Last Updated Jul 27, 2010 10:41 AM EDT
A young friend of mine just revealed to me that - although her husband earned well over six figures when they first met, and twice as much as she earned - she had a far better credit score and more in savings. "His credit score was in the 500s and he had about $7,000 to his name," she told me.
"We had to buy our first house with just my name on the mortgage. His credit just wasn't good enough."
Even though they've "worked things out," she says, looking back she wishes the two of them had a more serious money talk earlier in the relationship.
Before getting married, few couples ever really disclose their financial realities - or their skeletons. A recent online survey found only 24 percent of couples created a budget before walking down the aisle. Nineteen percent avoided or didn't think of talking finances, and 33 percent didn't know their spouse's credit score.
If you've been dating - and think things could turn serious - but have yet to broach the topic of money, it's time to start. Here are my four financial ice breakers to help you learn more about your steady's financial picture.
1. Share Horror Stories
Ask, "Ever get hounded by a collection agency?" Chances are you've both had some sort of money woes, so get a good laugh at your mistakes. But take notes: If your steady's horror stories are recurring, that might be a red flag. At some point, all couples should have a serious chat about their financial histories and current bank balance. Just lay it all out - because it's going to surface sooner or later.
2. Talk About College
A conversation about your college years (and college jobs, and parental involvement) may help reveal debt levels. If your relationship leads to marriage, you may need to work together to pay down debts and improve your credit scores.
3. Watch and Listen
Our behavior speaks volumes about our financial perspectives - so take good notes when you are out at dinner, shopping or talking charity. Does your date tend to use cash or plastic? Does he or she track spending at all? Good tipper or bad tipper? Generous or no? Does your partner talk about money so much it makes you want to scream? Or the opposite - which also makes you wonder.
4. Discuss Goals
This conversation unleashes your steady's financial prospects. Does one of you want to go back to school? Become a volunteer firefighter? Play PowerBall every week? Open a small business?
As your relationship gets more serious, review your future goals to gain a sense of how much money you may need to save/invest during marriage. Questions should include: How many children do we want? Do we want to send them to public or private school? Do we want to live in the city or the suburbs? Do we want a vacation home? Will your midlife crisis involve buying a Porsche?
More on MoneyWatch:
- Budget Worksheet: How to Spend Your Money
- Wedding Survival Guide
- Secret Credit Cards and Other Marriage Breakers
- Stop Fighting Over Money: 4 Talks to Have Before Marriage
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