Dear Penny: My Boyfriend Lied About His Finances. We Planned to Buy a House. Help!

A couple turn their backs to each other on the terrace of an apartment building.
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Dear Penny,

After being with my boyfriend for two years, I found out after we went to dinner and his debit card was declined that he had only $30 in his checking account, no savings, and $20,000 in credit card debt. This is not what he’s been telling me for these two years.

We’ve talked about getting married, buying a house together, etc., so I’m disappointed. I explained to him that financial responsibility is important to me and gave him six months to show me he’s making progress. He has a decent job; we make about the same income, and we split most costs. He also has a side business and a rental property. He initially sold some items he had laying around and did some side jobs. But it’s been nine months since our initial conversation, and he’s maybe down $1,000 in credit card debt. I don’t know what to do. I’m not sure he’s serious, but when I talk to him he says he’s working on it.

— Shocked & Disappointed

Dear Shocked,

This sounds like quite a surprise to adjust to. However, imposing your financial expectations on someone else rarely works. We all have unique relationships with money, and your boyfriend is living with his.

Those two years of lying about money are certainly something to address before commingling your finances through marriage or shared property. His hiding purchases or lying about money could put you in a tough situation down the road, and keeping finances separate can protect you from that.

It sounds like your ultimatum wasn’t the motivation he needed to pay off debt or earn more money — and maybe those aren’t priorities for him. That’s OK. Repaying debt doesn’t have to be a high priority as long as you understand the consequences of the debt you hold. One of those consequences, in this case, might be that he can’t buy a house with you on the timeline you’ve discussed.

You can’t force someone into relating to money the way you want. But you can get creative and work with what you can control or influence about your circumstances. For example, maybe you want to be married but keep your finances separate so his debt doesn’t affect you. Maybe you want to live together in a home you own while he pays you rent (perhaps with an agreement that that leads to him sharing ownership at some point).

There might be ways to share your lives together even if you don’t see eye-to-eye on money. You just have to think beyond the norm a bit. Consider the reality of your unique circumstances and relationships with money, rather than hoping for him to make a transformation that doesn’t seem to be coming.

Dana Miranda is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance®, author, speaker and personal finance journalist. She writes Healthy Rich, a newsletter about how capitalism impacts the ways we think, teach and talk about money.