Most people don’t know about it until it’s too late.
Confident. Emotionally available. Honest. Funny. Affectionate. Everyone wants these traits in a partner. It’s like shopping for a car and telling the salesperson you want one with an engine. That’s a hard line place to start because you can’t go anywhere with an engineless car.
These are all noble traits that give us good reason to move ahead with a budding relationship. As we grow and learn about our partner, we start to sift through different traits that usually fall into one of two categories: Things we can live with or things we can’t live without.
Traits outside of these two areas are what usually become red flags or deal-breakers. Let’s take people who are rude to service people as an example. That is something I can’t live with and it certainly isn’t on my list of “must-haves.” I can’t with that.
Most traits are easy to look for and sift through with a few exceptions. One is a big deal to a lot of people but it feels awkward to verbalize it. It feels shallow. It feels judgmental. It’s this: financially irresponsibility in a long term partner is a huge red flag.
The reason it feels awkward to mention it is because we have been trained that any discussion of money is impolite. It’s like religion and politics and should be avoided at all costs.
When was the last time, though, you got to the point where you either considered moving in with someone, actually moved in with someone, or married someone and didn’t know what religion they were or how they voted in the last election?
At some point, being Jewish or a Libertarian is going to come up in conversation. Not having a conversation about financial responsibility is dangerous if the both of you and your money will be residing in the same place.
If the person you’re dating is someone you can see yourself spending an indefinite amount of time with, you need to have conversations about finances sooner as opposed to later.
There are a couple of reasons why this is so important but let’s acknowledge one thing. Not everyone’s financial woes are their own doing or were avoidable. It’s absolutely possible that a financially responsible person has fallen on hard times.
A major illness, a job loss, a divorce, the undoing of a previous partner’s unknown financial irresponsibility are all viable reasons a person may have been knocked off their feet. While having these conversations, give grace where appropriate.
I’m not here to give you a list of signs that you can look out for to tell you that you’re wading into a long-term commitment with a financially irresponsible person. I’m saying you just need to talk about finances. Period.
What we can address is how to start the conversation by looking at actual signs of financial irresponsibility.
How do they feel about borrowing money?
There’s nothing wrong with borrowing money. People who pay cash for everything are not the only financially responsible people in the world. However, borrowing beyond one’s means is a major sign of financial irresponsibility.
It’s not difficult to have a rough idea of what your partner makes even if you haven’t outright told each other. If your partner makes $40k and has burdened themselves with a $650 car payment, there might be some overextending going on. Do they borrow just what they need or do they borrow what they want?
Why this matters: Living outside of one’s means is the crux of understanding wants vs. needs. This is a basic philosophic concept you want to be in agreement together.
How likely are creditors going to give them money?
I can guarantee you the last place you want to find out that your partner has a 580 credit score is when you go to make a major purchase. Credit scores should be a priority for anyone. If your partner has a low score and is doing nothing to fix that, it’s a sign they don’t have the financial maturity to deal with money issues head-on. They have buried their head in the sand.
Why this matters: You are going to have to dig their head out of the sand. Credit scores can be fixed if you can get your basic philosophies in line. Your job is going to be teaching a grown adult how to do this. It will be hard work.
How do they feel about saving money?
Have the 401k conversation. It’s critical and absolutely appropriate if you are considering merging your life with someone else’s, to know what their saving plan is.
It’s astounding how little people have saved for retirement or even for an emergency. I understand some people just don’t have much to save. Not earning a lot of money is not a sign of irresponsibility. Having a monthly spend of $150 on new clothes, $150 on dinner and drinks out, and $150 on cable when you’re not saving anything is financially irresponsible.
Why this matters: If you merge your life with someone who doesn't save but you do, guess who will be paying the emergency bill? Worse yet, guess who is working years longer than they planned so that you both can retire? You need this info going in.
How do they feel about credit cards?
Credit cards are not the devil and can actually be useful in meeting financial goals. Cashback rewards can offset household costs or help pay extra on a mortgage. They can also lead to more blurring of the lines of want vs. need.
Does your partner see credit cards as a way to buy something they want now and pay for it later or do they see it as a tool to help build credit? You also want to know how much debt they are bringing into the relationship.
Why this matters: Credit card debt builds up fast and takes a long time to pay off. Spending years paying off unnecessary purchases will cost interest and delay other financial goals.
Do they have and stick to a budget?
Financially responsible people are disciplined. They know how much money is in their bank account and whether or not they can buy something they have their eye on. Spending money without having an idea of how much more you need to make it until the end of the month is not a safe practice and often results in overdraft fees, late fees, or dings against your credit.
Why this matters: If you partner up with someone who has no clue how to budget, you are automatically in charge of the finances. One person controlling the finances can cause resentment in both people.
These conversations are less fun the longer you wait to have them but they are critical. It’s no secret that one of the top issues most couples fight about is money. That is preventable.
You don’t have to make a big production about it. You can start a conversation about saving money without asking them how much they have in their bank account.
When you pass on buying something you can mention it doesn’t fit in your budget and see what the reaction is and talk from there. The first step in all of this is simply acknowledging the need for the discussion.
One thing that trumps the red flag of financial irresponsibility is the warning sign that’s flashing because you don’t feel comfortable talking about money with your partner. Get to it.