level is different than your own, it could potentially be a huge issue in the future,” says Duran, and it goes beyond tipping. Be observant about the type of birthday gifts he says he buys for others, or how he reacts to his niece texting him about ordering Girl Scout cookies (is he annoyed, or does he go in for 12 boxes?), says Duran. If you’re on the same page — whether it’s leaning toward overly generous or penny-pinching — it will save you a lot of bickering over spending styles if things progress. If you’re out of sync, be prepared to do a lot or compromising or break it off now. Otherwise, you’ll feud over everything from how much to spend on wedding flowers to whether Netflix is a waste of money.
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6. She complains about money
Money matters do tend to come up in general conversation and can be full of clues. If your date seems to have a negative response to finances in general, it could be an indication of current or past financial troubles, says Bossler.
Lynn Joyce of Brooklyn, New York, says she deleted one guy’s number after he went on a rant about how much child support he pays. “As a single mom, I can tell you that he was not paying very much compared to what it costs to raise a child. It showed me that he was either unable to manage his money, or worse — a deadbeat dad. Either way, we’d be incompatible because I believe your children should always come first,” she says.
Other examples might be if your date regularly remarks about the high prices on a dinner menu, or blames financial woes on other people.
Further investigation: If the other person has a strong reaction to something money-related, keep the conversation going to find out where the negativity is coming from. After all, if she brings it up, it’s fair game. Try commiserating to see if it gets the person to open up: “I know money can be tight after the holidays” or “It took me a couple of months to catch my breath after I was laid off.” If the glass-half-empty approach still brings you down after learning more, take it as a sign to move on.
Beyond the clues above, here are some other ways to get a feel for your date’s finances:
- First, keep your own situation in context. “Make sure you’re not taking your own biases and reading into the tea leaves,” says Duran. It’s easy in the early stages with limited facts to fill in gaps on your own, but try to keep an open mind before making concrete assumptions, he says. For instance, you might spot a past due notice on his kitchen counter, but it could be for an erroneous charge he is in the process of disputing as opposed to missed payments.
- Use the phantom friend. Duran recommends using hypothetical situations to break the money-talk ice. You could say something like: “I’ve got a friend who hasn’t paid her bills for three months in a row. I’m not sure if I should offer to help.” See how your squeeze reacts to gauge his or her thoughts on lending money or financial troubles in general.
- Ask clever questions. Spira says she likes to ask about vacationing. “‘Where’s your favorite vacation spot?’ is the perfect question to figure out what the person usually spends on vacations,” she says. Whether it’s flying first-class to Europe or taking a weekend drive to the mountains. keep the conversation going and ask if he got a good deal, or how long it took to save up. If he says he is still paying off last year’s trip, then you’ll know that budgeting and avoiding carrying debt is not high on his agenda. But if he says he either has the cash or saved up for the trip — or paid it off in a couple months, then you know you’ve landed someone who can budget and lives within his means.
While none of these money clues are necessarily relationship deal breakers, spotting them early on will help you avoid any major money surprises if things progress. Says Spira, “Then if you decide to get serious, you will have to sit down and have the big money talk.”