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Looking for love in all the subprime places

Don't just swipe left on bad credit; low scores don't always mean financial irresponsibility

By  |  Published: April 7, 2017

What your partner's credit score won't tell you

There comes a time in a couple’s relationship when the conversation inevitably turns to money. As couples get to know one other, experts advise that they share their financial histories, as well.

While some couples may do that by sharing credit scores, “The credit score only gives you a fraction of what’s going on,” says Marlow Felton, co-author with her husband Chris of “Couples Money: What Every Couple Should Know About Money and Relationships.”

Here’s why simply trading credit scores can be misleading, and how couples should gauge their financial compatibility instead.

Where the score falls short
Not only can money impact a couple’s future lifestyle together, but it can also determine whether couples stay together in the first place. According to a 2016 TD Bank survey, 44 percent of Americans say they are less likely to date someone with credit card debt. But experts warn that a credit score may not give you the information you most need to know.

For one thing, a credit score focuses heavily on past financial habits rather than a person’s current commitment to financial responsibility, says Greg Rable, chief executive officer of FactorTrust, an alternative credit bureau that looks at such factors as consumers’ payment histories with utility providers and cell phone companies to determine creditworthiness.   

A credit score can also cause you to jump to false conclusions. When Felton and her husband Chris were dating, his FICO score was in the high 700s.  Since he had such a good score, she believed he had no financial baggage, so she was surprised – and not very happy – to learn that he was deeply in debt at the time.

If someone is in a relationship and considering marriage and their partner is unwilling to share their financial situation, that’s a huge warning sign.

— Marlow Felton
Co-author, "Couples Money"

Just as a high score can be misleading, a low score doesn’t necessarily mean someone has been financially irresponsible. “I know plenty of entrepreneurial people like myself that may have put stuff on personal credit cards and taken on additional debt to build a business and some of that isn’t taken into account when they look at your credit score,” Rable says.

5 steps to take after swapping scores
While a credit score can give you part of the picture, here are five other steps you can take to make sure you and your partner are on the same financial page.  

1. Pay attention. Just because your partner talks a good money game, that doesn’t mean he means it. “Just pay attention,” says Linda L. Jacob, a financial counselor with Consumer Credit of Des Moines and author of “No More Paycheck to Paycheck.” If your partner is always complaining about bills yet spends freely, that’s a clue.

2. Drill down on the credit report. Don’t stop at the credit score; share your credit report. Then have a conversation about what the report shows. For example, if there are a lot of department store credit card accounts with balances, ask how often your partner goes shopping. Likewise, if your partner has amassed a lot of debt, find out what led to it. “Sometimes it’s not that this person went out spending. Sometimes it’s just life,” Jacob says.

3. Discuss future goals. You want to know if your partner prioritizes saving and what they find important enough to save for. Talking about goals and what you and your partner would like to do together years down the road can be a less intimidating way to launch a financial conversation, Felton says. For example, if you both say you want to travel, share how you’re putting money away in a travel fund and ask your partner how they’re working toward that goal.

4. Play show and tell. Share your own challenges and successes and ask your partner for input, suggests Jacob. For example, you might say, ‘I’m interested in learning a better way to budget. Will you show me what you do?’

5. Gauge whether they are open to change. If your partner is deep in debt, you might ask if they are willing to look for a lower interest rate or visit with a credit counselor. Since we all make mistakes, the most important thing to consider is whether your partner is willing to adjust their financial behavior. “If my husband wasn’t willing to make some adjustments to make sure that we did meet our goals and dreams, we would not still be married,” Felton says. Today the couple helps other couples reach their financial goals through their Greenwood Village, Colorado-based company Transamerica Financial Advisors.

Before making a life with someone, make sure you and your partner are on the same page as far as achieving your joint financial goals. “If someone is in a relationship and considering marriage and their partner is unwilling to share their financial situation, that’s a huge warning sign,” Felton says.

See related: 3 ways couples who live together can protect their finances, Financial infidelity: 12 million Americans admit to hidden account

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Updated: 08-18-2017

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