Valentine’s Day may be all love and kisses, hearts and flowers, but don’t let Cupid and his little arrows blind you to reality. Romance is fun, but it’s money that matters.
Every couple that goes on a date Feb. 14 is full of hope: If it’s early in the dating stage, you may be hoping you’ve found a permanent match. If you’ve known each other for a while, you may be thinking about a bigger commitment. And if you’re already married, you can sit back and enjoy yourself. Right?
Not so fast, Romeo and Juliet. Each step of the way is an opportunity to find out if you are financially compatible. Money problems are the leading cause of divorce, so it pays to get those issues out of the way early.
In the spirit of the holiday that love built, but with a clear-eyed view of the bottom line, here are 6 ways to tell if your sweetie is your financial soulmate or a budget-busting bum.
The little things that crop up early in a relationship can tell you a lot about where you are on the financial compatibility scale. If your honey offers to pay her half of dinner, and that suits your style, it’s a good start.
“That indicates they can pay their way and they have a sense of what’s fair,” says Tina Tessina, a California psychotherapist who writes an online column as “Dr. Romance.”
If you go out to dinner and your date pays the tab, pay attention to how he or she treats the check when it comes. Manisha Thakor, CFA, co-author of “Get Financially Naked,” says that simple act says a lot about the way a person handles money.
“I always tell people to look for this all-important sign: When the bill comes, does your mate actually look at it before they put down their credit card?” Thakor says. “If they take a good look at it and make sure it’s accurate, that usually means they’re comfortable with money. If they just throw down their money and don’t even look, that could be a predictor of financial irresponsibility.”
Is she a really, really big spender? It’s important that the cost of the gift your date gives you matches what you know about his or her income, says Mindy Sitton-Halleck, a Seattle-based real estate agent and a contributor to the blog Romance & Money.
“If you’ve been together for a little while and you’re having a candlelight dinner, I would take a careful look at what the other person brings to the table,” Sitton-Halleck says. “If she buys you a Rolex, that would suggest she may not make good choices with her money, not to mention that she might be desperate. Or if he gives you 3 dozen roses instead of a single stem, that’s a big red flag … You want the man who brings the less expensive bouquet.”
Sitton-Halleck acknowledges that being level-headed when someone is trying to impress you is not easy.
“We all want to be swept off our feet by Prince Charming, but you have to ask, does the Prince really own that horse he came in on, or is he just leasing?”
Watch for the plastic, and ask about that credit score. Does your date have a wallet full of credit cards? That’s another red flag. Is he or she afraid to talk about it?
“Too many credit cards concerns me. That’s a sign someone may have some real issues with handling their money and paying their bills,” Sitton-Halleck says.
She advises couples to share something that many people treat as such a private matter, they don’t even talk about it when they’re married: their FICO score.
“My husband loves to tell this story. After our 3rd date, I told him there wouldn’t be a 4th date if I can’t see his credit report,” Sitton-Halleck says. “He said, ‘Sure, no problem.’ “
They’ve been married for 14 years, and they’re on the same page financially, which helps the relationship tremendously, Sitton-Halleck says.
“People want love so badly that they let themselves become naïve,” she says. “They put their heads in the sand and don’t have those high expectations that they should, and that could spell trouble down the road.”
If you go to your date’s place for dinner, pay attention to the surroundings. Thakor, the author and CFA, says you should be on the lookout for telltale signs of a spendthrift.
“In Texas they call it big hat, no cattle,” Thakor says. “When the person lives in an extravagant apartment in an expensive neighborhood, but it’s very sparsely furnished, you have to wonder what’s going on there. If they can’t afford to furnish the place where they live, you might wonder about how they prioritize their money.”
Can we talk? If you and your loved one haven’t had the big talk yet — the one that involves dollar signs — your romance may be doomed before it goes any further. Even early on in the relationship, openly talking about money is a healthy sign.
“In the early stages of a romance, you just want to winnow out the deadbeats,” Thakor says.
“After a while, you want to really talk about things. Couples need to figure out how they match up financially,” she says. “Just because he’s a big spender and you’re a big saver doesn’t mean you can’t be together, but it does mean you have some things to work on.
The long list of things you’ll want to discuss and sort out include retirement plans, health care, buying a house, starting a family and how you’re both going to handle all that together.
“Doesn’t sound all that romantic, does it? Thakor disagrees.
“The bigger buzz kill is divorce,” she says. “If you really care about this person, you should care enough to talk about these awkward issues. Money is the last taboo, but if you can settle those issues, you’re in good shape. My husband tells me he thinks our marriage is stronger because we talk about these issues and have no financial secrets.”