By Christopher Reynolds

THE CANADIAN PRESS

John Shmuel knows firsthand what financial openness and secrecy can do.

By the third date, his fiancee knew his income and savings. A year later they’d agreed to focus on saving for a condo before getting married.

“We were quite transparent from the start,” said Shmuel, a 33-year-old Toronto-based content strategy director who cites financial honesty as an essential ingredient in the couple’s relationship.

“My dad had debts and he didn’t disclose his financial situation. It created conflict in the household,” he recalled.

His parents are much more open about money now, but only after he sat down with them to stress full disclosure, he said.

“The money conversation is one of the toughest conversations in a relationship, one of the biggest conflict points.”

Amid soaring real estate prices and persistently high household debt levels, financial transparency plays a bigger role than ever in solidifying romantic partnerships, experts say.

A recent survey by Credit Canada, a non-profit credit counselling agency, found that financial dishonesty is the leading money-related reason Canadians would or have cut ties with their partner, with more than 70 per cent citing the sticking point as a potential deal breaker.

Dishonesty can include making secret purchases and hiding debt, income or bankruptcy. But transparency means more than the absence of deceit and requires putting numbers as well as goals and priorities on the table.

“It’s almost taboo to talk about money,” Shmuel said. “So what ends up happening is a lot of people just keep the status quo and maybe don’t mention that massive credit-card debt that they’re carrying.”

A hefty debt load or sagging credit score can lead to a rude awakening at the car dealership or the mortgage broker’s office.

“There’s no guide posts for when you should have these conversations,” Shmuel said, adding that there’s no set point in a relationship, but that a discussion before moving in together seems sensible.

About 85 per cent of Canadians with partners said that similar financial goals and habits were a prerequisite to a healthy, long-term relationship, according to a Royal Bank of Canada poll last month.

“It’s not always an outright deception, it’s just that one might want to spend a whole lot and…one might be a big saver. So how do you resolve that tension?” asked Amy Dietz-Graham, a portfolio manager and investment adviser with BMO Private Wealth.

“That tends to be the trickiest one.”

An approach to avoid is spying on your beloved to see if they’re concealing cash.

“I don’t think it’s going to be very productive to go snooping around in your partner’s credit card statement and try to old, ‘Ah ha, I got you,”’ Shmuel said. “That’s going to be a source of conflict.”

Instead, concerned spouses can watch for red flags _ spending sprees or an aversion to discussions of debt, for example.

“Those should be a catalyst to say, ‘Hey, I just saw this new set of golf clubs you have in the closet. You didn’t tell me you were buying this. I know it’s your money, but we have this decision to buy a car together in two years. I really want to make sure we’re on the same page. Can we talk about our finances?”’ Shmuel advised.

A common budget spreadsheet is a basic way to keep track of spending. Many spouses set up joint chequing accounts or combine virtually all of their finances, while others keep them totally separate, Dietz-Graham said.

“There’s no right way. It’s more important just to understand what you’re doing with money and who’s responsible for what.”

Sitting down with a financial adviser offers a “more comfortable setting so that it doesn’t feel like you’re judging your partner or putting them on the spot,” she said.

Topics that often get overlooked even by diligent couples include insurance, wills, retirement savings and secondary properties, she said.

“So sit down and just have a conversation,” Dietz-Graham said. ¬†“It will make you feel a lot less of a burden about money.”

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