When to Tell Your Sweetheart About Your Money Problems

US News

It's a question that comes up for anyone in a new relationship with the misfortune of having nothing resembling a fortune: If you're dating someone and you have money problems, when should you bring it up?

After all, if you two eventually marry, your credit card debt, unpaid tax bill and the lien on your house will be your partner's headache as well.

Should you tell all on the first date? Or say nothing until you're both head over heels in love and then casually mention you have some baggage -- the kind that comes with an expensive price tag?

There is no right or wrong answer, of course, but here's advice from some experts in the dating and financial worlds.

[Read: Finding Romance in Retail.]

Don't say anything on the first date. Every expert interviewed for this article said something similar when asked if people should share their pitiful credit score or financial troubles on a first date: "Can you say buzzkill?" asks Susan Bruno, a Stamford, Conn., financial planner and member of the National CPA Financial Literacy Commission.

Emily Fry, a dating expert with the matchmaking site itsjustlunch.com adds that she wouldn't recommend discussing money problems on the second date either -- or the third. "Money is a deeply personal issue for most people," she says, "and there is a time and place to discuss it with the person you're dating."

While it may feel wrong not to say something about your money problems, especially if your goal is marriage, "Everyone has skeletons in their closet -- family dysfunction, crazy exes, finances," Fry says. "Some relationships will get to the point where it is time to share these with your partner, but it shouldn't happen too soon. You have to get the person invested in you before you let those cats out of the bag. You have to show them your best qualities and attributes before they find out you're not perfect."

What about people who meet online and exchange a barrage of emails, photos and phone calls before ever going on a first date? Should you bring it up then, if you're revealing virtually everything else?

"I'd wait," says John Stonehill, who pens the dating advice blog, checktheirfridge.com, which is based on the premise that everything you need to know about your date is in their refrigerator.

That's assuming you both live in the same area and will meet sooner or later. "If the relationship itself is an online relationship, you live in different cities and most of your courtship will be done online -- meaning you might be committed before even going on a 'first date' -- then in that case, both of you need to be upfront about everything," Stonehill advises.

Still, don't wait too long. "It must be early on. Definitely in the first month. It's still during what I call the 'test drive' phase of the relationship and before you sign 'the lease' to become boyfriend-girlfriend," Stonehill says.

Of course, this assumes the two of you are going on a lot of dates in the first month. Some relationships unfold more slowly. Just use common sense.

"I think most people know when it is the right time," Fry says. "Perhaps it's when your boyfriend or girlfriend is sharing private things about themselves with you over a glass of wine, talking late into the night."

But don't hide it, either. For one thing, you probably can't. As Laurel House, a Los Angeles-based dating coach and spokeswoman for the online dating site ayi.com, says, "You can gather a lot of information about who you're dating without having the money conversation, in just seeing how the other spends and paying attention to their stresses. If he's trying to take you out to places that are inexpensive or asking if you're going to split the bill, that might tell you something, regardless of the Porsche he is driving."

But the main reason not to conceal your money troubles, House adds, is that "so much of falling in love is being vulnerable and honest with your partner. If you're shady and hiding things about you, you're not being your true self, and you're not going to have an authentic relationship."

If it makes you feel any better, House says, "The reality these days is that a lot of people owe money -- student loans, a mortgage -- why doesn't that count? People owe money everywhere. It's sort of expected and more accepted."

Context matters. Once you do say something, offer up the details, House urges. If you have $60,000 in credit card debt, explain why -- you started an animal shelter and went broke, for example, or maybe you have a gambling problem.

"So it's not a surprise at the end of the day, you're letting them know, 'This is what you're getting, sweetheart,'" House says.

[Read: 6 Tips for Tackling Debt as a Couple.]

If you're the one dating a money pit. Now that it's all out in the open -- phew -- your partner may feel better, but you probably feel worse. It's time to consider how much of his or her money problems are going to become yours, Fry says.

"For instance, are his wages being garnished?" Fry asks. "Or does he simply have student loans that cost him $600 a month for the next 15 years? Is she just not good with managing her money, or does she have a gambling problem? You also have to decide what's really important to you. Do you want someone wealthy, or do want to know you are with someone you can count on no matter what? In many cases, those are two different things."

Leonard Wright, a certified public accountant in San Diego, echoes those thoughts. "It's not the debt that is the issue, it's how someone got there," he says.

Gilda Carle, a relationship expert in New York City, likens your special someone's money woes to their past love life. "When you take on a sex partner, you take on all the sex partners before you. Do you want to inherit your new partner's ex's debts?"

But Carle says you shouldn't necessarily run if you're told about financial problems. You first need to process the information.

"If you trust that your potential partner is a good earner and is responsible with money, there may be an eventual end to his or her debt problems," Carle says. "Then again, if the two of you marry, his or her debt will become your debt."

[See: 12 Money Mistakes Almost Everyone Makes.]

Honesty is the best policy. However you broach the topic, "Don't spring it on him or her at the rehearsal dinner," Bruno quips. If you're waiting to break the news, however, she advises making a committed effort to clean up your financial mess so you can show that things are progressing in the right direction.

It's better to say something sooner rather than later to establish good communication with your future partner, House says.

Besides, as anyone who has been in a long-term relationship already knows, if you can't talk about money problems with your significant other now, it isn't going to get any easier.

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