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In early 2018, I had just finished paying off $65,000 worth of student loans by living frugally on scholarships and academic research stipends for five years. Newly debt-free, I was finally ready to start dating and thinking about my future.
But after all that hard work, I knew finding the right partner wouldn't be simple. Paying off debt had forced me to reach a new level of financial awareness. As I thought about dating, I imagined finding someone who was just as excited to talk about money as I now was. I was ready to translate all I had learned about budgeting and saving into long-term investments and plans for my future.
As I began meeting potential partners, I was worried: Would dating ruin my long-term financial plans? Fog up my financial clarity? Disrupt the budgeting habits I'd developed while paying off my loans?
Yet I knew this was non-negotiable: My future partner would have to be on board with my new debt-free lifestyle. But how was I going to talk about money and my plans in a way that didn't turn off my dates?
Without much of a plan, I went with what felt true to me — talk about money often and upfront. It was awkward, but I decided to risk it.
I had some dates who were taken aback by my blunt approach to finances, and I never heard from them again.
When I met my now-husband Brandon, we decided to go to a movie as our first date. He offered to pay for the movie tickets. Right away, I was conflicted.
On one hand, I was happy because he offered to pay. Since I'm frugal, I saw it as a free movie (win!). I was worried, though: What did he expect me to contribute? Would I have to pay for the next meal? The ambiguity left me concerned, and I didn't like either of us spending money on each other without a clear set of expectations.
To make it feel balanced, I offered to pay for the concession snacks (a fair exchange given the pricing). Brandon wasn't sure how to react to my forwardness. He insisted that it was OK and told me not to worry.
In the end, Brandon paid for the tickets, and I paid for the peanut M&Ms. I decided that establishing the precedent of equal contribution upfront was more important than going along with what we'd been socialized to see as normal (that the man should pay for everything).
To me, expecting him to pay for everything would put an unfair financial burden on Brandon, especially when we hadn't even talked about budgeting or income yet. The movie tickets vs. concession snacks negotiation was a small step, and I knew it would open the door for us to have more meaningful conversations down the road.
So I kept it light, but dug a little deeper: "Where do you like to eat? What do you enjoy doing?" These questions are very telling about a new partner's attitude toward money.
By the second date, we were focusing a bit more: "What do you want your life to look like? Or what are you looking forward to?" The answers to these questions revealed whether our future outlooks and desired lifestyles were compatible.
Then came the differences: I would never pay $100 for a piece of meat, and Brandon thought it was fine to pay top dollar for a luxury restaurant meal from time to time. I have never played a video game, so I could not relate to spending money on a gaming console — but Brandon could.
However, disagreeing wasn't a deal breaker, when we'd already agreed on so much.
Get on the same page as your partner with a couples budgeting app. Here are some of our favorites:
- Zeta: Juggle two different money personalities by customizing what partners see or hide. Track your budget and set up shared savings/spending goals.
- Honeyfi: Set shared savings goals, track individual and shared spending, and get notifications/balance updates so you both are stay in the loop.
- Honeydue: Collaborate on shared projects/goals and coordinate bills, while using the in-app messaging feature to let your partner know you're on top of it.
My most treasured memory of dating my now-husband came in the first month of being together: the "Debt Talk." It started as a regular conversation, but I had come with a mission — to get to know the specifics of Brandon's finances.
After a hilarious conversation (and considerable dodging), I learned that Brandon had over $35,000 in student loans. Combined with the $65,000 I had just paid off, we had taken out over $100,000 in student loans for our education. Did I really want to go back to being in debt?
While at first learning about Brandon's student loans was nerve-racking, I decided that making our relationship a safe space for money talk was the most important. Sharing our financial present was the only way to work toward a financial future.
At the end of this conversation, the loans no longer held shame. They were just something Brandon was working toward eliminating, and if we were to continue our relationship, they would become an area of focus.
But more importantly, I knew Brandon was my partner when he had an open and honest reaction to all of my money questions. In some ways, you could say that the "Debt Talk" brought us together.
Now, Brandon and I are willing to discuss anything money-related. It began with conversations about how much to spend on our engagement rings and wedding. These days, we discuss whether we should go to a steakhouse or Chick-fil-a, whether we want to cook on Sunday and then eat out Saturday, who's buying plane tickets when we go home to see our families, etc.
Talking about money with your partner might feel awkward at first, but I found it helped set a precedent for open and honest communication. These conversations now carry over into my marriage.
And, I'm happy to say we've paid off all of our student loan debt and are eagerly focused on the next steps in our financial future (investing, saving and becoming homeowners).
Breaking the stigma around "money talks" helped my partner and I communicate better, set expectations and build a stronger relationship. And even though Brandon still likes to treat me to dinner on our dates, I can happily accept because I know we've both got our long-term best interests in mind.