When a professional meeting planner in Melville, N.Y. began dating the man who would eventually leave her $100,000 in debt, there were some clear warnings signs that he was having trouble with his finances. A part-time comedian, he used to joke about how he was only with her because of her secure job and good corporate benefits. "He used to make so many of these jokes," she recalls.
When they started getting serious, there were enough red flags about his financial health that she even postponed the wedding for a year until she felt that he'd become more fiscally responsible. When they finally got married, the honeymoon was short-lived. A mere six months after the wedding, he dissolved the family business and blew his portion of the proceeds on a brand-new motorcycle. "I was the one working 50-plus hours a week and paying all the bills, but he felt entitled concerning money that it was mutual property," she says.
Like many relationships in which money and debt become a sticking point, there are usually some early warning signs that go unnoticed or overlooked in the first, endorphin-filled rush of a new relationship. But experts, as well as people who've been in those troubled relationships, warn that if you ignore these red flags, you do so at your own peril. Read on for a list of the biggest fiscal red flags that you should keep watch for when entering into a new romantic relationship.
1. Has a "money-is-no-object" approach
Splurging on flowers or dinner once in a while is nice (and often typical in the early stages of a relationship), but you want to watch out for a guy or gal who never looks at the receipt before handing over his or her credit card. "A 30 year-old college graduate might have what seems like a good job, but do the expenses match the income?," asks Linda Kern, a divorce lawyer in Philadelphia who says deep-seated financial issues are one reason couples wind up in her office. "A salary nearing $100,000 may seem like a lot, but once the person makes a student loan payment, rent, car payment and insurance, there's not a lot left over for extravagance," she points out.
2. Appears wealthy without the job to back it up
Yes, there are a few bachelors and bachelorettes out there who've been left a fortune by a long-lost uncle. But if your snookums has a part-time (or no) job, yet somehow drives a flashy car, purchases big-ticket items on a whim or buys rounds for everybody in the bar, odds are, he or she is racking up a boatload of debt. "When we were dating, I kind of got the sense he didn't have a regular job, but he always seemed to act like he had money," says the meeting planner who was burned by her ex. "We'd go away for spontaneous weekends and things like that. I knew he was in business prior, and I thought he was situated pretty well."
3. Overdraws their account or has cards denied
Sure, there could be a computer glitch that leads to a credit card being rejected...once. If this happens regularly, you've got a problem on your hands, says Linda Kern. "Someone who truly pays their bills and doesn't carry high balances will be truly shocked and insist the merchant try it again, whereas someone who knows it's maxed out will quickly offer another card," she says.
One woman, a marketing professional in St. Louis, says she went to take out $40 on a holiday weekend so her boyfriend at the time (who subsequently became her husband) could attend an outdoor festival. Due to the three-day weekend, her direct deposit hadn't registered yet, and the ATM denied her transaction. "I said I had like two bucks on me," she recalls. He didn't ask any further questions; if he had, he'd have discovered she was living hand-to-mouth and running up bigger bills in the process. "We didn't talk about it that much," she says.
4. Receives collection calls or letters from creditors
If debt collectors are hounding your honey, it's probably for a good reason. Don't be fooled if they dismiss it by saying they got the bill in a day late, or forgot just a single payment. By the time an account goes to collections, the creditor has already made numerous efforts to settle the bill. If they have a roommate, keep a close eye on their relationship, says Syble Solomon, a Wilmington, N.C.-based life coach and expert in the psychology of money. "If they're living with a friend and every time you go over the roommate has left a note saying 'Remember to pay the utility bill,' that's not a good sign that this person is proactively taking responsibility," she says. A related red flag: if they live with their parents and contribute little, if any, to household expenses.
5. Is derailed by unexpected expenses
When the cash-strapped marketing professional (from red flag number three) needed to replace her car early on in her courtship with her now-husband, he wondered why she couldn't just pay the $5,000 cash for the used car she picked out and why her parents needed to co-sign the loan. In hindsight, one of them probably should have broached the topic, she acknowledges. Her husband had no idea how big her debts were or how poor her credit was until shortly before their wedding. "When I turned 18, I started getting store credit cards and I was unable to work in college for about five months, and those bills started to pile up," she recalls, estimating that she had several thousand dollars' worth of credit card debt when she began dating her husband.
6. Does poor, little or no financial planning
No one's saying you have to whip out a spreadsheet over the tiramisu on your first date, but even early in the relationship, you should pay attention to the language the object of your affection uses when he or she talks about their financial goals or dreams for the future. "When they talk about future plans to accomplish something, make a big purchase or plan a big event, do they also mention any concrete strategies to earn more money, spend differently or save to accomplish these things or is it just a wish list?" asks Solomon.
7. Has an unstable employment history
Yes, the job market is rough out there, but if your sweetie cycles through workplaces regularly - even if they say it's always someone else's problem or fault that leads to their departure - be wary. "If a person is constantly losing jobs and changing jobs, it can be an indicator of not following through, making poor decisions or generally irresponsible behavior which could generalize to the way money is managed," says Solomon.
8. Admits they're in deep
This might sound like a no-brainer, but sometimes people with tremendous debts will give you a clue in a casual way to see how you respond, says Kern. "Anyone who says "No bank would lend me a dime" or "Visa is chasing me" may be making off-hand comments to gauge your reaction," she warns. "If overwhelming debt isn't what you're looking for in a mate, look the other way."
Dating and debt: 8 red flags you need to look out for