During my financial “hot mess” years, one of the first-date conversations that I always avoided was talking about my debt. At the time, I had no idea how I was going manage my financial chaos, which included some substantial student loans. Instead, I would dodge and demure, order a stiff drink, and hope that my date would forget about the money conversation.
As if dating wasn’t painful enough, those of us with financial skeletons in our closet are on high alert about when to have “the talk”—not the one about where the relationship is going, but the one about life-altering debt. We can get so wrapped up in creating a façade of financial wellness, that we may forget that our dates are sentient beings able to piece together context clues, like always suggesting going to happy hour versus dinner, or pretending you took your weekend gig as an Uber driver just because you’re a “people person.”
This is silly for a few reasons, but the biggest one is that it’s quite possible your love at first sight has some student loan debt of their own. According to Student Loan Hero, over 44 million Americans carry student loans and the average balance owed is $39,400. That debt doesn’t account for other expenses that the average person is managing, which may include a new car loan averaging $31,099, and credit card balances of around $15,983 according to Nerd Wallet’s 2017 Household Credit Card Debt Study, not to mention housing costs and food.
I decided to reach out to some experts to get some insight on how not to scare away your new boo once you finally decide to get financially naked.
Dr. Ramani Durvasula, licensed clinical psychologist and author of Should I Stay or Should I Go?, dropped some wisdom about how new couples can navigate tough topics like finances. First, she told me that “student loan debt tends to be a more transparent type of debt.” Basically, if you attended Yale (almost $73,000 a year including the cost of room and board) vs. an in-state school such as the University of Colorado at Boulder ($28,750 a year also including room, board, and books), your new partner may wondering how you paid for it.
It’s a reasonable thing to question as student loan debt has the possibility of “impacting the aspirations of one or both people in the relationship,” said Durvasula. An Ivy League pedigree might suggest a mountain of debt to a potential partner, souring them before you get the chance to share your latest Sallie Mae statement. So, while it’s not exactly sexy, you may want to confess your debt issues, and highlight any positive steps you’re taking to address it, early on.
“It’s easy to get caught up in a (romantic) story,” said Durvasula, while avoiding asking all of the hard questions. And, asking about your new love’s financial health is a conversation that every couple should eventually have. Remember, as ashamed as you might feel about your own money issues, your one true love may have their own debt to deal with, which will either further your belief that you’re fated to be together or send you running for the door.
Eric Rosenberg, founder of Personal Profitability, a personal finance site focused on helping millennials grow their wealth, broke it down like this: “Depending on how they treat their finances they could have their student loans under control. But, it could also be something that holds them back from major life milestones like paying for a wedding or buying a home.”
To avoid a bad date or an even worse relationship, make preparing for these money questions part of your pre-date ritual. Ask yourself what actions you’re taking to pay down debt so that you can communicate your financial health clearly. Prepare some questions along the same theme that you’d want to know about your date. You may not discuss these topics on your first few dates, but they’ll help you keep your financial future in mind as you get swept off your feet.
After you both come clean, don’t think the awkwardness is over. Instead, you’ll want to dive deep into how your financial situation meshes with your partner’s and vice versa. If your new boyfriend or girlfriend has spent years cleaning up their finances and saving money, and you roll up with $40,000 in debt and no plan, your new lover may have some (well-founded) anxiety about how your financial situation will impact the lifestyle they worked so hard to afford.
If you’re both on the same page—financially and otherwise—you may one day move in together. At this point it’s even more crucial to maintain financial transparency and act as a team working toward large financial goals like buying a home, going back to school, or throwing yourselves a dream wedding. Durvasula recommends creating a budget together and scheduling regular financial meetings to track spending and progress. I recommend scheduling some time for a little loving afterward to help you look forward to your budget date.
Rosenberg says, “Wherever you are in your relationship, it’s important to have open dialogue and be honest about your own situation. And, it’s reasonable that you would want to know about the other person’s situation.”
After I confronted my finances and began working my financial plan, I felt a lot more comfortable with the idea of dating with debt. I no longer worried about how to answer money questions because I spent a lot of time getting clear on what my financial big picture looked like, the debt that I had to pay off, and my goals for the future. Because I blog about personal finance now, it’s very easy for me to have money conversations that I used to feel shy about having.
Dating can still be a bit unnerving and I continue to be annoyed by the ridiculous complexity of meeting someone new. But, when I finally do find that special someone, I will feel like an equal financial partner. And, I will be comfortable with explaining how I’m tackling my student loans so that I (hopefully) don’t get ghosted after suggesting we meet for happy hour instead of dinner, again.