How much is one entitled to know about their partner's finances?

And how much is none of their business?

Take the following (purely hypothetical, of course) example:

Let’s say that several years into a 6 year plus relationship (we are both in our early to mid 30s), it comes up that my girlfriend has a fair amount of debt. Up to that point, I had not payed any attention to her finances. I assumed she was doing pretty well, as I knew that she had worked many more years than me (I’ve taken fairly substantial portions of time in between jobs for traveling and other projects) and her jobs had always payed double or even triple what I had been paid. Plus, she seemed to think little of spending money. So, I was a bit surprised to find out she was in the red. But I wasn’t worried – whatever financial troubles she had gotten into would doubtless soon end as her salary had recently been raised to six figures.

Except, whenever it came up (such as in discussions of future plans), the debt was still there. At this point, I’m puzzled, and starting to become a little worried.

Then – another raise. She is absolutely confident her debt will be vanquished within a year. Yet one year later, a conversation reveals that it has changed little.

This sort of thing goes on, with me becoming increasingly concerned. Now that I am paying attention, I notice other worrisome signs. I constantly wonder: we have plans of moving to areas where she certainly won’t be able to make as much money as she is now – how will she be able to live on less money? And how did she even end up in this situation to begin with?

The problem is, she is very reluctant to talk about it. A recent conversation about my concerns resulted in her admitting that she had spent money stupidly in the past. This was no surprise (people do plenty of foolish things in their youth); what was surprising was that she admitted this with the appearance of someone confessing that they had been molested or had committed some horrible crime in the past.

Clearly she is incredibly uncomfortable discussing this. Yet, I feel this is an issue that has the potential to seriously impact our relationship. Ignoring it seems crazy.

So, what I am asking is:

How much information on a topic like this is it reasonable to expect that a partner would share? At what point does one cross the line?

In a situation like this, I’m assuming you two have been together a while, I think you both should be honest and open. If you two are going to get married for example, your credit scores will merge. Heck, she’s a liability two getting a house you want if she has that much debt. Her finacial past could effect. I think she should just tell you how much.

I know this is isn’t the qustion your asking, but I wonder if she really has that much debt or just poor paying habits. It seems odd to me she said she could pay it off in a year and then she didn’t. Maybe she’s only making minium payments when she could be boosting them a bit. If I were you, I’d outright ask how much.

Hm. Boyfriend, is that you? :eek:

I’m not in exactly the same situation, but something similar - I’ve been living with credit card debt for a couple years now. It’s not a huge amount (couple grand USD) but because I didn’t really pay much attention to my finances until recently, I’ve never quite been able to get rid of it. A huge part of this is because I kept making close to minimum payments. Any time I made a dent in the debt, something would come up and it’d grow again. I’m not extravagant in my spending or anything like that - I was just never very smart when it came to handling finances and saving up money.

My current relationship has made me a lot more conscious about the future, so I’ve started to be more conscious about how I save and spend my money. Thanks to the advice of my boyfriend I’ve managed to pay off most of my debt and my credit card will be totally clear by next month. But like the OP’s girlfriend I felt incredibly uncomfortable talking about it, and very ashamed of myself - I just felt it was inexcusable that someone of my age, education, and background didn’t know how to handle her finances properly. But my boyfriend indulged my odd hang-up and was gentle with me, but he was also firm and persistent in pursuing the subject.

So while I completely understand where the girlfriend is coming from, it’s definitely not an issue to ignore, particularly if you’re in a serious relationship and considering a future together.

Depends on the level of commitment. When you’re married, everything. If you are living together, pretty much. If not, even long term, I don’t think there is an obligation to share finances - but it is nice, and open, and it had better happen before the next level is reached.

25 years or so ago I was stuck with doing United Way, and one of the other people involved objected to sending the fair share cards home, since he sure as hell didn’t want his wife to know how much money he made. :eek:

I think it totally depends on the couple, but that if people are planning to spend the rest of their lives together, they need to be able to talk about these issues. In your particular case, I’d say that you and your girlfriend must be able to find a way to talk about these things without guilt and recrimination. Finding a way to talk about it is vastly more important than any particular solution you come up with.

If you are serious about this relationship–if you want to grow old with this woman–you need to sit down and have a series of uncomfortable conversations until you can get to a place where you have a system. Vastly different attitudes and expectations about finances will eat away a relationship as surely as vastly different attitudes about sex or religion.

If the relationship is heading towards marriage, or living together with shared property such as a house, car, etc., I think it is reasonable for each partner to understand the other’s financial state. After all, you wouldn’t buy a house with another person as an investment without doing some research into his ability to pay his share, why would it be different for a spouse/partner?

I think the moment you start sharing your finances (or plan to start sharing your finances), you should be completely open and honest about your financial situation.

I know some couples move in together but still keep their finances separate, and I’d say if that’s the arrangement, then your financial situation is your business. However, if you’re planning on a long-term relationship with someone, you should be willing to disclose this information.

The basic goal is to become one with each other. Being able to say anything to the other, and being totally open with each other, as transparent as possible. The rewards of oneness in Love are enormous.

As for finances, she is shutting her out of that area of her life, and just now exploring opening that up to you. It was good how you noticed how she brought it up, as someone who had committed a crime. Obviously there is guilt involved, and a desire on her part to unburden her soul. Treat it as such, that the crime is forgiven, that it’s OK to come out and talk about it. Reassure her that you will be there for her and will not criticize her and accept her where she is, which includes her + her problems(debts)

Thanks for the replies so far. There seems to be an agreement that it is important to be open and honest about your finances at this stage. Now the question I have is how open is open?

A little more detail so you can see where I am at:

I know how much her debt is and have known for several years. The thing that is making me concerned is that, no matter how much she makes, it doesn’t seem to change much. So this level of openness doesn’t seem to help much.

I am currently in between jobs pursuing some long planned projects. I saved up enough money to live off of that while not working. A little less than a year ago, I loaned her money while she relocated to a new job. Getting it back hasn’t occurred quite as smoothly as I would have thought (I am still sure that I will), which perhaps has reinforced that something needs to change – ie “I’m unemployed and loaning money to the person who makes over six figures?”

At this point I feel like serious problems lie ahead for us unless this is resolved. I can accept that she has gotten herself into a tight spot; it’s the day to day habits that concern me.

I think we need to sit down and go over exactly what she spends money on each month, then try to figure out a plan that she can stick to.

On one hand, I can see how that would seem controlling. After all, it is her money (at least most of it).

On the other hand, if things continue as they are, I see no way our plans together can work out. Not only in terms of differing opinions on how money is spent, but literally being able to survive during times when we have less money coming in.

I’ve never cared about a girlfriend’s money situation before, so I don’t feel that I am simply a controlling, micromanaging personality. But we’ve been together a damn long time, and I’d like to have a go at solving this before giving up on things altogether.

At the point at which she isn’t sharing finances with you, she isn’t your partner…she is your girlfriend.

People with casual relationships don’t need to share finances. People whose relationships have moved beyond casual do. At that point, finances become intertwined - even when you make an effort for them to be separate. i.e. if she can’t pay her rent because she overspent, you wouldn’t kick her out on the street - so you have a right to have a clue about her financial situation.

As the relationship gets more involved, so does the awareness of the other’s finances. If you are going to retire together, you need to know both are saving. If you are going to buy a house together, its a good idea to know what the bank will need to know before you sit down and say “$30k in credit card debt.”

Does that mean you need to know everything? No. A couple needs to define what is material. Material is probably not “I bought shoes today at Famous Footwear” Material might be “I charged a pair of $1,000 shoes I don’t know how I’ll pay off.” And material changes with the level of commitment in the relationship.

There is a trust component as well. My husband and I have mixed finances. He has no idea how much money is where. BUT, we are in the positive net worth area, so it isn’t a worrisome situation.

I typed my reply as you were typing yours.

At your point you need to sit down with her and say “this behavior is disturbing to me and I think serious problems are ahead unless this is resolved. You’ve tried several times on your own, and it doesn’t seem like its been too successful. Would you like my help? Would you like to see a financial counselor? Would you like to take a money management class?” She might benefit from Dave Ramsey’s book “Total Money Makeover.” (I’m not a huge Ramsey fan, but a LOT of people find his approach helpful).

It doesn’t seem odd to me because there’s an aspect of human nature I’ve observed in several different ways. I noticed it during a brief period of unemployment. It’s a strange kind of inertia.

During those few months of unemployment, my house was a MESS. Between job searches and pounding the pavement looking for work, I had hours upon hours of time at my disposal. So why was my house such a mess? Because I knew that I had a surplus of free time to clean up. There was no urgency, no need to set a time to clean up. Paradoxically, because I COULD clean up my house at any time, I didn’t because I was secure in the knowledge that I would be able to.
Yes, it was a really stupid way of thinking, however I have seen that flawed logic manifested in various ways in various people, and often financially. So secure in the knowledge that her new paycheck could now get her out of debt, my co-worker didn’t actively DO anything to free herself of that debt. She got enough money, so she said to herself: “Phew! I don’t have to worry about those payments anymore.” No longer desperate, she became uneasily comfortable with it just not changing, because “now she could manage.” So the debt was “managed”, not reduced. All the while frivolous spending increased.

While I think it’s a particularly unhelpful way to go about debt management, it doesn’t surprise me that someone who is able to pay off a debt, does not actually knuckle down and do it. There’s a certain amount of discipline that we seem to lack as a species sometimes in that grasshopper vs. ant kind of way.

At this point, I don’t think you are asking about how much information each person should have, I think you are asking “to what degree should spending decisions be made jointly?”.

If you want to spend the rest of your life with this woman (and it’s really not clear to me if that is the case), the answer may well be “most of them”, or “all of them outside a discretionary allowance” (which can be quite large) or something else equally strong. It isn’t about controlling one another–it’s about sharing a vision for your financial future, and coming to agree on the steps needed to get there.

. . . unless there is no budget, and those small material purchases prevent the rest of the finances from straightening out. Sometimes it’s those little things that add up to the ‘$1,000 shoes’ level of spending.

I’m in a totally different financial class than the OP’s girlfriend, but, as an example, a coffee and breakfast sandwich every morning, and maybe a snack or coffee later in the day can easily add up to $150-200 a month. If you’re trying to work down a debt, or build up savings, that kind of money can be extremely significant.

It’s all about having a budget and sticking with it. People can be very defensive about their spending habits, saving habits, debt, and income. There’s no ‘good’ way to bring it up if a person is not receptive to it, but at some point the two of you will have to sit down and talk about finances, and having a budget and a plan for saving is 100% reasonable.

I’m in a related situation right now, albeit on a much smaller financial scale. My girlfriend and I are thinking about moving in June into a place for just the two of us, and possibly out of town. The challenges are: pretty much any move will cost more in both rent and utilities than we spend now, and, more significantly, she doesn’t have a car. I’ve been driving her to work in the AM and she takes the bus home in the evening when I’m working, but if we were to move off of the bus line (which we’d like to), she’ll need her own transportation.

If we are moving, we only have three months left in our current place, but before we can move we need to at least figure out the car situation, as well as security deposit savings and so forth. However, whenever I bring anything money related up, she gets defensive/depressed. She feels, I think, that she should just be able to ‘make it all work’ and that talking about it with me and/or working out some budget stuff with me is somehow giving up independence and self-reliance. But, we can’t really make any changes until we do.

Anyway, sorry about the hijack. My point is, I guess, that if the two of you plan on doing anything financially together, even if it’s ‘independently’ together, like both paying money into the same apartment lease, then some amount of open financial communication is reasonable and required.

Different people have different levels of comfort with debt. I am only comfortable when I have zero debt. Most people will tell you that is unrealistic and they would be right. My wife, much like your GF apparently, is comfortable with quite a bit of credit card debt. Having no debt at all seems to make her fell like she is wasting an opportunity. She seems to have a limit on the debt she is willing to have at any point, it’s just not the limit (zero) I would have. So we compromise.

If your GF manages to run her finances without trouble then I don’t think the exact amount of debt is important. Sure, she could use her money more wisely, who couldn’t. You are talking about the numbers and that is enough I think. The important thing is to learn whether she is responsible with money, not whether she uses money exactly like you do.

I wish there was a name for this. It exactly describes my approach to … so many things.

One thing that comes to mind is, if you are willing, forgive her debt to you. the debt puts her in a continuous state of having that hang over her, which limits the conversation on the subject (she certainly doesn’t want to bring it up and I’m sure it’s a romance killer). Forgiving also shows her a glimmer of hope, that someone is on her side (someone who she can turn to), which may inspire her to get out of her other debts.

Part of her way out may be that needed first step, a true hand up that you can give her. You can also phrase it in a conditional way, like if she want to be totally open with her finances with you because she would like to change things for the better, you are willing to forgive and never bring up against her the money she borrowed.

Also realize that what you are looking ahead at can change dramatically as to who is the primary earner, some examples of medical issues, pregnancy, job loss can dramatically change things from what you are looking at. So focus on the here and now, and create a open and loving environment which fosters sharing, at which point you won’t have to ask how open is open, you both will just know and more importantly want to share. In this you both will learn to turn towards each other with other issues, instead of pulling back.

Also realize that things don’t always make sense, she has a illusion of being the primary earner by earning 6 figures, but it real terms it seems like you are that one who is providing.

I think once you get married, or committed to each other as partners for life, her debt is your debt too.

For my wife and I, this is how we handle the money and debt (this works for us, but might not for anyone else): We each have private checking accounts that our paychecks get dumped into.

We each keep some money in our private accounts and then move the rest into our joint accounts. I keep enough in my private checking account to cover itunes, computer games, and other crap I don’t need, but that I want. My wife keeps enough money for her crap and for her student loans. Once the money is in the joint accounts it is "our’ money and neither of us can use it without consulting with the other. For private purchases, we consult with one another for anything over $1,000ish. If either of us hit a rough patch, it’s understood that the other will pick up the financial slack, but the one on the dole better cut back on his/her casaul purchases until s/he has returned to gainful employment.

When we first started living together, I had some debt, but I made a concerted effort to get that paid off while still meeting my half of the bills. There was some stress in early days when I didn’t have disposable income for stuff she wanted to do, but that was years ago now.

There it is, madmonk28’s guide to financial bliss in a marriage.

I would suggest that if you are considering marriage (which you haven’t said you are, yet), you BOTH need to sit down and discuss finances with full disclosure. Once you’re married, finances become a joint problem. Differences over how to spend and save are MAJOR stressors in any relationship.

Michelle Singletary frequently writes on this very topic - noodle around the Washington Post website and her own website and you should be able to find columns and chats dealing with this sort of issue.

This is pretty much it. It depends on the legal status of the realtionship. If you’re married, then you are liable for each other’s debts and have a right to know everything. Before marriage, you aren’t technically entitled to know anything, though it would be unethical not to disclose one’s situation before marriage.

It is possible to keep everything separate after you’re married.

There are drawbacks, of course, but at least for me, keeping separate is absolutely necessary for my peace of mind.

(and yes, there is a backstory to this I’m not comfortable discussing in a public forum. I’m just saying that it IS possible.)