Personal Finance, Relationships

What Constitutes a Financial Red Flag in a Relationship?

red flags

Many months ago, one of my posts about how financially secure people eat leftovers turned up on another message board that I frequent. That board has nothing to do with finance, but the poster came across my article when she was trying to figure out whether the guy her daughter was dating was bad news. (The Internet is a fun place. You just never know how or when your stuff is going to turn up.)

Apparently, the boyfriend in question had almost no money, a crummy job, a lot of loans, and a rat hole apartment, yet he refused the daughter’s gift of some leftover soup that her mother had made. He said, “I don’t eat leftovers.” The frugal-minded daughter was taken aback, thinking it strange that a guy with no money would turn down a free homemade meal, but she was prepared to let it go, chalking it up to the way he was likely raised.

The mother, on the other hand (and a whole bunch of people who posted on that thread) thought that the daughter needed to dump this guy immediately because his refusal to eat leftovers probably pointed to someone with poor money management skills (especially when added to his large loans, crummy job, and rat hole apartment). It ended up being your typical Internet debate with both sides vehemently defending their positions about whether or not leftovers are edible, but a legitimate question emerged: What constitutes a red flag (financially speaking) when you’re entering into (or already in) a relationship?

When you’re getting involved with someone, money isn’t always the first thing that comes to mind. You’re too busy finding all of the things you have in common and swooning over each other. But sooner or later, as things get more serious, money rears its ugly head. If you’re frugal and financially wise, you may start noticing that your partner does strange things.

Maybe he or she won’t eat leftovers. Maybe they whip out that credit card a little too often. Maybe their idea of a good time is a shopping spree at the mall (every single weekend). Maybe they take out yet another loan. Maybe they give you grief when you use a coupon at the grocery store or when out at dinner. Maybe you hear one too many stories about how much they’re struggling, or you get asked if they can borrow some money one too many times. Maybe they get upset when you refuse to go on an expensive vacation and suggest a staycation instead. Whatever the trigger, at some point you start to wonder if this person shares your values with money or if they are a money disaster.

If you love the other person, it’s hard to know when or if you should throw in the towel. You wonder if these little problems are really that bad in the grand scheme of things. Maybe you can convert the other person into a more frugal life. Maybe the person just needs to mature a little bit. Maybe you feel like you’re the one with the problem and need to lighten up a little bit. So you stick with it and see how it goes. Mistake? Wise move? Only time will tell.

Deciding when your money differences constitute a big problem that spells the end of a relationship is an individual choice. There are no hard and fast rules. Generally, though, it’s like anything else. If the other person’s behavior makes you uncomfortable or they are belittling you because of the way you choose to live your life, it’s time to have a serious conversation. It may just be a matter of saying, “Hey, I notice that you don’t eat leftovers. Why?” and having a dialogue. It may have nothing to do with money and everything to do with some deep rooted childhood dinner table drama. The person may not even realize that leftovers can be good and may be willing to try them if you cook them. Or, it could be that the person sees themselves as being “above” leftovers, in which case you need to have a different conversation.

If the person sees and respects your position and is willing to compromise or learn a different way of relating to money, you could be on the road to a successful relationship. If the other person digs in and says, “That’s just the way I am,” or, worse, “You just don’t know how to have fun/are too uptight/worry too much,” then that may signal a larger problem. The issue (leftovers, coupons, etc.) may be small, but that issue may signal a larger overall difference in money views that can lead to bigger problems. If you believe in the way you’re living your financial life and it’s working for you, don’t let someone tell you that you need to relax and spend more. Find someone who shares your frugal vision.

You shouldn’t simply ignore financial behavior that makes you raise your eyebrows, but you don’t have to turn every coupon used or quarter picked up in a parking lot into a huge fight, either. You do have to address anything that may mean you relate to money fundamentally differently from your partner in a constructive manner, though. Too many people ignore their money differences (or assume that it will all magically work out eventually or “He’ll come around,”) and end up in marriages where those differences ultimately become issues aired in divorce court. It’s far better to tune into the potential red flags early (even if they seem silly) and have the necessary conversations before things get too far. What seems like a small, silly issue to someone else may be a big deal to you, so air it out early and decide whether this relationship is something you want to pursue or not.

(Photo courtesy of rvw)

6 thoughts on “What Constitutes a Financial Red Flag in a Relationship?

  1. Ugh. I know I would in no way shape or form be compatible with someone who refuses to eat leftovers. There is a huge difference between someone who just never thought about it before (& is maybe open minded to discussing it), and someone who would flat out refuse to ever eat leftovers. To me it would just be a clue that the persom was tremendoustly wasteful, and overly concerned about “appearances.” There would probably much more overt red flags though. I honestly don’t know anyone who feels so strongly about leftovers. I think those types easily get ruled out on first impressions (& the feeling is very mutual – the compatibility goes both ways).

  2. With the divorce rate over 50% there are too many things to swamp a relationship over the long term. The figures make it clear that arguments over money are the leading cause of break-ups so it’s in everyone’s interest to make certain you are compatible on your use and views of money and finance. Money control is likely more a control factor than a $$$ factor and I just don’t understand a willingness to walk into trouble with rose colored glasses.

    No, the spendthrift won’t change nor will thrifty or parsimoniousness. The amount of energy needed to cope with the fellow as described would send people like me who value harmony, running for the hills.

  3. As a divorced parent of 2 grown sons, I’d be very wary of someone who “never” eats leftovers. To me, that is a red flag.

    The main advice I offer to younger people regarding relationships and marriage is to be sure you’re on the same page financially. It can be easy to overlook things when you’re in love, but extreme financial differences will destroy a relationship. I strongly suggest that you beware of someone who lives on credit and spends every cent they make, unless you’re willing to live under financial stress yourself.

    Been there, done that and so glad to be out of it~ but it took a divorce, bankruptcy, and an IRS lien on my house for 10 years before I was completely done! The unhappy result of marrying someone financially irresponsible, while living in a community property state…

  4. My first thought as to his refusal to take the leftovers was perhaps he didn’t like that type of soup and thought that saying he didn’t eat leftovers was a better way than saying the soup was yucky. I would give him the benefit of the doubt. That being said, it is all the other things that weigh against him (not the crummy apt if he lives there so he can save), but the credit card debt, lack of a decent job (which sometimes can be excused in this economy as long as he is looking for another). Each item in itself, can’t be a red flag uless you know the story behind them, but all together does make a serious red flag.

    Because money is a serious problem in many marriages even when both couples have matching goals and frugality. My husband thinks I make everything too complicated because I have several checking and savings accounts, where he would have one of each, period. I would go nuts doing it his way and he would drown if he had to take over what I’m doing. My ex’s idea of working together with the money is he would have his mom pick up his check (I wasn’t allowed to) and then he would show me where the money was going, period! He was frugal and so was I, but a guy that doesn’t trust his wife to take his check to the bank (I never gave him a reason to not trust me) has major financial problems and if I had known that would have been a huge red flag.

    Those red flags can be anything that is too odd or weird, or finances and financial goals not truly shared. I hear about so many couples living together after a short acquaintance and soon one is helping the other pay off one of the couples bills from before they met. My question on that is why? That is a red flag that the other person in the couple that made the bills would sit by and let they other help them dig out of financial trouble on such a short acquaintance. I think the family members would see this as a red flag. There is nothing to stop the one with the larger debt to continue to add on to the debt or once it got paid off, move on to the next sucker that will support them. I get it, they are ‘in love’. Being in love though is no reason to assume someone else’s debt.

  5. The hot spot of not eating leftovers may be a scar from having been poor as a child and resenting it. Wearing hand-me-downs and eating leftovers can create anger at belittlement. For some that anger can motivate. It has not in this case.
    Emotional baggage plus poor money skills is a bad combination. It suggests he is not a person able to deal with reality directly. Many are not.
    This is a person to have an affair with, not a person to marry.

  6. We eat leftovers, and sometimes can’t through all of them because we always cook up a lot of food. They are great for lunches. To get past the stigma of the word, I always refer to leftovers as “food you’ve seen before.”

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