Advice about dating tends to be completely different when it’s coming from single, dating, married, or cohabiting people. I’m a married person, and both my husband and I had radically different values than our exes when it came to money. Everything I have to say about money comes from the perspective of someone who learned some very painful, very expensive lessons the hard way. I hope others can learn from my experience and finish the game with both love and money, instead of neither.
Money isn’t everything. That’s true, but it’s nice to find out for yourself. Being broke and in debt automatically restricts your pool of available partners. Broke, but debt-free, is an improvement that expands your options. Earning your own money in a job you enjoy and providing your own financial comfort puts you in a strong position. I have been in all three of those places. The money isn’t the only difference. The anxiety, dread, and stress of being broke and in debt can make it seem like you have an entirely different personality than the true self underneath. “Seriously stressed out” is not on anyone’s checklist of dream character traits in a love interest. The first boundary to set is an absolute limit on how close to the wire you will allow yourself to get. That shouldn’t be an amount of debt and it shouldn’t be zero. Your first boundary should be a warning signal that you’re getting close to your buffer and that it’s time to strategize.
An interlude: Boundaries are metaphors. Any boundary you set says “This is okay and that is not okay.” You have such boundaries for filling your gas tank, deciding whether you’re too sick to go in to work, or assessing whether a container of leftovers is too funky to eat. Set similar boundaries around money and around what kind of treatment you will accept from other people. Nobody but you can say what is okay or not okay for you and your life.
Money brings down more possible loves than anything else. It makes us fight. The divorce rate is high. We need to do whatever we can to give our love a chance. That means we have to agree on how to manage money, or at least how to talk about money. We also have to find a way to love each other without involving money any more than is necessary. One way to do that is to base our free time around things that don’t have a price tag, like laughing, talking, napping, and loads of sex. Another way is to earn equally, contribute equally, and keep all your bank accounts separate. Two people sharing expenses, strategizing and earning together, can live much more comfortably and become much wealthier as a team than they can apart. What this means is that money can either destroy us or exalt us.
I know a lot of highly eligible single men, many of whom are defeated perma-bachelors. One of the lovely things about men is that they will give straight answers to sincere questions. My habit of asking these questions is part of why my husband and I are together today. It’s also why I have some long-term platonic male friends who let me pick their brains. There are a lot of men out there who would love to settle down and raise a family, but they’ve kept meeting women who are deep in debt and have no retirement savings. Every decade you reach past age 40 makes this a bigger and bigger issue. To be with someone that broke, you’d have to double your retirement savings to cover both of you, and then you’d have to come up with an additional percentage to beat down your new partner’s debt so it doesn’t consume your nest egg. That might work, if you’re ambitious and you feel like she’s worth it, except that the prospective lady tends to come with a pattern of spending that is not sustainable. Expecting to wander through life whistling a happy tune while someone else follows behind you, paying for everything, is an exact parallel to being expected to cook and clean for a sloppy ingrate.
Women need to pay more attention to our financial well-being and retirement because we tend to outlive men. Even if we do marry well, plan well, and save a lot, we may live so much longer than we anticipated that the money runs out. It happened to one of my grandmothers and I’m watching it happen to the other right now. One was married; the other has been divorced since the 70s. We have to worry more about money, not because we might outlive the men we counted on to be the earners, but simply because we can anticipate being alive for at least five years longer than men. Perhaps we’ll live 15 or 30 years longer than we ever guessed we would.
I’ve said plenty about earning your own money, avoiding debt, and being responsible for paying your own way and providing for your own well-being. Now I’m going to get specific about setting boundaries with new loves.
Be responsible for yourself. Find out your FICO score and learn what you can do to improve it. Check your credit report for errors; they’re nearly universal and they’re free to fix. Just because it wasn’t your fault doesn’t mean it’s not your problem. If you have accounts in collection, steel yourself, pull up your socks, and call them to make arrangements. If you haven’t filed your taxes or you owe the IRS, call them to make arrangements. If you’re in debt, sit down with all your account statements and find out how much. Learn how to negotiate payment plans and better interest rates. Take a look at your earnings vs. expenses and make adjustments. If you have problems with compulsive acquisition, gambling, substance abuse, or just letting yourself get vague about money, work on it. Ask for help. Get it together now, because it’ll only be harder to try to get it together later.
Have your own bank accounts and keep them private. There is no reason why you ever need to expose your assets to another adult, whether you live together or are married or whatever. Of course, there shouldn’t be a double standard; don’t expect access to your partner’s finances. If you want a higher standard of living, go out and get a promotion. Have your own checking account, your own savings, your own 401(k), your own IRA, and your own secret stash of small bills for your go bag. If someone finds out the PIN on your debit or credit card, take it down to the bank and have it changed, cancel the card, or cancel the account. Do the same with your passwords on your Amazon, PayPal, or any other account someone else could use to buy things. If you wouldn’t tolerate it in a coworker, roommate, sibling, or your own child (and you shouldn’t), don’t tolerate it in a partner. What I’m talking about is stealing, and it’s surprising how many women stay with selfish partners who steal from them. I forgave my ex for spending our house fund behind my back, only for him to turn around and divorce me a few months later. If I hadn’t kept my own bank accounts, he’d have burned through my personal savings as well as our common account.
Educate yourself. After my divorce, I went to the public library and methodically read through every personal finance book on the shelf for the next several years. I followed two personal finance columnists online. When the crash of 2008 came, I broke even. (Actually I earned a quarter of a percent). My casual conversations with my work buddy about paying off my student loan led to the friendship that became my marriage. I asked him once what made him want to marry me, and he surprised me very much by saying, “Your frugality.” I educated myself about finance and cooking, rather than the supposedly feminine arts of hair, makeup, manicures, fashion, and shoes. That tradeoff is the reason I had a retirement account instead of credit card debt when I remarried. It’s also why I’m married to someone who values my intelligence and independence more than my appearance. We met right before my 30th birthday, and obviously I wasn’t going to look 30 forever.
Promote yourself to management. Chances are that you’re the smarter one when it comes to money. You might have more natural aptitude for balancing bank statements, tracking details, doing research, and intuitively sensing when you’re getting close to your budget. Samurai wore clothes without pockets because it was considered beneath their dignity to handle money; their wives did it. Imagine a samurai having to ask, “Honey, will you buy me some sword polish?” My mom is an accountant, and she taught me that being one penny off is a sign of a larger discrepancy. You can’t just throw a penny into a jar and move on; you have to do root cause analysis and find out where the accounts didn’t balance. Scrutiny is a super-power.
Observe your partner dispassionately. Passion can happen after you know who you’re dealing with. The excitement and infatuation of a new love interest are the opposite of how enduring married love works. You have to have trust and respect, and those are grown, slowly, like an oak tree. You don’t start with the oak and then whittle chunks of bark off it when you find out something unnerving about your partner. You start out with a tender little sapling and coax it upward with sunlight, water, and time. Sometimes you find out that oak sapling isn’t an oak at all, but a weed of some kind. Perhaps stinging nettle. Or poison oak.
You want to ask yourself, “What kind of person is this?” If it was a Pokemon, you’d want to identify it before trying to catch it. What is this person’s style? What kind of music does he like? Is he adventurous or comfort-loving? Is he a Stoic or a hedonist? Is he ambitious or relaxed? Is he curious or argumentative? Does he have old friends? New friends? No friends? Among all the other things you’re trying to learn about this new friend, a major one is how he deals with money. Does he have piles of unopened bills sticking out everywhere, such as on the floor of his car? Does he have roommates? Do they like him? Does he go out or party a lot? Does he insist on picking up the check, even when you suspect he can’t afford it? Is he detail-oriented? Does he throw coins around, on the coffee table or a shelf? Does he have cards declined? Do you know much about how he grew up, in what kind of neighborhood, whether his parents are still together? Will he open up to you, or does he get defensive or stonewall you when you try to talk to him? Are you easy to talk to?
People change as they get older. This is something that really shows up when you go to your 20th high school reunion. You see some of your old friends and acquaintances in responsible, successful careers, and remember how goofy they were when they were 14 or 15. A lot of the problems we get into with money are young people’s mistakes. We can spend ourselves into years of strain and heartache in just a few months. It’s the same with dating. We can get involved with someone, only to find after a horrible breakup that we’re in a totally different universe than we were two or three years earlier. We go in pink-cheeked and trusting as a little woodland creature, and we come out hollow-eyed, broke, fat, and unable to ever fully let go with anyone new. That’s why it’s better to set the financial boundaries before we give our hearts away. We can wait a little while, pass up a few lost causes, and hold out for someone who is equally aware, focused, and planning for a better future. Maybe that future will be a shared one.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.