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Is my dad's girlfriend a spender?

Eva Norlyk Smith Ph.D.

July 9, 2014

QDear Eva,

My dad is starting to get serious with a woman he's dated for about nine months. “Barbara” seems great, but she kind of goes crazy with the shopping sometimes. Now they're talking about living together. I'm starting to wonder if my dad should ask to see her credit reports if he's going to take the next step, but he says that's tacky. My girlfriend and I exchanged credit reports before we moved in together, and we're glad we did. Am I giving Dad bad advice?Robert


AHi Robert,

It's a wonderful thing that you are protective of your dad, but as you rightly note, it puts you in a tricky situation.

There are two things that come into play: On the one hand, the protective instincts of a devoted son. It's natural for you to look out for your dad to ensure he doesn't rush into a relationship he may later regret.: Ask Eva

On the other hand, we tend to view a potential future partner of one of our parents with some degree of skepticism. That natural suspicion may cause you to overestimate how big the problem really is.

If you're just talking about an occasional shopping spree, it's probably not a big deal. On the other hand, if Barbara goes crazy shopping often, and if there is any indication that she isn't just spending her own money, yes, it could be a red flag. You can also look to see if there is a discrepancy between her spending and other parts of her life. If she spends a lot of money shopping, but lives in a modest apartment, that's another red flag that she is not managing money well.

Anyone who has been in a long-term relationship knows those early red flags are something to pay attention to. More often than not, they are harbingers of tension points in the relationship going forward.

First, talk it over with people who are less emotionally attached, and then decide whether there's really cause for concern. If there is, and you want to continue talking with your dad, you probably need to take a different tack. People of your generation may see exchanging credit reports as a natural, healthy step in a relationship, but it is an unusual step for most people of your dad's generation.

Ultimately, you're trying to determine, I presume, whether Barbara is a spender who lives beyond her means. Are there ways your dad can get that information without having to exchange credit reports?

It is natural for a couple, for example, to have a conversation about money prior to moving in together. If your dad is open to the idea, that conversation could cover how joint financial obligations will be managed, and also more delicate topics, such as each person's monthly income and debt obligations. During the discussion, your dad could ask about any credit card debt Barbara may have.

Making financial decisions together is part of building a healthy relationship, so while your dad may find exchanging credit reports tacky, he may be open to the idea of joint financial planning. This can include details of how they will handle financial matters and setting up regular times to discuss financial goals and practicalities.

The key is to talk about finances openly and honestly early on to avoid unpleasant surprises down the road. If Barbara is open to such a conversation, that will tell your dad a lot about her. If she is not — or if she tends to be evasive about her personal finances –that will tell him even more.

In the worst case scenario, if Barbara is indeed a spender, by having practical discussions around finances early on, chances are high that your dad will get alerted to issues that might otherwise take him a while to discover.

Ultimately, of course, there is nothing you can do other than to offer your well-intentioned advice. But the easier you make it for him to accept your suggestions, the more likely he will heed them.

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