Summary: A reader has a low credit score. She is wondering when it would be a good time to confess her financial past to her boyfriend. Ilyce explains why it is essential to be honest with a potential spouse up front and how this reader can improve her credit score.

I recently received this letter from a reader:

“I have been dating a guy for the past 18 months who has stellar credit. I, on the other hand, have a score of 518, which is somewhere between poor and very poor credit.
 

“I am trying to take steps to pay off my college school loans, the infamous credit card debts that I have, and medical expenses that I could not afford to pay this year. Because I was unsure of my credit rating, I applied for a lot of different credit cards, and did not find out until later why I was being rejected for these cards. All of which served to lower my credit score.

“While I’d love to know how to recover financially from collections and charge-offs and raise my credit score, my real question is when would it be the best time to talk to your mate – someone you’re not engaged to – about your credit-worthiness?

I know that this is an important thing to some couples and I am nervous about it because his spending and paying habits are superb whereas mine would be if I had enough money to pay my past due bills – which I don’t.”

Love and money are inextricably tied together. Many studies have noted that money troubles are the top reason couples divorce.

While more than 70 percent of Americans have generally good credit, with credit scores at 720 or above, others have made poor choices and, unwise to the ways of creditors, make mistakes like my correspondent, which have proved costly.

Every year, I hear from couples and partners who are mismatched financially: One has money, the other is broke; one has great credit and a strong understanding of how to handle money, and the other has debts, a poor credit score, and perhaps doesn’t understand how simple it is to right the ship.

What I don’t understand, even after nearly 20 years of writing about real estate and money, is why the subject of money is taboo. Even consenting adults who are supposedly in a loving, trusting, and permanent relationship have difficulty talking about money.

It seems to me that if you’re at the point of true intimacy – and I don’t just mean physically but are sharing your innermost thoughts and feelings with each other – then you ought to level up about your financial past.

Hiding past financial mistakes won’t make them go away. Eventually, this stuff surfaces, and it often comes roaring back in your face.

Credit issues, debt, and financial selfishness (where you put your material needs before the greater needs of your joint household, whether that is choosing to buy unneeded “stuff” over paying down debt or saving for a new house or retirement), can sink a relationship faster than a pair of concrete galoshes.

You have to be able to trust your spouse or partner to make the right choices with the dollars you both work so hard for each week. No one is going to care as much about your money as you, because you’re the one who sweats for it, does with out for it, plans for it, and saves it. No one except your spouse or partner, who might care about it even more.

Having total trust in a relationship also means being able to trust each other with money. I know that’s a scary thought. And I know you have to get deep into a relationship in order to know if you can trust someone at that level.

But if you want that someone special to trust you with his or her money, you have to have some self-respect about your own finances. And if they’re a mess, you have to admit to yourself that you’ve made some mistakes, and you’ve got to figure out what you have to do to get on the right path.

For some, this will mean taking advantage of free financial or budgeting counseling from your local Consumer Credit Counseling Service office (www.cccsinc.org). Or it might mean going into a debt management plan to pay down your debts over 3 or 4 years. By adhering to a strict budget, you’ll have to do without, so you can pump more cash into paying down your debts.

You might even need to get a second job in the short term in order to bring in more income. (The good news is if you’re working, you’re probably not spending.) While this may take away the time you have to spend with your spouse or partner, if he or she is the real deal, your efforts will be respected and appreciated. And the level of mutual money trust will be elevated.

Of course, there is always the possibility that your honey will walk out the door after you reveal your financial shortcomings. If that’s what happens, you have to accept that this relationship isn’t right for you for where you are in your life at this time.

While it’s easier to battle money troubles with a partner by your side to cheer you on, as long as you get moving in the right direction, you’ll slowly get your financial life in order.

That will make your life less stressful, and allow you to build strong future relationships in which you can be honest about your financial life.

I hope my correspondent’s boyfriend turns out to be Mr. Right. But until she has the money conversation, she won’t know.

NOTE: This column is distributed by Real Estate Matters Syndicate, PO Box 366, Glencoe, Illinois, 60022. This column may not be resold, reprinted, resyndicated or redistributed without written permission from the publisher.