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To maintain 'a healthy relationship,' have 3 money conversations, says couples therapist

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Being candid about your finances with your significant other can be difficult, but experts say that open and honest communication about money is essential to a healthy relationship.

Yet many people in couples aren't transparent about their financial situation: Over 40% of U.S. adults have at some point committed a form of financial infidelity against their current spouse or partner, according to a 2020 CreditCards.com survey of 2,501 adults. Of those, 34% admit to spending more money than they feel their spouse or partner would be comfortable with, 17% to keeping a secret checking or savings account, and 12% to carrying some amount of secret debt.

Cynthia Borges-O'Dell, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Modesto, California, says that talking openly about your money with your partner can actually strengthen your relationship. "If there is open communication and transparency within the couple, financial issues should not be as challenging to discuss," she says. "Couples need to work on shifting their mindset from 'single' to 'couple,' and if they are truly committed to having a healthy relationship, open communication is key."

Here are three money talks experts suggest you have with your significant other to help your relationship and your finances.

1. Discuss your credit scores

Your credit score helps lenders assess your creditworthiness, or how likely you are to be able to pay back a loan. Your score is part of what landlords consider when you're looking for a rental property, and what lenders will use to determine the kind of rate you'll secure when applying for a mortgage.

Discussing your score with your partner will give you an idea of each other's financial history, which is crucial information if you plan on making any large purchases as a couple, like a family vehicle or your first home.

Some people are hesitant to talk about their credit score because a low number can carry a stigma: Half of women and 35% of men say a credit score could have an impact on whether they'd find a date appealing, pointing to poor credit history as a sign of deeper issues and financial irresponsibility, according to a recent Bankrate survey of 1,000 adults.

But if your partner's score is on the lower end of the spectrum, meaning anything below 669, don't assume that it's a reflection of poor choices or that they haven't learned from past financial mistakes. There are a number of reasons why your credit score might not fall within the 800-850 "exceptional" range, such as a short credit history, too many "hard" credit inquiries, or even being an authorized user on a poorly managed account.

Let your partner in on why your credit score is what it is. And if your credit score needs improvement, there are plenty of easy ways to increase it.

When you sit down to talk with your partner about your credit, make sure you're already on track to boost your score, and see the conversation with your partner as an opportunity to strengthen your relationship. They may even find it admirable that you've come up with a plan to get your credit into shape.

2. Be transparent about debt

Nearly 4 in 10 student loan borrowers say that their debt has affected their relationships with significant others, according to a 2019 report by the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA) and the MIT AgeLab.

"I think there is an embarrassment or a stigma attached to student loan debt because there's an underlying fear that someone will not be able to accept it, or understand why one made the decision to acquire that kind of student debt, when there are other options," Borges-O'Dell told Grow in 2019.

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Nathan Astle, a board member with Financial Therapy Association, suggests broaching the topic one step at a time. Start by mentioning to your partner that you have some debt and see how they react. Then you can gauge how to proceed. Once you feel comfortable talking about the subject, you can reveal how much money you owe.

Then explain your initial reason for taking out loans. Whether it was to afford your college tuition or to finance a new vehicle you needed, your partner will appreciate your honesty and may be able to better understand your current financial situation.

3. Understand your partner's financial history

As your relationship progresses, you'll want to learn more about how your partner developed their beliefs about money.

If you plan to merge accounts with your partner and make joint financial decisions, you may be more prone to conflicts around money when you don't have a sense of where they're coming from. And while merging finances isn't for everyone, more than three-quarters of survey respondents who are married or partnered share at least one bank account, according to a recent Bankrate survey.

"For partners, it's really important to try to understand where their money philosophy came from, or their financial flash-point, which is basically any childhood experience that influences your view about money," Astle told Grow earlier this year. "Your partner has a whole history with money that you may or may not know about."

Your partner's experience with money likely started very early in their lives and the way they manage their personal finances probably has a lot to do with what they observed within their own families. Say your partner grew up in a household where both parents spent a lot and didn't budget. They'll likely have a different money philosophy than someone who grew up with parents who accounted for every last penny.

But whether your partner is a spender or a saver, the way they manage their money will affect your joint financial future.

Try sparking conversations about money beliefs with questions like:

  • How were you thinking about money before we got together?
  • What do you see our shared money being for?
  • What are we working toward?
  • Are there things that make you excited and/or nervous about combining finances?

Even if broaching the conversation is difficult, you'll be glad you did.

"You'll get to a place where you can say, 'I know I can be money avoidant because of XYZ experience, but I don't want this to affect us,'" says Astle. "Then instead of it being a you-versus-me issue, it becomes you-and-me versus the problem."

And while divulging information about money to your partner may feel daunting, doing so can actually help strengthen your relationship. Financial issues are the No. 1 cause of marital discord, after all, says Borges-O'Dell. "Trust is the foundation of a healthy relationship. Once that is lost or comes into question, the impact can create great harm to the stability of the partnership."

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