MONEY Pensions

What Retirees Need to Know about the New Federal Pension Rules

Only a small percentage of retirees are directly affected by the new rule. But future legislation may lead to more pension cutbacks.

The last-minute deal to allow retiree pension benefit cuts as part of the federal spending bill for 2015 passed by Congress last week has set off shock waves in the U.S. retirement system.

Buried in the $1.1 trillion “Cromnibus” legislation signed this week by President Barack Obama was a provision that aims to head off a looming implosion of multiemployer pension plans—traditional defined benefit plans jointly funded by groups of employers. The pension reforms affect only retirees in struggling multiemployer pension plans, but any retiree living on a defined benefit pension could rightly wonder: Am I next?

“Even people who aren’t impacted directly by this would have to ask themselves: If they’re doing that, what’s to stop them from doing it to me?” says Jeff Snyder, vice president of Cammack Retirement Group, a consulting and investment advisory firm that works with retirement plans.

The answer: plenty. Private sector pensions are governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which prevents cuts for retirees in most cases. The new legislation doesn’t affect private sector workers in single-employer plans. Workers and retirees in public sector pension plans also are not affected by the law.

Here are answers to some of the key questions workers and retirees should be asking in the legislation’s wake.

Q: Cutting benefits for people who already are retired seems unfair. Why was this done?

A: Proponents argue it was better to preserve some pension benefit for workers in the most troubled plans rather than letting plans collapse. The multiemployer plans are backstopped by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp (PBGC), the federally sponsored agency that insures private sector pensions. The multiemployer fund was on track to run out of money within 10 years—a date that could be hastened if healthy companies withdraw from their plans. If the multiemployer backup system had been allowed to collapse, pensioners would have been left with no benefit.

Opponents, including AARP and the Pension Rights Center, argued that cutting benefits for current retirees was draconian and established a bad precedent.

Q: Who will be affected by the new law? If I have a traditional pension, should I worry?

A: Only pensioners in multiemployer plans are at risk, and even there, the risk is limited to retirees in “red zone” plans—those that are severely underfunded. Of the 10 million participants in multiemployer plans, perhaps 1 million will see some cuts. The new law also prohibits any cuts for beneficiaries over age 80, or who receive a disability pension.

Q: What will be the size of the cuts?

A: That is up to plan trustees. However, the maximum cuts permitted under the law are dramatic. Many retirees in these troubled plans were well-paid union workers who receive substantial pension benefits. For a retiree with 25 years of service and a $25,000 annual benefit, the maximum annual cut permitted under the law is $13,200, according to a cutback calculator at the Pension Rights Center’s website.

The cuts must be approved by a majority of all the active and retired workers in a plan (not just a majority of those who vote).

Q: How do I determine if I’m at risk?

A: Plan sponsors are required to send out an annual funding notice indicating the funding status of your program. Plans in the red zone must send workers a “critical status alert.” If you’re in doubt, Snyder suggests, “just call your retirement plan administrator,” Snyder says. “Simply ask, if you have cause for concern. Is your plan underfunded?”

The U.S. Department of Labor’s website maintains a list of plans on the critical list.

Q: How quickly would the cuts be made?

A: If a plan’s trustees decide to make cuts, a notice would be sent to workers. Snyder says implementation would take at least six months, and might require “a year or more.”

Q: Am I safe if I am in a single employer pension plan?

A: When the PBGC takes over a private sector single employer plan, about 85% of beneficiaries receive the full amount of their promised benefit. The maximum benefit paid by PBGC this year is $59,320.

Q: Does this law make it more likely that we’ll see efforts to cut other retiree benefits?

A: That will depend on the political climate in Washington, and in statehouses across the country. In a previous column I argued that the midterm elections results boost the odds of attacks on public sector pensions, Social Security and Medicare.

Sadly, the Cromnibus deal should serve as a warning that full pension benefits aren’t a sure thing anymore. So having a Plan B makes sense. “If you have a defined benefit pension, great,” Snyder says. “But you should still be putting money away to make sure you have something to rely on in the future.”

Read next: This Is the Toughest Threat to Boomers’ Retirement Plans

MONEY retirement planning

What Scrooge Can Teach You About Retirement Planning

Scrooge in A Christmas Carol
Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol" © Walt Disney Co.—Courtesy Everett Collection

Sure, he was tight-fisted. But Scrooge's money habits are a useful model for reaching your retirement goals.

I can hear the cries of outrage already. How can A Christmas Carol‘s Scrooge, the character Charles Dickens described as tight-fisted, squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching and covetous, possibly be a paragon of retirement planning? Bah humbug! If anything, he’s a role model for how not to live one’s life!

And I agree, up to a point. But if you’re willing to overlook a few of his, shall we say, flaws, good old Scrooge also possessed some qualities that make him a pretty decent role model for achieving a secure and meaningful retirement. Here are three we may well to emulate, albeit in moderation, to improve our retirement outlook.

1. Scrooge had a phenomenal work ethic. When the novel opens, Scrooge is at work in his counting-house late in the afternoon on Christmas eve. He didn’t duck out early to do some last-minute shopping. He wasn’t posting Happy Holidays photos on Instagram. He was putting in a full day’s work.

Granted, in recent years millions of people who would like to do just that haven’t had the option. Perhaps the recent upbeat employment report signals a more vibrant jobs market ahead. But the fact remains that the commitment to work that Scrooge displays is crucial to a successful retirement for two reasons: you can’t build a nest egg without regular income; and the amount you earn and number of years on the job largely determine the size of a key source of retirement income: your Social Security benefit.

Note too that Scrooge was still working relatively late in life. Dickens doesn’t give Ebenezer’s age, but many people estimate he was in his late 50s or 60s, which is getting up there considering life expectancy in mid-19th century England was about 40. So we can take a cue from Scrooge on this score as well. For example, in their new book Falling Short: The Coming Retirement Crisis and What To Do About It, authors Alicia Munnell, Charles Ellis and Andrew Eschtruth point out that just a few extra years on the job can go a long way toward improving one’s retirement prospects. And if that doesn’t do the trick, you can always supplement your income by working in retirement.

2. The man was a prodigious saver. Scrooge definitely knew a thing or two about saving a buck. And he didn’t resort to gimmicks like apps that round up credit card purchases to the nearest dollar and deposit the difference in an investing account, giving you the impression you’re saving while encouraging spending. He did it the old-fashioned way by keeping his everyday living expenses down.

He went way, way too far, of course, what with living in the dark, keeping a very small fire and eating gruel from a saucepan. But he had the right idea—namely, if you live below your means by not splurging on over-the-top vacations, expensive cars and big houses with mortgage payments to match, you’ll have a better chance of saving the 15% a year that can lead to a comfy retirement. And while Dickens doesn’t get into Scrooge’s investing habits, my guess is that ol’ Ebenezer wouldn’t fall for pitches for dubious or expensive investments. I think he’d be an index-fund kinda guy who realizes that reducing investment fees boosts the size of your nest egg and the amount of income you can draw from it.

3. Scrooge (eventually) understood what really matters. This may very well be the most important lesson we can draw from Scrooge. Sure, it took visits from his dead business partner Marley and a few ghosts to transform him. But by the end of the novel, Scrooge has morphed from a pinched and selfish man into a generous and compassionate person who anonymously sends a turkey to the Cratchit home for Christmas dinner and becomes like a second father to Bob Cratchit’s son, Tiny Tim. In short, he realizes that wealth brings happiness only when we share it with our families and others in ways that improve all our lives.

So while it’s important to focus on making good financial decisions, we should never forget that retirement planning isn’t just about the bucks. Ultimately, it’s about creating a retirement lifestyle that has meaning and purpose as well as financial security.

So if your thoughts happen to stray to your retirement over this holiday season and you find yourself wondering how you might improve your planning, ask yourself WWSD—What Would Scrooge Do? Whether it’s the stingy Ebenezer or the more benevolent version, he just might provide the inspiration you need.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. If you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

More from RealDealRetirement.com:

How To Invest In Today’s Topsy-Turvy Market—And In The Year Ahead

What’s Your “Magic” Retirement Number?

Does Uncle Sam Want To Contribute $2,000 Toward Your Retirement?

MONEY Debt

The Unknown Debt That’s Dragging Down Your Credit Score

pile of pills in dark lighting
Science Picture Co—Getty Images

A new report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau finds that 52% of all debt on credit reports is medical debt.

Even if you carry no debt on your credit card and pay your mortgage every month, another kind of debt might be ruining your credit: medical debt.

Almost 43 million Americans have overdue medical debt dragging down their credit, according to a new report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But 15 million of those people, by CFPB estimates, have no other dings on their credit. And debt collection agencies pursue fairly small medical debts: The average medical debt on a credit report is $579, and the median is just $207.

The scariest part? You may not know that you have a problem. “Many, many people don’t even know they have a bill—much less that it’s affecting their credit score,” says Christina LaMontagne of NerdWallet.

The CFPB attributes part of the problem to a debt collection practice called “parking.” The federal agency says some debt collectors will ding the consumer’s credit before even notifying the consumer that there’s an outstanding medical bill. “Parking” the debt where it can do the most damage motivates the person to pay it off quickly. Sometimes insurers ultimately pay the costs—after a consumer’s credit may have already suffered.

“This is viewed by some collectors as a way to minimize costs, but it is not how the system is supposed to work,” CFPB director Richard Cordray explained in a statement announcing the report. “And the collection process should not depend on harming consumers by adverse reporting before a consumer even learns she owes a medical debt. If it takes a drop in her credit score or an adverse action notice to make the point, then even more damage has been done to her financial standing.”

Even if debt collectors haven’t “parked” medical debt on your credit report, medical bills can be a vexing problem. Patients often struggle to learn the cost of their health care beforehand and understand their bills after the fact, LaMontagne says. A NerdWallet study found that 63% of Americans say they’ve received unexpectedly high medical bills. And bills are often wrong: In an audit of Medicare claims, NerdWallet found that 49% contained errors, resulting in an average 23% overcharge.

As a result, one in five Americans may be contacted by a collection agency about medical debt this year, by NerdWallet’s estimate. That’s why all consumers should be on guard. Here’s what to do to keep it from happening to you.

Control costs

Of course, the best way to avoid debt is to keep expenses low at the outset. But with medical costs, that’s easier said than done. The most important thing? Stay in network.

“Most of the very high charges I see are for people who inadvertently saw out-of-network providers,” LaMontagne says. “Print out the statement that says this doctor is in network and have that to protect yourself down the line.”

Also, if you know you’ll need a procedure like an MRI, shop around first. “Leverage price transparency tools whenever possible,” LaMontagne says. “People do see huge variations in prices.”

Save for high deductibles

While the Affordable Care Act has provided health insurance to an additional 10 million people, most Americans still get health coverage from their employers, and employers have been steadily raising deductibles, LaMontagne says. That means many consumers have to pay much more out of pocket before insurance covers the bulk of their costs. So more Americans may be hit with unexpectedly high bills.

But that doesn’t mean high-deductible plans are bad, LaMontagne is quick to add. It just means people with these plans need to shop around for procedures and budget for health care expenses by setting aside money in tax-advantaged savings accounts like a health savings account (HSA).

Ask for an itemized bill

“It’s really hard to read a straight bill as they usually come in the mail,” LaMontagne says. Luckily, you’re entitled to an itemized one.

When you get it, look for doctors and procedures you don’t recognize. Compare the bill against your explanation of benefits from your insurer to see if your insurance has been applied correctly.

If you think there’s a serious billing error, “call the doctor or call the insurance as your first line of defense,” LaMontagne says. But when all else fails, you can seek help from a professional medical bill advocate.

Check your credit report

Once a year, you’re entitled to a free credit report from each of the three credit bureaus: Experian, Trans­Union, and Equifax. So check every four months. Go to annualcreditreport.com to request your report. If you find an error, submit a dispute with the credit bureau.

Pay it off quickly

The good news: Fair Isaac, the company that creates FICO credit scores, announced earlier this year that medical debt will no longer drag down your credit score after it’s been paid off. Consumers with median credit scores and no other debt can expect to see their FICO score increase 25 points after paying off an overdue medical bill that’s been sent to collections.

So tackle medical debt quickly—it can make a big difference.

Read more:

MONEY retirement planning

You’ll Never Guess Who’s Saving the Most For Retirement

rhinestone studded piggy bank
Robert George Young—Getty Images

As Americans delay retirement, they are saving more for their later years.

Americans with investment accounts grew a lot richer last year thanks to the booming stock market—but the 65-plus crowd enjoyed the biggest increase in savings for retirement of any age group.

Total U.S. household investable assets (liquid net worth, not including housing wealth) surged 16% to $41.2 trillion in 2013, according to a report published Wednesday by financial research firm Hearts & Wallets. That far exceeded annual gains that ranged from 5% to 12% in the post-Recession years of 2009 to 2012.

But when it came to retirement savings, older investors saw the biggest gains in IRA and 401(k) assets: Retirement assets for people age 65-74 rose from $2.3 trillion to $3.5 trillion in 2014, a new high.

What’s fueling the growth? Well, a lot of people 65 and older aren’t retiring. So they’re still socking away money for their nonworking years. Meanwhile, others who have quit work are finding they don’t need as much as they thought, so they continue to save, according to Lynn Walters from Hearts & Wallets.

As attitudes about working later in life change, so does the terminology of what people are saving for, Walters says. Rather than retirement, Americans are saving for a “lifestyle choice” in their later years. According to the study, most households ages 55-64 do not consider retirement a near-term option. Four out of five have not stopped full-time work. Says Walters: “The goal is to have enough money for the lifestyle you want when you’re older, not just quitting work.”

Read next: Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda: What You Can Learn From the Top 3 Pre-Retirement Mistakes

MONEY Shopping

How to Get the Best Prices on Holiday Gifts Every Time

Stack of coins on top of computer mouse
David Muir—Getty Images

These online tools can save you big money on holiday shopping

After a lackluster Black Friday (and a less-lackluster-but-still-not-great Cyber Monday) it looks like Americans still have plenty of holiday shopping ahead of them. Indeed, many shoppers now assume that the best deals are likely to appear weeks after the frenzied launch of the shopping season has passed. And they are probably right.

But with sales so ubiquitous throughout December, it’s hard to know if you’re actually getting a bargain at any given moment and at any given store or website. Luckily, using one of these free online tools can ensure that you always get a solid deal.

In-person shopping

Arguably, there’s no longer a compelling reason to leave your home (or even your bed) to shop. But if you prefer to hold an item in your hands before you buy, you like to come across gift ideas via serendipity, or you simply enjoy the thrill of the hunt, you still might find yourself in brick-and-mortar stores at holiday time.

Whatever the reason, use The Find to make sure you’re getting a decent price before you pull out your wallet. It’s true that many apps let you scan products inside a store to compare prices at other retailers, both brick-and-mortar and online. I like The Find best because it usually cross-checks more retailers than the competition (it’s the only price-comparison tool I’ve seen that includes Amazon results, other than Amazon’s own app) and it saves your scans so you can view them later when you get back to a computer. The Find also works on both iOS and Android, making it available to most shoppers.

RetailMeNot is useful for a different reason: It will show you a selection of the latest deals, a map of coupons for nearby stores, and allow you to search for specific store coupons. You can save these deals right in the app and then use them at checkout. RetailMeNot also shows online offers for a particular store right next to the in-store deals, so you’ll know whether it’s better to buy in person or over the web.

Many stores have their own app that comes loaded with coupons, deals, and other ways to save. Walmart’s Savings Catcher, for example, lets shoppers scan their receipts and then get instant rebates if another store offers the same item at a cheaper price. Target’s Cartwheel app gives customers instant coupons that they can then apply to their purchase. If you’re about to go shopping, search your phone’s app store and see if your retailer of choice has their own official app that offers similar deals.

Online shopping

Make no mistake: The apps listed above can ensure you’re getting a competitive price — but they can’t always get you the best price. For that, or something close to it, you probably have to shop from home on your computer, and it helps if you also monitor prices, deals, and coupons over time.

PriceBlink, for example, tracks the competition as you shop in real time. This browser extension automatically recognizes that you’re looking at a product and shows you a list of competing prices right on the same page. See a better deal? Just click and you’re there. It also alerts you to any coupons or deals it detects.

PriceBlink

Maybe you already found the best available price on the web, but aren’t sure whether to buy now or wait for an even better deal? That’s the kind of first-world anxiety TrackIf exists to treat. This website allows you to set price alerts on any product, and will email you if the price drops any lower. It even comes with a handy browser extension that will show you a product’s recent price history so you’ll know whether you’re getting the best price.

TrackIf

Coupons are another great way to save money, but most people don’t use them because it’s annoying to go around the web hunting down the right codes. Coupons at Checkout addresses that by making coupons pretty much effortless. Just install the browser extension and it will automatically offer you relevant coupon codes when you go to checkout at an online retailer.

Coupons at Checkout

 

MONEY Savings

Why a New Year’s Resolution to Save More May Actually Work

piggy bank in confetti
Benne Ochs—Getty Images

The economy is up, and New Year's Resolutions are on the decline. Too bad, because making a financial commitment can really help you reach your goals.

Most New Year’s resolutions are pointless. Only one in 10 people stick with them for a year, and many folks don’t last much more than a month. But as 2015 approaches, you might consider a financial New Year’s resolution anyway. Those who resolve to improve their money behavior at the start of the year get ahead at a faster rate than those who do not, new research shows.

Among those who made a financial resolution last year, 51% report feeling better about their money now, according to a new survey from Fidelity Investments. By contrast, only 38% of those who did not make a money resolution said they felt better.

Meanwhile, New Year’s financial resolutions seem to be easier to stay with: 42% find it easier to pay down debt and save more for retirement than, say, lose weight or give up smoking. Among those who made a financial resolution last year, 29% reached their goal and 73% got at least half way there, Fidelity found. Only 12% of resolutions having to do with things like fitness and health do not end in failure, other research shows.

So it is discouraging to note that the rate of people considering a New Year’s financial resolution is on the decline: just 31% plan to make one this year, down from 43% last year. A fall financial pulse survey from Charles Schwab is slightly more encouraging: 36% say they want to get their finances in order and that working with a financial planner would most improve their life. But a bigger share say they are most concerned with losing weight (37%) and would like to work with a trainer (38%). Topping the financial resolutions list in the Fidelity survey, as is the case nearly every year, are saving more (55%), paying off debt (20%) and spending less (17%)—all of which are closely connected. The median savings goal is an additional $200 a month.

Why are financial resolutions on the decline? The stock market has been hitting record highs, unemployment has dipped below 6% and the economy is growing at its fastest pace in years. So the urgency to tighten our belts felt during the Great Recession and immediate aftermath may be lifting.

But no matter how much the economic climate has improved, Americans remain woefully under saved for retirement and paying off debt is almost always a smart strategy. In the Schwab survey, 53% said if they were given an unexpected gift this year their top choice would be cash to pay down credit cards. One key to sticking to your New Year’s pledge: track progress and check in often. Two-thirds of those who set a goal find progress to be motivating, Fidelity found. That’s true whether you are trying to lose 20 pounds or save $20 a week.

More on saving and budgeting from Money 101:

How can I make it easier to save?

How do I set a budget I can stick to?

Should I save or pay off debt?

MONEY retirement planning

Flunking Retirement Readiness, and What to Do About It

red pencil writing "F" failing grade
Thomas J. Peterson—Alamy

Americans don't get the basics of retirement planning. Automating 401(k)s and expanding benefits for lower-income workers may be the best solution.

Imagine boarding a jet and heading for your seat, only to be told you’re needed in the cockpit to fly the plane.

Investing expert William Bernstein argued in a recent interview that what has happened in our workplace retirement system over the past 30 years is analogous. We’ve shifted from defined benefit pension plans managed by professional financial pilots to 401(k) plans controlled by passengers.

Once, employers made the contributions, investment pros handled the investments and the income part was simple: You retired, the checks started arriving and continued until you died. Now, you decide how much to invest, where to invest it and how to draw it down. In other words, you fuel the plane, you pilot the plane and you land it.

It’s no surprise that many of us, especially middle- and lower-income households, crash. The Federal Reserve’s latest Survey of Consumer Finances, released in September, found that ownership of retirement plans has fallen sharply in recent years, and that low-income households have almost no savings.

But even wealthier households seem to be failing retirement flight school.

Eighty percent of Americans with nest eggs of at least $100,000 got an “F” on a test about managing retirement savings put together recently by the American College of Financial Services. The college, which trains financial planners, asked over 1,000 60- to 75-year-olds about topics like safe retirement withdrawal rates, investment and longevity risk.

Seven in 10 had never heard of the “4% rule,” which holds that you can safely withdraw that amount annually in retirement.

Very few understood the risk of investing in bonds. Only 39% knew that a bond’s value falls when interest rates rise—a key risk for bondholders in this ultra-low-rate environment.

“We thought the grades would have been better, because there’s been so much talk about these subjects in the media lately,” said David Littell, who directs a program focused on retirement income at the college. “We wanted to see if any of it is sinking in.”

Many 401(k) plans have added features in recent years that aim to put the plane back on autopilot: automatic enrollment, auto-escalation of contributions and target date funds that adjust your level of risk as retirement approaches.

But none of that seems to be moving the needle much. A survey of 401(k) plan sponsors released last month by Towers Watson, the employee benefit consulting firm, found rising levels of worry about employee retirement readiness. Just 12% of respondents say workers know how much they need for retirement; 20% said their employees are comfortable making investment decisions.

The study calls for redoubled efforts to educate workers, but there’s little evidence that that works. “I hate to be anti-education, but I just don’t think it’s the way to go,” says Alicia Munnell, director of Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research. “You have to get people at just the right time when they want to pay attention—just sending education out there doesn’t produce any change at all.”

What’s more, calls for greater financial literacy efforts carry a subtle blame-the-victim message that I consider dead wrong. People shouldn’t have to learn concepts like safe withdrawal rates or the interaction of interest rates and bond prices to retire with security.

Just as important, many middle- and lower-income households don’t earn enough to accumulate meaningful savings. “We’ve had stagnant wage growth for a long time—a lot of people can’t save and cover their living expenses,” says Munnell, co-author of “Falling Short: The Coming Retirement Crisis and What to Do About It” (Oxford University Press, December 2014).

Since the defined contribution system is here to stay, she says, we should focus on improving it. “We have to auto-enroll everyone, and auto-escalate their contributions. Otherwise, we’re doing more harm than good.”

Munnell acknowledges that a better 401(k) system mainly benefits upper-income households with the capacity to save. For everyone else, it’s important that no cuts be made to Social Security. And she says proposals to expand benefits at the lower end of the income distribution make sense.

“Given all the difficulty we’re having expanding coverage with employer-sponsored plans, that is the most efficient way to provide income to lower-paid workers.”

Read next: The Big Flaws in Your 401(k) and How to Fix Them

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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