TIME Humor

Tips for Surviving the Holiday Season on a Shoestring Budget

Karen E. Bender is the author of Like Normal People and A Town of Empty Rooms.

Some socially acceptable dos and don'ts for a season of giving

It’s the holiday season. The economy has rebounded! Gas is ridiculously cheap! Everyone in the nation is supposed to be doing better. Well, we’re not. Somehow, this new, hopeful economy has bypassed us. We can’t figure out why.

Actually we’re fine. We’re okay, kind of. Which means that we are on the perilous life raft of the American economy; we are okay if nothing at all goes wrong. And while I love the holiday season, it is, sometimes, an economic minefield. But while the Federal Reserve dallies with interest rates, my economic salve for the money stress of the holiday season is one thing: pumpkin bread. (See “Do #6″ below.) Here are some ways to get through the holidays on a shoestring:

DON’T:

  1. Don’t go into any store that features shopping bags that can stand on their own accord, in the middle of a table. This sort of shopping bag denotes prices that will start chipping into your children’s college education fund. Avoid it. Remind yourself to put money into your children’s education fund. And oh yes, your retirement–next year, when things are better. I hear the economy’s improving.
  2. Don’t bid on anything at the religious institution’s Silent Auction. Walk by coveted items, smile at them, nod thoughtfully, but walk on. Or do bid but only when people are watching, and make it so small you can be outbid in an instant.
  3. Don’t monitor your online savings account in real time. It is tempting, but don’t do it.
  4. Don’t buy holiday cards to send out to people (the costs of stamps, my god!) Instead, post nice photo of family with loving caption on Facebook and see “likes” build.
  5. Don’t assume that a restaurant is good if it uses the words “Seatings are at” in its description. The word “banquet” will also do unmentionable things to your bill. You don’t have to pretend to be Henry the VIII, and you actually may not want to be.
  6. Don’t feel that your (or dear relative’s or friend’s) cat or dog will be insulted if you don’t buy him or her the crazily priced cat toy or sweater. Trust me: the pet will not know. This tip also applies to babies.
  7. Don’t assume that you have to wear a new fancy dress or shirt or anything to a New Year’s Eve party. No one is going to notice. Wear last year’s. Everyone’s going to be focused on the champagne and the mini-quiches. Helpful note: properly wrapped, mini-quiches can fit neatly into a purse. They heat up nicely later. By the way, I hear the economy is improving.
  8. Don’t feel that when relative sends gift card for X amount, you are required to send X amount back. Gift cards should not be an economic hostage situation. Send what you can and/or send pumpkin bread. (See #6 below)
  9. Don’t forget to buy books as gifts, as they will nourish the soul, far beyond the cover price.
  10. Don’t forget to give something (money or time) to causes, because you should.

DO:

  1. Tell your children that their Secret Santa gifts for their friends in class will be a re-gifting extravaganza.
  2. Tell your mother that any clothes she wants to purchase you as a gift has to be suitable for a job interview.
  3. Tell the children that the word “upgrade” has been banned in the household and nearby vicinity for the time being.
  4. Buy present at thrift store and sneakily give it to friend in fancy shopping bag received from other friend who foolishly went into store that used such shopping bags.
  5. Make pumpkin bread as the default gift for everyone. It is cheap, it is beloved, it is carbs. And you can make a batch sufficient for many gift recipients in an hour. Don’t worry about fancy cellophane wrapping, though bows are fine. You can use gluten-free flour if needed, too.
  6. Do remember that the dollar store is only a dollar store if you buy only one thing.
  7. Do remember that if it’s to grandmother’s house we go, that’s a good thing and grandmother can pay.
  8. Try to laugh, because not everyone can. And, by the way, it is free. And above all, know that after January 1, everything goes on sale. And did you hear? The economy is improving.

Karen E. Bender is the author of Like Normal People and A Town of Empty Rooms. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope, Ploughshares, and others. Her debut collection of short fiction, Refund: Stories, will be published by Counterpoint Press in January 2015.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: December 16

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Micropayments and digital currencies will ignite an explosion of disruptive innovation.

By Walter Isaacson in LinkedIn

2. Latin America is taking the lead with progressive food policies — and putting public health above the interests of the food industry.

By Andy Bellatti in Civil Eats

3. To preserve biodiversity and lift up communities facing hunger in sub-Saharan Africa, indigenous plants might provide a solution.

By Amy Maxmen in Newsweek

4. Teacher preparation programs seek change with a pinpoint innovation approach. It’s time for a broad scale transformation of teaching.

By Kaylan Connally in EdCentral

5. Making clean plastics from biofuel waste could free up valuable farmland for food crops.

By Matt Safford in Smithsonian

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Money

Amazon Pricing Glitch Loses U.K. Businesses Thousands

Some items were sold for as little as a penny

There’s more to being a successful retailer than keeping your buyers happy.

U.K. businesses that sell via Amazon.com’s local site are up in arms over a software glitch late Friday that led to their items being sold for as little as a penny. Some ended up out of pocket to the tune of up to $30,000.

The incident was down to a problem with a software tool developed by Derry-based RepricerExpress, which allows businesses to offer their goods on Amazon.co.uk.

The software automatically changes prices for the items on sale to guarantee that they stay competitive, but in this instance, it generated a self-reinforcing loop in which goods were automatically re-priced down to a penny.

One user complained on an Amazon bulletin board that stock worth $15,000 had been sold in this fashion within 40 minutes.

“Being they are not based in the US (sic) It takes away lots of options for us to recoup our loses,” the user wrote. “Last night I had to explain to my wife and 3, 4 and 5 year old that we could not take our trip to Disney in February.”

City AM cited one fancy dress company owner as saying her company had lost over $30,000 overnight.

Amazon said it was unable to cancel orders that had been dispatched and charged to customers, but another user on the bulletin board noted that it had been able to cancel those that weren’t slated for urgent shipping.

RepricerExpress chief executive Brendan Doherty said on the company’s website he was “truly sorry for the distress this has caused our customers,” and said Amazon had reassured him that sellers’ accounts wouldn’t be penalized as a result.

It wasn’t clear what degree of compensation would be available to the businesses that had suffered. RepricerExpress didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment from Fortune.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

TIME Money

This MLB Team Has the Most Expensive Beer in Baseball

Red Sox Beer
Red Sox Pitcher Curt Schilling holds a beer to the crowd, mostly Red Sox fans after the Sox won the series 4-0. Andy Cross—Denver Post via Getty Images

In 2014, Fenway supplied the most expensive beer per ounce in the MLB

Fenway Park is representative of how the game used to be played and how it probably always will be: the sound made when a wooden bat connects with the ball; the crescendo of noise as the ball arches toward center field; and mildly cold draft beer, spilled or unspilled, but likely mildly cold in either case.

While the Red Sox couldn’t quite pull it together in 2014, finishing the season at well under .500 and last in the AL East, there’s one leading metric Red Sox fans can hold onto until next season. In 2014, Fenway supplied the most expensive beer per ounce served in Major League Baseball.

Using our MLB Teams topic with data supplied by Chicago-based Team Marketing Report, FindTheBest set out to determine and then visualize the cost of brews served at big league ballparks. With the price of the smallest size of beer available in a ballpark as one input in TMR’s Fan Cost Index, here was the outlook for the 2014 season on a per-ounce basis. Tap into the visual to take an in-depth dive into any team:

In March 2014, the release date of the TMR report, the Red Sox reported that 12 ounces of beer would cost $7.75, or $0.65 an ounce. This likely relates to small domestic drafts, with craft brews presumably commanding a premium.

To put that into perspective, the second most expensive beer per ounce, found at the home of the St. Louis Cardinals, clocked in at $6.75 for the same 12 ounces, a much more palatable—but still pricey—$0.56 an ounce. Boston’s perennial rival, the New York Yankees, reported a price of $6 for 12 ounces (the smallest size available at Yankee Stadium), or $0.50 an ounce, the third highest per-ounce price for beer in baseball (a per-ounce price shared by the San Francisco Giants, Miami Marlins, and Seattle Mariners).

Looking at all 30 big league teams, the median smallest-size beer offering was 15 ounces, close to but not quite a proper 16-ounce pint. The league median per-ounce price was $0.41 for the smallest beer available in each stadium.

If we were to sort the price of beer at each stadium and ignore the size of the drink, the picture naturally changes somewhat. Still, the Red Sox are right there near the top. If you tap into the header for ‘Average Ticket Price,’ you can re-sort the list according to that metric.

Ignoring drink size, the Yankees would fall further down the list, and the Marlins would have the most expensive beer in baseball at $8.00. In a simplified sense, assuming you buy one small beer and pay the average ticket price, the best deal in baseball this season could be found in San Diego at $21.37.

Given the same assumptions, you also could attend a game at 11 major league stadiums and not pay more than $30 at each. Conservatively presented, the priciest deals in baseball were at Fenway and Yankee Stadium, where one small beer and the price of the average ticket would run you $60.07 and $57.55, respectively. Any way you cut the numbers, though, these prices are still by and large much more reasonable than the price of beers at NFL games this season.

This article was written for TIME by Ryan Chiles of FindTheBest.

More from FindTheBest:

Ranking Every MLB Free-Agent Contract from Least to Most Lucrative

Predicting the 20 Most Likely MLB Hall of Fame Inductees

2014 Editors’ Choice: Best Cars

TIME Business

Where Are Bernie Madoff and His Inner Circle Now?

Bernard Madoff
Bernard Madoff walks out of Federal Court on Jan. 5, 2009, in New York City Jin Lee—Bloomberg News / Getty Images

Madoff brought his family down with him

Bernard “Bernie” Madoff, the most extraordinary swindler of the heady pre-recession years, was arrested six years ago on Thursday, but the distrust that his dealings directed toward the financial system is indelible. Many people know a friend, relative or school acquaintance whose college savings or retirement fund was pillaged by Madoff’s gargantuan Ponzi scheme. The Occupy movement, the Heartland’s vitriolic anger towards bankers, and the proverbial Main Street-Wall Street divide are all linked to the mess Madoff sank himself into. His loss of $65 billion in Americans’ savings rattled what little confidence many Americans still had in Wall Street and the finance industry.

The well-known director Michael Moore wrote a commentary on the scammer for TIME in the Spring of 2009, shortly before Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison. Moore proclaimed him the incorrigible tip of the iceberg:

If Ponzi schemes are such a bad thing, then why have we allowed all of our top banks to deal in credit default swaps and other make-believe rackets? Why did we allow those same banks to create the scam of a sub-prime mortgage? And instead of putting the people responsible in the cell block in Lower Manhattan, where Bernie now resides, why did we give them huge sums of our hard-earned tax dollars to bail them out of their self-inflicted troubles? Bernard Madoff is nothing more than the scab on the wound. He’s also a most-needed and convenient distraction. Where’s the photo on this list of the ex-chairmen of AIG, Merrill Lynch and Citigroup? Where’s the mug shot of Phil Gramm, the senator who wrote the bill to strip the system of its regulations, or of the President who signed that bill?

Moore’s is a sentiment that still rings true years after the depth of the financial crisis: Where is the retribution?

In fact, Madoff’s circle of friends and family bore much of it. Ruth Madoff, disgraced after her husband’s fall, endured a series of public shamings in the year after Bernie’s sentencing, including being stripped of $80 million in assets. She cut off contact with her husband and moved to son Andrew’s house in Connecticut. Madoff’s eldest son, Mark Madoff, committed suicide in 2010, and his younger son, Andrew, died this year of lymphoma. Madoff’s long time assistant, 66-year-old Annette Bongiorno, was sentenced just this week to a six-year prison term, and Jerome O’Hara, a computer programmer for Madoff, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years. Brother Peter Madoff is serving a 10-year sentence in federal prison and forfeited all his personal assets.

Madoff himself has shown a measure of remorse, though it’s not likely to be enough for the people whose savings disappeared. He told Politico earlier this year that he has not changed: “There’s nothing for me to change from. It’s not like I ever considered myself a bad person. I made a horrible mistake and I’m sorry.”

TIME Money

This Football Team Has the NFL’s Most Expensive Beer

Oakland Raiders
Marcel Reece #45 of the Oakland Raiders celebrates with fans in the Black Hole after the Raiders beat the Kansas City Chiefs at O.co Coliseum on November 20, 2014 in Oakland, California. Ezra Shaw—Getty Images

Catching a game in Oakland could really raid your wallet

If the price of a beer at an NFL game this season is any indication—and arguably it is—it’s little wonder the NFL is scrambling for ways to reverse a growing attendance problem in its stadiums. If you pair expansive, on-demand TV offerings with cheaper prices outside of stadiums, people will shy away from the vastly more expensive live experience.

Here at FindTheBest, we organized and connected data compiled by Team Marketing Report and Forbes to better illustrate a fan’s cost for attending an NFL game. We’ll start with beer before getting into the treacherous territory that is the total cost of attendance at an NFL game.

The below table is a snapshot of how NFL teams compare when it comes to the price of the cheapest draft beer at each stadium, independent of size. You can tap anywhere in the table to learn more about a given team or tap into the four headers to sort the list according to what you want to see:

The Oakland Raiders—who are just 1-11 on the year as of Sunday morning—have the most expensive beer independent of drink size, followed in short order by the somewhat-adjacent San Francisco 49ers, whose move to a new home at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. prompted a 40.1% increase in the price of an average ticket.

Although the league averages a 16-ounce pint across all stadiums, the above table only tells part of the story. Breaking out that last column—the price per ounce of beer—is perhaps more telling.

Considering just the price of beer by ounce, these are the 16 teams with the most expensive beers:

This reordering is important since the mere price of a given stadium’s beer doesn’t describe how much value you’re getting out of that beer. A 20-oz. beer at a Raiders game is still pricey at $0.54 per oz., but it’s suddenly a little more palatable than the $0.71 per oz. being charged at a Philadelphia Eagles game (for a 12-oz. beer, that amounts to $8.50 per beer for the cheapest beer in the house).

That’s particularly pricey when you consider that a full 16-ounce domestic pint at your average local watering hole rarely would run that high even with a tip for the barkeep. Yet, the effect a football game has on your wallet gets even worse — Let’s turn to the total cost of attendance to see why.

Here’s the picture for the top 16 teams when it comes to the total cost of attendance, with “total” conservatively representing fairly basic purchases such as a beer, parking, the average ticket price, and a hot dog:

Of the 16 teams depicted, 10 have per-ounce beer prices of more than $0.44—the median per-ounce price for the league. Of these 10 teams, eight are in the NFC, with representatives from each division, as seen in the chart below:

Assuming a fan attending a Dallas Cowboys game pays the average price for a ticket, buys one cheap beer, a hot dog, and parks one car, that fan can expect to drop almost $200 on seeing a game.

In fact, total costs using the above assumptions stubbornly stay above $100 for all but the four teams with the lowest total fan attendance costs (Miami, Detroit, Jacksonville, and Cleveland). Without the full range of ticket prices, we can only speculate as to how much pull outliers might be having on the average ticket price, which is easily the biggest component of the total cost. With that said, the average ticket prices give us a baseline for comparison purposes.

The average NFL fan pays top dollar just to watch a game and eat a meal, which speaks for itself. But these prices don’t even begin to factor in considerations like team brand premiums and the cost of new stadiums. Prices don’t exist in vacuums.

Looking at some of the clubs with the highest total fan costs, Dallas, New England, and Washington have the three highest-valued franchises in football ($3.2 billion, $2.6 billion, and $2.4 billion, respectively). While the 49ers are worth less from a valuation standpoint ($1.6 billion), they’ll be dealing with the debt from their new $1.31 billion (before interest) stadium in all sorts of ways for years to come.

This article was written for TIME by Ryan Chiles of FindTheBest.

More from FindTheBest:

Did Corey Kluber Deserve to Win the Cy Young Over Felix Hernandez?

Strongest NFL Players According to Madden NFL 15

2014 Editors’ Choice: Best Cars

TIME apps

The Best Apps For People Who Don’t Like Spending Money

iPhone Money
Smartphone dispensing 100 dollar bill. Tim Robberts—Getty Images

With these five apps, you’re not cheap, you’re thrifty.

Whatever you use — debit card, ApplePay, Bitcoin — one way or another, you’re really just giving up cold, hard cash. And with an average personal savings rate of just 5% (down from the long term average of 8.41%) it’s more important than ever to squirrel every nuts away that you can.

Sure, Millennials are flocking to 401(k) plans in record numbers, but what about older generations who need to play catch up? With times still as tight as they are for most Americans, consumers need to think thrifty. These five apps can help you spend less and, hopefully, save more.

Ibotta

Using coupons at the grocery can knock a good chunk off your final tab, but the time it takes to to clip, collate, and collect them can make the ordeal not worth it. Ibotta partners with retailers and product brands to offer users rebates that are generated by taking a snapshot of your receipt or the item’s barcode after you buy associated items in participating stores.

For example, say you do your weekly food shopping at Safeway. Just select the milk icon to receive 25 cents back from any one gallon jug, tap on the Minute Maid No Pulp Orange Juice to get $1 back from that specific item, and pick the Glad OdorShield garbage bags for a buck off there.

After you submit your receipt or scan your barcode, the cash gets deposited into your Ibotta account within 48 hours. And by transferring it into your Venmo or PayPal account, you can spend it just like you would real money (because it is). Or, if you’d rather turn your food savings into your fun money, you can buy gift cards from Starbucks, Regal, iTunes, and others from the Ibotta app.

Ibotta is available for free on the App Store and Google Play.

Shopkick

Woody Allen famously once said that 80% of life is showing up. If that’s so, Shopkick may just be the Annie Hall of apps. Rewarding shoppers for checking in at stores — not even for making purchases — this Android and iOS app displays popular products and linked rewards at major retailers including American Eagle, Best Buy, and JCPenney.

Of course they’d be delighted if you bought any of the items these stores have on special within the app, but some stores give you reward points (or “kicks,” as the app calls them) just for window shopping. You can also link your Visa or MasterCard with Shopkick to earn more kicks when you make purchases. Once you’ve compiled enough kicks, you can redeem them for gift cards.

Shopkick is available for free on the App Store and Google Play.

Raise

If you were offered 7.5% off your next purchase from Home Depot, JCPenney, Kohl’s or Starbucks, you wouldn’t say no. With Raise, that offer is a reality — it just takes an extra step or two to collect your savings.

An online clearinghouse where people can sell their unwanted gift cards to other people willing to buy them at a discount, this free iOS-only app is a quick way to get discounts on some of the biggest name stores around. With gift cards available for use in retail stores and online, the service delivers cards instantly to a mobile wallet within the app that displays all the necessary information you need to use the certificates on your next purchase.

All gift cards purchased are insured and covered by a full money back guarantee. And if that’s not enough, Raise also offers a rewards program, giving users points on purchases made and friends referred. All this, and you haven’t even attacked the clearance racks, yet.

Raise is available for free on the App Store.

Target Cartwheel

Call it the Amazonization of retail, but it’s no secret that big box stores not only want to sell you clothing and electronics, but now also groceries, too. The Target Cartwheel app is a great hook to lure shoppers to the red dot.

Just use the app to browse offers before your trip, select the ones you’re interested in, and flash your smartphone screen when checking out. The phone will display a personalized barcode that serves as one giant coupon for all your purchases, giving you discounts like 20% off swimwear, 5% off Target’s house brand Market Pantry food products, and more. You can even use offers more than once, and your receipt shows how much you saved in all.

According to Target, users have saved more than $144 million to date using the app. Download it to get your cut of that thrifty action.

Target Clickwheel is available for free on the App Store and Google Play.

Walmart Savings Catcher

Think you can beat Walmart’s rock-bottom prices? Many a competitor has tried and failed. And with the Walmart Savings Catcher app, if they actually do undercut the world’s largest retailer, you, the consumer, win.

Using the app, shoppers can scan their Walmart receipt, prompting the company to run a price comparison across local print ads, looking for the products you bought, but at a lower price. If any pop up, they reward you with the difference in the form of a Walmart gift card.

Sure, it’s a little self-serving because you have to shop at the store again to actually get your money’s worth. But it also gives you another chance to catch Walmart asleep at the check stand again. Save and save again.

Walmart Savings Catcher is available for free on the App Store and Google Play.

TIME Money

Warren Buffett’s Latest Investment: Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Rodham Clinton listens before delivering remarks at an event in New York City on Nov. 21, 2014. Bebeto Matthews—AP

The Berkshire Hathaway CEO donated $25,000 in the third quarter to a pro-Hillary Super PAC

Warren Buffett is putting his money where his mouth is when it comes to Hillary Clinton.

In October, at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women summit, Buffett predicted that Hillary Clinton would be the next president of the United States. “Hillary Clinton is going to run, and she’s going to win,” Buffett said on stage.

Apparently, the prediction was more than just talk. According to Bloomberg, Buffett donated $25,000 in the third quarter to Ready for Hillary, a political organization that says it is laying the groundwork for a Clinton presidential run in 2016. That is the maximum the organization allows from a single donor. Overall, the group has raised $11 million.

Bloomberg says the donation was somewhat surprising because Buffett has criticized political action committees, like Ready for Hillary, in the past, and that he is known as a “political tightwad.” But Buffett has long been a supporter of Hillary Clinton. The Berkshire Hathaway CEO also backed Clinton’s 2008 election campaign and held fundraisers in her honor.

At Fortune’s Most Powerful Women’s conference, he added that he was willing to bet on a Hillary presidency. And now he has.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

TIME Money

These College Majors Have the Hardest Time Paying Off Student Loans

Student loans
Student loans Ian Jeffery—Getty Images

Some of them will surprise you

Most college students pick their major based on their talents and their interests, not on how easily that major can help them pay down their student loans. Maybe it’s time to rethink that.

A new study breaks down exactly how hard it is for former students to pay off their student loans based on what their chosen major. While some of the results are predictable, the research sheds new light on exactly how tough it can be for new grads in certain fields. The Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project crunched the numbers on more than 80 different majors to determine how much graduates typically earn right out of school as well as a decade later, and how that affects their ability to pay off their student loans.

At the median, someone with a bachelor’s degree earns $27,000 right out of school, but some majors make considerably less, with a number earning under $20,000. “In the first year of the career, when earnings are at their lowest, graduates from several majors in the arts and humanities would need more than 20 percent of their earnings to service their loans,” the report says.

The list of majors who have to put the highest share of their income towards their loans in the first year after graduation is an eclectic one. “Graduates in drama and theater face payments of 24% of their earnings during the first year of repayment,” the study says. In addition, those with degrees in health and physical education, civilization, ethnic studies, composition, speech, fine arts and nutrition and fitness studies pay the highest percentage of their earnings towards student loan repayment in their first year out of school.

The vast majority — 66 of the 81 majors examined — will have to funnel more than 10% of their first-year earnings towards their student loans. Even grads with degrees in business and math initially have to spend 12% or more of their earnings servicing their debts.

The study also takes a look at how fast graduates’ income rises after graduation. Some of the majors with the lowest initial starting salaries see the fastest increase, largely because starting salaries are initially so low. Many graduates, even those who start out paying a high percentage of their income towards their debts, see that percentage fall quickly. “Earnings grow quickly for graduates of almost every major and especially so for those who start with the lowest earnings,” the study says. By the sixth year of a 10-year payment plan, only a handful of majors are paying more than 10% of their income in debt payments.

Those low incomes right after graduation are still cause for concern, though. “A key problem with the current college financing system is that debt payments are often fixed, while for many majors, earnings are low in the initial years following graduation,” the study’s authors point out. “This mismatch can lead to a substantial financial burden on young workers.”

Is there a solution? The study makes some recommendations around expanding the use of income-based repayment programs, but for now, students might want to consider majoring in computer science, nursing, operations and logistics, or any kind of engineering: People who come out of college with these majors have to dedicate the smallest percentage of their income upon graduation to their student loans.

MONEY Love and Money

The Most Important Talk You Need to Have Before Marriage

wedding rings tied to roll of $100 bills
Getty Images

A frank conversation about finances early on will prevent relationship land mines later on, says love and money expert Farnoosh Torabi.

It’s not exactly first-date material, but at some point early on couples ought to start talking about money.

Best if the first discussion happens before the relationship takes a turn for the serious—like moving in together, getting engaged or married, or cosigning a loan. You’d want to know if your steady’s trying to pay off a six-figure law school loan or hasn’t saved a dime towards retirement yet, right?

While we know it’s important, many of us shy away from asking our partners key questions related to savings, investments, debt and credit. More than 40% of couples surveyed by Country Financial recently said they didn’t discuss how they’d manage their money together ahead of tying the knot.

As a society, we’re not especially conditioned to speak intimately about our finances. One report found money to be a tougher topic for Americans to talk about than politics and religion. Plus, if you’re not particularly proud of your financial state, a no-holds-barred discussion may stir up anxiety, embarrassment and fear of rejection.

Here’s how to calmly—and, dare I say, pleasantly—enter this critical conversation into the record in the early stages of your relationship:

Set a Date

My now-husband and I had a money powwow about two years into dating.

Don’t get me wrong: By then, we’d fully observed each other’s spending behaviors and discussed goals (thankfully, with no red flags). But we’d yet to really share specific numbers.

With plans to move in together and cosign a lease just a few months down the road, we figured this was a natural and important time to get into the nitty-gritty.

If you and your mate haven’t come anywhere near this conversation yet, my recommendation is to schedule a time to talk so that your partner doesn’t feel blindsided and so that you can each do a little homework beforehand if need be.

One way to frame your request for a money summit: “I know it’s not the most exciting thing to talk about, but it would make me a lot more comfortable if we could go over our finances together since things are getting more serious. I’m not worried at all; I just think it’s helpful if we share the basics so that we’re both on the same page and can work toward common goals. And I want you to feel like you can ask me anything you want about my finances. I want to be an open book about this stuff because I’ve seen how it can unnecessarily complicate things in relationships.”

Then ask: “What do you think?”

Make an Even Exchange of Information…

To ease any potential tension, my future husband and I decided to meet at a familiar and fun setting: our favorite bar.

We ordered a round (one round only) of margaritas and proceeded to jot down the following on a piece of paper: annual income, bank balances, outstanding loans and credit card balances and approximate credit score.

Then we swapped papers, revealing our details at the same time.

This exercise gave us a simple, quick apples-to-apples comparison and helped us understand our relative strengths and weaknesses.

We discovered that while I had more retirement savings, he had a better credit score. (I was still dealing with the consequences of a late payment on my Banana Republic Card five years prior when I was younger and less vigilant. Sigh.)

You and your partner could try this tactic if you both are straight shooters. But if your sweetie could use some help coming out of his or her financial shell, you might need a softer approach.

…Or, Ease Gently into the Interrogation

Revealing a bit about yourself first may encourage your significant other to talk money.

“Share your feelings and see how he or she reacts,” says Barbara Stanny, author of Sacred Success: A Course in Financial Miracles.

For example, you could start by saying, “I really hate having credit card debt.” From there, you can talk about your personal experience and then ask for your partner’s take.

Or, try the following softball conversation starters which can help you get at hardball answers:

What you really want to ask: “How much do you have in savings?”
Start with: “Would you say you’re more of a saver or spender? Why?”

This helps you figure out habits and behavior, which can be just as telling as actual figures. “Most important, you want to know what are their spending and saving personality is like. For example, how impulsive are they?” says Kate Northrup, author of Money: A Love Story. You can follow up with a question like, “Are you trying to save up for anything major?” This approach can also help you figure out if you share similar goals.

What you really want to ask: “What’s your credit score?”
Start with: “When did you first open a credit card?”

Go down memory lane together to ease into your credit technicals. Talk about how you might have signed up for your first card in college just to score that free t-shirt. And admit a personal rookie misstep you might have made with said credit card.

Then gradually you can warm up to: “Have you ever looked up your credit score?”

If neither of you know, take a few minutes to get free estimates using mobile apps from Credit Karma, Credit Sesame or Credit.com.

What you really want to ask is: Do you have a lot of student loan debt?
Start with: How did you pay for college?

This is the question many dating couples probably want answered, as towering student loan debt is a sobering reality for many.

A conversation about how you afforded school—via scholarships, working and/or student loans—will help engage your partner. And along the way you may gain some insights into each other’s financial values or work ethic, too.

Once when you’ve gotten all these basics out of the way, treat yourselves to another margarita. Your first money talk out of the way! Now that’s a relationship milestone to be celebrated.

Farnoosh Torabi is a contributing editor at MONEY and the author of the book When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women. More of her columns and videos for MONEY.com:

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