Too Broke to Date? How to Handle Relationships and Money

As student loans and housing costs have risen over the past 15 years, you may have accumulated your fair share of additional financial baggage. Indeed, millennials are struggling to meet traditional markers of financial success.

Whether you are in debt or have an apartment you can’t really afford, you’re not alone. And, while you struggle to pay your bills and get ahead, you may not feel comfortable discussing your financial sitch with a new romantic partner.

Here’s the deal though—studies show that conflicts about money are related to divorce. While you may be far away from wedded bliss, learning to talk about money—the good, the bad and the ugly—with your romantic partner is a smart skill to practice. Here’s everything you need to know about how and when to share your financial truth.

Understand your money

If you don’t understand your own financial situation, it’s impossible to talk about money. Period. Because of this, the first step to discussing your financial status with a romantic partner is to make sure you know what you’re talking about. This doesn’t mean you need an MBA in finance, but it does mean that you need to understand the basics—including what’s on your bank account statements and credit card bills. You should also have at least a rough monthly budget and be able to stick to it. From here, you can then opt to make a few quick changes that will boost your confidence and your bank account balance. Here are 3 suggestions:

Step #1: Switch to a bank with no fees.

Step #2: Cut out unnecessary expenses (like subscriptions you never use).

Step #3: Track your spending and earnings.

The changes may feel minor, but being proactive with your finances is an important first step. Now it’s time to get clear about how you feel about money.

Own your emotional baggage

The more you understand about your own relationship with money, the easier it is to confidently talk about it with a new romantic partner.

For Jeff Proctor, a 28-year-old entrepreneur in Blacksburg, Virginia, it was his own self-doubt that made it difficult when he started dating his girlfriend more than two years ago.

“At the time, I was at a low point in my first attempt at entrepreneurship. My income was effectively zero. With business expenses mounting and my own personal cash reserves running dangerously low, it definitely had an effect on our relationship, but not in the way you might expect. We were both perfectly content with being frugal and not making fancy dates the norm, but what was hard for me was my own self-perception of being inferior,” says Proctor.

“My girlfriend was on a very upward career trajectory, so I almost felt like I had to hide my current lack of success. Since our relationship was so new, I was very self-conscious about that,” he recalls.

When you start dating someone new, you may be under pressure to impress that person. And, this can bring out your own internal insecurities. To help combat this, remember that trust is more important than perfection.

Honesty is key

When you feel self-conscious about something—student loans, debt, low income—it’s tempting to hide it, but that’s actually the worst thing you can do when you’re getting to know a new romantic partner.

Debbie Todd, CPA, and CEO at iCompass Compliance Solutions, LLC and 1 Hour Impact, says:  “Be honest with yourself about your real financial picture. Don’t ‘puff and bluff’ your way into seeming to be in better shape than you are. Pretending and lying only makes it worse.”

If you potentially see a future with someone you’re dating, it’s important to be honest because the truth will eventually come out, says Todd. With this in mind, it’s infinitely better to mention your financial baggage on the third date than to mention it three days before you’re getting married.

Here’s the deal: if a romantic partner is worth your time and energy, then he or she is going to be understanding about your financial situation. If not, you’re probably better off without that person.

“It sounds cliché, but you really do need someone who loves you for you, and doesn’t care about your financial situation…When I hit entrepreneurial rock bottom and had to go back and get a full-time job, my girlfriend still supported and believed in me,” says Proctor.

“Fast forward to now, and I am 100% full-time in my business and making more than I have ever made before,” he says.

If you’re doing the work—paying your debt, saving what you can, working hard at your job and taking positive financial steps—then you don’t have anything to be ashamed of. The right boyfriend or girlfriend will understand. The likelihood is that he or she also has some financial regrets to share with you.

Sooner is better than later

Disclosing your financial status to a new romantic partner is hard because it requires vulnerability. But the longer you delay the conversation, the harder it will become.

“[Disclosing your financial status] is probably not a topic for a first or second date, but if you both think the relationship has significant potential, then the ‘money talk’ should commence shortly after,” says Todd.

“One of the key reasons why relationships (and marriages) end is squarely pointed at money issues. You don’t have to be financially rich to be happy, but you do have to have a rock-solid foundation of trust, honesty and willingness to address major life areas of the relationship. Money is surely one of them,” she says.

Remember: there’s no set timeline for talking about money, but the rule of thumb is simple – sooner is better than later.

Bottom line

Money is complicated and everyone makes mistakes and has regrets. With this said, large student loans, credit card debt and other financial situations don’t define who you are as a person or who you are as a life partner.

Take time to review your finances and check-in with your emotions. After that, follow the advice here. Before you know it, you’ll be ready to take the plunge with your new love interest and come financially clean.

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