How to Tell Your S.O. You Have Debt—and Navigate Other Tricky Money Chats

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Whether you've been dating someone for just a hot minute or are in a committed relationship, talking about money with a romantic partner can feel like navigating a conversational minefield, à la asking about religion, marriage, kids, or even politics. Still, chances are at least one of you wonders about the financial situation of the other—even if it doesn't feel quite right to broach the subject. Think: "I wonder if I make more than her." "He better be saving for a ring." "I bet their parents are loaded." "They sound loaded." At least one of these has likely crossed someone's mind.

But while most couples who have been together for a certain amount of time and are relatively serious about building a future together do eventually broach the topics of religion, marriage, and kids, Shannon McLay—founder and CEO of finance-coaching service Financial Gym—says she regularly sees clients who haven't talked about money with their partner at all—even if they've been together for years. "We talk about getting financially naked with someone," she says. "Just like determining if you have chemistry in the bedroom, it's important to find out if you have chemistry with someone financially," she says.

"Just like determining if you have chemistry in the bedroom, it's important to find out if you have chemistry with someone financially." —Shannon McLay, founder and CEO of Financial Gym

Easier said than done though. How do you tactfully find out if your S.O.'s money goals are aligned with yours, or discuss how to divvy up the rent when you move in together? Or disclose that you've racked up a lot of debt and are struggling to pay it off? Fortunately McLay has seen it all. Here, she gives tips for navigating tricky conversations about money.

How to tell your partner you have debt

The most important thing is to not avoid the conversation and to dive in as soon as things feel potentially serious. "Otherwise, it becomes this big secret." Plus, disclosing debt to a partner typically comes with a sense of relief. McLay says partners tend to be supportive of the information, and often even feel happy to help in small but mighty ways. "If your partner knows you're working to pay off your debt, they might, for example, pick up the check more often because they know you have that extra burden."

In the rare case that the admission doesn't go well and the other person says it's a deal-breaker, McLay says knowing this sooner rather than later is for the best. "It's like someone saying they don't want to be with you because you're not a virgin, in the sense that you can't take it back." Being in debt is quite simply where you are, and if the other person can't deal—or shames you for it—it may be reason enough to give some serious thought to the health of the relationship.

Now that you're convinced, here's how to do it: Ease into the conversation by talking about general money goals, like savings, then bring up your goal to pay off debt. "The important thing is to get across that you have a plan for paying it off and aren't expecting the other person to just pay it off for you," McLay says. "Really, people just want to know there's a plan in place."

How to talk about splitting up the rent

Nothing like the buzzkill of bills to kill the exciting vibes that come from moving in together, #amirite? Still, setting a plan of action for rent is a non-negotiable before signing the dotted line of a lease. McLay recommends not splitting rent and utilities down the middle, but rather, according to the paycheck percentage. Yep—that also means you have to disclose salaries if you haven't already.

"We had one couple who came in and were splitting the rent equally. During one of the meetings, it came up that the boyfriend made three times as much as the girlfriend," McLay says. "She knew he made more, but she was too embarrassed to bring it up. But it makes absolutely no sense for her to pay half the rent when she's making so much less." The girlfriend said she didn't want him to be financially worse off due to their relationship, but McLay contends the relationship shouldn't compromise the finances of girlfriend either. Amen to that.

How to talk about long-term saving goals

No matter what you're saving for—freezing your eggs, traveling the world for a year, starting your own company—it can be tricky to bring up with your partner because doing so brings into question whether your long-term goals are aligned. But this is exactly why McLay says it's better to talk about it sooner rather than later. "We had a couple come in, and the husband said he thought their savings goal should be working toward buying a house. Well, the wife said being a homeowner was not a goal of hers at all. She wanted to travel and live this nomadic lifestyle," McLay says.

But even if your goals do align, achieving them often requires work from both parties. Take, for instance, another couple who had the shared goal of buying a house in London. "In order to do that, they had to drastically cut back on eating out, something they loved to do," McLay says. "But it was easy for them to cook meals at home together because they both had that same end goal in mind."

Start the conversation by asking generally what the other person's long-term goals are. Then, you can talk together about how to make those dreams a reality. For established couples, she recommends having regular "money dates" that involve pouring a glass of wine and going over the finances together. That way, as goals change over time, you can talk about it together.

When you bicker about how much the other person spends on something

Maybe your S.O. can't understand why you spend so much on beauty products or getting your hair done. Or you think your partner's obsession with SoulCycle is out of control. If you share a budget but don't always agree with how the other person is spending money, it can lead to a lot of bickering. This is when McLay says it's important to create some "sacred cows."

"When you sit down and make your budget together, each person should have a certain amount of money that they can spend however they want within those limits. And if something has been a pain point in the relationship in the past—like spending money on fitness classes—that gets to be someone's sacred cow and the other person can't give them grief about it," she says.

We're all entitled to independence, after all. And through communication and mutual respect, we can preserve financial independence even while sharing funds with a partner. Talking about money is really just a catalyst to talking about values as a whole in a relationship. So talk early, often, and don't be scared to get financially naked.

If budgeting is one of your major goals right now, these tips can help. Money isn't the only topic couples argue about on the reg. These problems are really common, too.

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