6 tips for talking about finances while dating

While money talk isn’t exactly casual first-date banter, it’s still an important topic to discuss with potential partners.

By: Brienne Walsh

Millie, a content program about women and money, is licensed from Dotdash Meredith, publisher of Real Simple, InStyle, Investopedia, The Balance and more.

About a year after we first started dating and cohabitating, my now-husband and I had our first truly painful conversation about money.

“I can’t afford to keep on taking you out to dinner,” he told me in a car outside of our apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Then he started crying. What he didn’t tell me was that he had begun to dip into his savings account to pay for our dates. He was living beyond his means to take me out.

At the time, it felt like he was saying that he couldn’t keep on investing money in me, and I started crying too. But now that I’m 14 years into our relationship, I wish that we had avoided the whole emotional mess—and resulting miscommunication—by having a serious conversation about money earlier in our relationship.

“Not having those money conversations can lead to a misalignment of narrative,” says Cara Macksoud, the CEO of Money Habitudes. “If you don’t tell the actual story of why you’re making money decisions, you let the person you’re dating create their own story about why you do what you do.”

While a recent study found that 72% of Americans believe that serious money talks should happen before moving in together or a marriage proposal, only about one in three believe that it’s appropriate to have such conversations in the early stages of dating.

But doing so can save a lot of future heartbreak. Below are tips on how to approach talking about money with someone you’re dating.

  1. Money values: Understand your own beforehand

    Research shows that by age 7, money habits are already set in kids, who learn them from their parents and environments. And while you can change your behavior around money—for example, establishing a budgeting habit—it’s tougher to change your core values.

    For example, Ruthie Duran Deffley, a psychotherapist based in Savannah, Georgia, says maybe you already think that a “good” person is frugal and saves money. Or maybe you think life’s too short, so you might as well spend what you have while you have it.

    We might not know where or why we developed such beliefs: “The messages we receive about money as children are often nonverbal, and as a result, we don’t have the language we need to articulate them,” Macksoud says.

    But to have a healthy relationship—marriage is, after all, also a financial contract—it’s important to learn how to articulate yours.

    To learn what your money values are, start by using the resources on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s website.

  2. How to start a conversation: Keep it light and fun

    Just because money is a serious matter, conversations about it don’t have to be boring. To learn more about your date’s money values, start with playful questions like, “What was your favorite vacation as a kid?”

    “Someone who grew up skiing every weekend is going to have a very different attitude towards spending money compared to someone who drove an hour to visit their grandparents once a year,” says Erika Wasserman, the Miami, Florida-based CEO of Your Financial Therapist.

    Even a question as simple as, “I love your shirt, where did you get it?” can give you information on someone’s money values. For example, if they bought it secondhand, maybe they love a good bargain or simply don’t have a lot of extra money to splurge on more expensive clothing. Or if they mention the brand, maybe they like to spend on big ticket items. “Every story that someone tells us, there’s a big chance there is an underlying money conversation in there,” Macksoud says.

    Wasserman also says that it’s OK if the talks are a little bit awkward at first. After all, studies show that Americans would rather talk about politics and death than their finances. “Start small and build intimacy,” Wasserman recommends.

  3. Big money revelations: Choosing the right time to approach it

    Given that more than half of Americans never talked about money growing up, it’s no wonder that these talks can be incredibly stressful with someone you’re dating—especially when you’re asking about a sensitive subject like student loan debt or salaries.

    Still, there’s no wrong point in your relationship to have this conversation. “If you’re not having money conversations, then I believe you’re not really being intimate with each other,” Macksoud says.

    To make the conversation less painful, choose the right time, adds Deffley. “Don’t have the conversation if one of you is hungry, tired, in physical pain or stressed,” she says. “Find a time when you are both able to be fully present and can hold space for any discomfort.”

    Wasserman suggests a few easy tricks for making a difficult conversation less awkward. For example, do it in the car so you’re not making direct eye contact, she notes. Or sit back-to-back so that you’re touching each other but easing feelings of tension and anxiety.

  4. Be positive in your language

    It’s natural to feel a little off-kilter if someone you’re dating brags about how much money they make but won’t ever pick up the tab. Rather than react with anger or shock, notes Deffley, try to approach follow-up questions with curiosity. For example, say something like, “I notice that you never pick up the check, I wonder why that is?” As opposed to, “So you don’t pay for dates?” Studies find that using verbal cues that show empathy and authenticity is one of the most effective ways for calming potentially heated debates.

  5. It’s OK to take breaks

    Just because a conversation about money doesn’t go well at the outset doesn’t mean that it never will. Sometimes a partner will become visibly agitated—raising their voice, for example—during a money conversation. “If you notice someone is getting defensive, that’s a great time to take a break,” Deffley says. Regroup, gather your thoughts and approach the conversation again when both of you feel calm, she suggests.

  6. Look out for red flags

    Both Deffley and Wasserman agree that while some financial disclosures may be shocking—like six-figure credit card debt—it’s more shocking if the person you’re dating won’t talk about it. “If someone declares bankruptcy but doesn’t want to tell you why, that’s a big red flag,” says Wasserman.

    The reason? It’s okay to make mistakes in life, but as the adage goes, if you don’t learn from them, you’re liable to make them again. Even worse is if you won’t talk about them with someone you’re becoming intimately involved with. “You have money conversations with potential partners to increase connection and move forward toward a shared future,” Deffley says. If your partner won’t converse at all, the connection is stymied from the outset.

    “Everybody’s got their own financial journey,” adds Macksoud. “When you’re dating someone, you have to find out if you can get on that journey with them.”

Brienne Walsh is a writer based in Savannah, Georgia. She contributes to Forbes, Rangefinder and MarketWatch, among other publications.

Three things to do:

  1. Explore more ways to be smarter with your money.
  2. Learn how to plan for a vacation that’s actually within your budget.
  3. Discover some new ways to save money that you might not have thought about before.