Once an obscure metric used by banks to set the interest rate on loans, today your credit score has become the most powerful number since the SAT (which is also now being considered by employers). People increasingly use it as a stand in for worth and reliability, thinking that your relationship with Capital One somehow indicates personal values. Now this philosophy has reached its logical conclusion as some experts have begun recommending that you even screen your lovers by their credit score.
The worst part? It actually makes sense.
"First off," said Polina Polishchuk, a credit expert with Next Advisor. "I definitely think that talking about credit scores and your credit in general is something that should be brought up later on in the relationship, specifically when you see a future and are talking about things like marriage."
Though there might be a healthy delay in broaching the subject, it's something that needs to be addressed.
"It's something that's really important to be brought up," Polishchuk said. "For example if you have bad credit or no credit, there are lots of things that are harder, or you can't do at all."
It's not so much an indictment or praise of your capabilities as a romantic partner but rather a telling metric of your character and the life you can provide with it.
"It's more of like a lifestyle issue or a personality trait," she said. "If someone is really bad at things like making payments on time, that could mean that the person is irresponsible and that's something that you might not want if you're getting into something more serious or creating a joint account."
Polishchuk recommends that couples talk about money and credit the same way that they do kids, homes and long term ambitions. It's a major issue, she said, and having bad credit can hurt too many aspects of your life to ignore. Someone with the credit of an unemployed pirate will have a harder time doing just about everything. Trying to get an apartment together, a mortgage or even a phone plan will get much harder, and that will impact your life too.
The real problem, though, is what a person's credit score says about his habits. However unromantic it sounds, planning a life with someone is a major financial commitment, and you need to know if you're about to join yourself (and your life savings) to someone who can't handle that. Yes, it's a dash of colder water in the thrill of new love, but just like deciding on children up front, you don't want to find yourself years down the road groaning every time you have to co-sign another piece of routine paperwork for your spouse.
"If it's someone that's putting this stuff off and not making payments on time, that shows that they're not very responsible and they're not really thinking about the future," Polishchuk said. "So maybe you should consider, do you want that to be your future?"
After all, when you marry someone you marry his problems too.
Still, even though the conversation begins with "What's your credit score?" that's not the most important, or even particularly relevant, issue. The question isn't whether your partner has financial problems but what he's willing to do about it. Someone with terrible credit who'll do the hard work of getting their house in order is a much better long term bet than a well-off schlub unwilling to invest effort in your relationship.
"I don't think it's necessarily a deal breaker," Polishchuk said, "but I believe that it's important to have open communication about this if you are getting serious or thinking about marriage."
"It really depends on if they messed all this up when they were younger and they're working to improve their credit or if this is an ongoing thing. That could be a much deeper issue."
Messy finances shouldn't break up a good relationship, but if someone is unwilling to talk honestly and work on improving your life together, that's a much bigger issue.
Of course, having this conversation on the threshold of happily-ever-after is a messy affair. Your best case scenario is a quick conversation followed by drinks at the bar, worst case is choosing whether to stay with someone you love in the face of future obstacles. Far better, instead, to start figuring these issues out early on if you can.
That's not necessarily easy though. After all, asking someone for their credit score on the first date is a pretty good way to bring the night to a sudden and regrettable end. You might as well ask for her weight and cup size while you're at it. Or there are sites like Credit Score Dating which actually match people by creditworthiness, although finding love the same way you get a bank loan seems somehow even worse than shooting for the trifecta up there. But there are no two bones about it: we live in a world where a man with a credit score over 800 is the new 6-footer. Women, particularly on this dating site, want to know how big it is.
Instead of going down in history as one of love's great scoundrels, Polishchuk recommends simply paying attention for potential red flags. Making a mess of your finances causes real problems that are evident if you know what to look for. Does your new boyfriend or girlfriend mysteriously not have cable or Internet? Does the person use a pre-paid flip phone? No credit cards? When did the person last move?
None of these are necessarily warning signs on their own, and all could have perfectly reasonable explanations. (I, for example, tend to use debit instead of credit cards as just a matter of personal habit not to carry consumer debt.) Together, though, they paint a dangerous picture and are worth addressing.
Ultimately, according to Polishchuk, couples should remember that this is an big issue, but a fixable one.
"It's important to talk about goals, financial histories and plans if you are getting serious," she said. "It may take a long time but if they're open to fixing it, there are ways."
--Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website www.wanderinglawyer.com.