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Is the best Valentine's Day gift a great credit score?

by Peter Andrew

It's not just the CFO of Hallmark whose heart is likely to be beating a little faster at the prospect of Valentine's Day. In 2012, Time magazine reported that, each year, 10 percent of all marriage proposals are made on Feb. 14.

But if you're thinking of popping the question -- or deciding how to to respond if the question's popped -- you probably ought to give some thought to the love-of-your-life's financial circumstances. In a recent press release from Chase, psychologist and relationship expert Dr. Michelle Callahan observed:

Finances are one of the biggest reasons relationships fail. Being able to speak openly and honestly about finances will only make a relationship stronger, and what better day to take that next step than on Valentine's Day?

Shooting Cupid in the foot

Now, Dr. Michelle, is a professional relationship expert -- and life and dating coach -- who has under her belt an MA and PhD in psychology, along with a period as a National Institute of Mental Health Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Yale University. The person writing this article, on the other hand, has all the emotional intelligence of a comatose squid. And yet even he can suggest reasons why there are better times than Valentine's Day to raise the subject of money with the one with whom you hope to spend the rest of your life. To start with: It's Valentine's Day, for heaven's sake! It's all about romance, and there are 364 other days each year when you can talk about personal finance. You might as well make mandatory the enclosure of the sender's latest credit report in every Valentine's card.

Okay, it's a bit cheap to tease Dr. Michelle about one small aspect of her advice when her main message is clearly a useful one. The latest Chase Blueprint Valentine's Day Survey, a consumer poll, conducted in January, explored attitudes about relationships and money. Two-thirds of respondents agreed that finances should be discussed with significant others within three months of a relationship starting. A surprisingly high 30 percent believed they should be discussed "from day one," which sounds a touch creepy: "Here's my phone number." "Thanks. Can you just jot down your credit score too?"

Credit card debt? Let's talk

What happens if, when you finally have that conversation, it turns out you have significant credit card or other debt -- in this case, over $10,000 or more? There seem to be three likely outcomes:

  1. A whopping 74 percent of the survey's respondents said the only help they would provide their spouse/partner would be to sit down and have a conversation with him or her.
  2. Six percent said they would break up with their partner.
  3. Twenty-one percent claimed they would help pay down the debt.

Intriguingly, there was a significant gender gap within that last group. Only 8 percent of women said they'd chip in to bail out their partner, while 18 percent of men claimed they would. Somewhere, a grad student in a sociology or psychology department is even now reaching for a grant-application form.

Let's talk anyway

Within relationships, arguments about money are so common they're a cliché. And it's unlikely they can be eliminated. But they can be reduced if a couple starts to talk about money as soon casual dating turns into something more serious. Here are two key steps:

  1. To begin with, have easy, free-flowing chats about attitudes to debt, saving, home-buying, retirement planning and investing. Here, you're looking for common ground upon which to build a shared vision of the financial future the two of you might have together.
  2. In the period before a major commitment -- perhaps moving in together or getting engaged -- it can help to have an I'll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours session. Be warned: this may be less fun than the first time the two of you gave it a go. But it could be very important to your happiness. This time, you'll be exposing private assets (or liabilities): your bank, credit card, auto loan, brokerage and all other statements.

In themselves, these are two important but isolated steps toward a happier, more robust, more durable relationship. The trick is to build on them. You need to develop that shared vision of your financial future by continuing, throughout your time together, to identify and agree upon the ever-more detailed objectives that are likely to be the milestones on the path to your common dream. And you need to maintain openness and transparency over money matters so that neither of you can depart from that path without further discussions. In other words, you need to keep talking candidly about money.

Valentine's Day is for romance

But forget all that stuff this Valentine's Day. Focus on the romance. And remember the insightful (if, today, unnecessarily gender-specific) words of William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania:

In marriage do thou be wise: prefer the person before money, virtue before beauty, the mind before the body; then thou hast a wife, a friend, a companion, a second self.

Yes, do thou be wise, and on the 14th, celebrate everything wonderful about the one you love.

Published 02/11/13 (Modified 07/09/14)


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