Seven years ago, I started dating this guy I was crazy about.
We had the best conversations, he was cynical in all the ways I was cynical, and we were on the same page with just about everything.
It was easy.
Eventually, we started alternating between his apartment in Los Feliz and mine in West Hollywood, waking up on Saturdays to have coffee together.
I’d never shared my morning coffee ritual with another person, but this was nice.
Things were getting serious.
One morning, he said he needed to talk to me about something.
Uh oh, I thought.
Here it comes.
“Listen,” he said.
And I took a deep breath.
“Your coffee is horrible.”
Apparently, my freeze-dried Folgers wasn’t enough for the guy.
He had to have the good stuff.
Peet’s or Coffee Bean or Starbucks.
“Starbucks?” I asked. “Who do you think you are, Richard Branson?”
Growing up, my parents never bought Starbucks.
We never had fancy, brand-name anything.
So when I became an adult, I bought the same stuff I grew up with.
Folgers. Hydrox. Great Value.
These were my brands.
I idealized frugality so much that drinking Starbucks was almost an embarrassment.
Yet here I was, dating a Starbucks guy.
Not only that, he spent money on things like HBO and luxury denim.
If I’m not painting the picture clearly enough for you here, I’ll just say it: I was a cheapskate in love with a spender.
It was like Suze Orman version of Romeo and Juliet.
At that point, I had never given much thought about mixing money and relationships.
It wasn’t just about the spending.
Brian and I approached money in wildly different ways.
I was the kind of person who would drive out of her way for slightly cheaper gas or shop at multiple stores just to save a few bucks with coupons, my precious coupons.
Brian, on the other hand, was in debt.
His credit was awful.
He bought whatever he wanted at the expense of his own financial stability and didn’t seem to give it much thought.
We were similar in so many ways that mattered, just not financially.
So imagine my surprise when, seven years later, my now-husband says things like, “We spend way too much on coffee, let’s try not to waste so much of it.”
He still refuses to drink Folgers, but the point is, he mindfully spends on his fancy name brand crap.
More important, he has an emergency fund.
And a retirement account that he maxes out every year!
His credit score?
Better than mine.
I’ll explain how we got here, but first…
Seven years ago, a lot of financial experts would probably have told me to run.
I can just see Suze shaking her finger at me: Honey, debt is a deal-breaker! Fall in love with someone with better credit and better financial habits, they tell you.
And while that sounds ridiculous, it’s fair advice, I suppose, because money is linked to all sorts of problems in a relationship.
On the other hand, maybe money is more a symptom than a cause of relationship issues.
When my husband got better at money, we didn’t automatically have a perfect marriage.
We still have the same issues many other couples do.
Our issues just manifest themselves in other areas.
Survey after survey shows that money is a top predictor of divorce.
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Money is the number one topic couples argue about.
But perhaps these polls don’t paint a full picture: money may not be the cause of the problem, it’s just an incredibly easy thing to argue about.
(I mean, I fight with myself about money all the time. Treat yo’self Kristin. No, don’t do it! Live a little, c’mon.)
Not being on the same financial page can surely cause stress, but if your spouse is, for example, hiding purchases from you, is that really a money issue?
Or is it a matter of trust or compulsive behaviour?
Earning more money and learning how to spend better isn’t going to put an end to the fact that your spouse is compelled to hide shit from you.
We personal finance geeks are always touting this, yet we advocate breaking up with someone who might not know how to properly use that tool.
That seems a little harsh, no? I find it hard to stomach the advice that, if you’re compatible with someone in every other way, you should dump them if their credit score is below 650.
Imagine finding your ideal match, a person that checks every box in every way and makes you actually believe in the concept of soulmates, then breaking up with them.
“Oh my god, what happened?!” your best friend asks.
“His debt to income ratio was 37 percent,” you tell her.
But a terrible credit score is a red flag, one might argue, that someone doesn’t have their shit together and is wandering through life aimlessly without any ambitions.
And perhaps that’s true.
Or perhaps, like so many people, that person finds personal finance and the credit scoring system completely confounding and intimidating.
Maybe they just haven’t figured it out yet.
On the other hand, money causes stress, and marriage can already be stressful.
Bringing massive debt into the situation can cause resentment, which then leads to a whole host of other problems: you want to buy a house, but your spouse’s credit sucks, so you can’t, for example.
It’s easy to see how a fight might erupt.
So while money problems might not ultimately be the reason things don’t work out, they do add pressure.
If nothing else, you have to know what you’re getting into, which is why it’s not just important to talk about money before your relationship gets serious — it’s crucial if you want to give that relationship a fighting chance.
It’s hard to have your own financial life in order and date someone who doesn’t.
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a struggle. It was a master class in patience.
However, if I’m being honest, I probably would not have said yes to marriage if we couldn’t get on the same page about money eventually.
Money might be the easiest thing to fight about, and your problems might still manifest themselves in other ways, but why give your relationship added challenges?
For me, the answer to the above was one that makes my inner cynic’s skin crawl: I just really f*cking love my husband.
The challenge of getting on the same page financially (before we committed to each other forever), was worth it.
We had to deal with that challenge together.
Part of what made me fall in love with Brian is that he has firm opinions, yet still keeps an open mind.
He has a clear idea of his identity but is willing to evolve, too.
It’s not always easy, but he listens and considers the fact that everything he knows might be wrong.
These are traits that I aspire to myself.
Over the years, Brian started tending to his money much more carefully.
I asked him what changed, what helped more than anything in turning his finances around so that we ended up on the same page.
Here’s what he told me:
- Exposure to money advice: “You’d always send me stuff you wrote about money,” he said. Okay, I had a leg up in this department. I’m a personal finance writer, and I often ask my husband to proofread my stuff. He was bound to pick something up in those articles.
But in any healthy relationship, you should be able to share ideas with each other that are important to you, and the other person should be receptive to those ideas, even if you don’t write about them for a living.
- Coming up with clear goals: My husband is an ambitious person, but years ago, he wasn’t entirely sure, specifically, what he wanted to do with his life.
So we started talking about our goals. “I would love to go to England,” he said. “I would love to buy a house someday.” These things cost money.
So when he established these goals, he naturally started to care about money a little more, since money is a tool you use to reach those goals.
- Feeling a sense of control: “When I started making more money and I got out of debt, I started to feel like I actually had some control over things,” my husband told me recently. And the more empowered he felt, the better he got at personal finance.
This empowerment started with tiny actions: paying off a small debt, asking for a raise, working on his credit score.
Those small wins gave him a sense of power, and before I knew it, the guy who wanted to go to Target every weekend was telling me we need to cut back on our frivolous spending.
This all sounds great, but the truth is, despite being on the same financial page, we still fight about money!
Most couples don’t agree on everything. (Ever met a couple who agrees on absolutely everything? I mean, they’re kind of creepy.
They’re the same couples who wear matching outfits and say things like, “we’re really into hot yoga right now.”)
While Brian and I still occasionally fight about money, I find it’s less about how much we’ve spent on restaurants that month and more about bigger relationship issues: communication, respect, intimacy.
Before we got married, I asked every married couple I knew to share their secret to a lasting marriage.
They all pretty much said the same thing: marriage is work, and you have to be willing to do the work.
You get on the same page with money, you find yourself arguing about something else.
Something else will always force you to deal with the ongoing challenge that is sharing a life with someone, especially if you’re fiercely independent.
But you love them, and you love sharing your life with them, so you’re willing to do the work.
If it were the opposite and Brian refused to acknowledge his faults and barked at me for bringing them up, things would have been different.
Yes, I probably would have run — not because of his lackluster credit but because I can’t see myself marrying someone like that.
But I chose to marry a person who is receptive to feedback, willing to accept help, and who respects and supports things that matter to me.
To me, those traits are way more desirable than a solid 850 FICO.