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Ask Alana

Seeking a honey who can handle her money

February 08, 2009|Alana Semuels

You may already know Alana Semuels from her holiday advice column on The Times' website. With Valentine's Day coming up, she debuts in print as etiquette maven Ask Alana, answering questions about romance and finance.

Relationships are hard enough without the economy being in the crapper. Now that money is tight, annoying financial issues in your relationship or dating life have the potential to become huge craters that could run you off-road.

Dear Alana: I am 32 years old and have worked very hard to have no credit debt. I pay for everything with cash. My question: When I marry, do I have any responsibility for paying off my wife's debt? I find that when I meet women and learn how much they are in debt, I turn and run the other way.

Chris from Simi Valley

Dear Chris: Where are you meeting all these women with debt of such frightening proportions? Pawnshops? The mink counter at the department store? Golddiggers.com?

I know lots of 32-year-old women without debt. Most of them live in China or on some sort of a hippie commune.

If you do marry a mink-wearing woman in debt, be warned that you can be responsible for paying off some of her bills, even if she accrued the debt when she was a young and naive debutante, says Peter Walzer of the Woodland Hills law firm Walzer & Melcher. Although creditors probably can't come after your house, they can garnish your wages and, if you have a shiny red sports car (which is probably how you found the gold digger in the first place), creditors can come after that if her debt was accrued for "a necessity of life" like medical bills, Walzer said.

If you're really worried, you could have her sign a premarital agreement, which is a legal thingy that costs a lot of money and is probably not worth it unless you're a millionaire, he said. You could also do an asset search before you get married, and maybe throw in a criminal background check, plus tests for STDs and AIDS, he said. Although after all those tests, you might be the one who's in debt.

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Dear Alana: If a guy asks you out on a date, the traditional presumption is that he will pay for the date. Say by the second or third date you don't feel the sparks are flying or will ever fly. Should you just let him pay and go on your merry way? Or should you offer to split the bill? One way or the other, how do you do so gracefully?

Lindsay from San Francisco

Dear Lindsay: This is one of the few times that I can definitively say that living in the 21st century is better than living in the Middle Ages. Even though they had cooler clothes back then, if a knight asked you out to dinner and you weren't interested, he'd probably marry you anyway and you'd have to forget the idea of being a strong, independent woman and instead spend your nights cooking him mutton.

These days, you can go on three dates with someone, let him pay for everything and not even wrestle over the mutton. Isn't modern dating great?

"It's a mutual understanding that you're going on a date to get to know the person better," says Melanie Dodson, founder of TheInternetDatingCoach.com. "You're under no obligation to reimburse."

Dodson says that if sparks aren't flying by the second or third date, you can offer to split the bill but don't have to do so. Just lean back, bat your eyelashes, order a steak and banish those guilty thoughts to a turret: It's a great way to repay The Man for all those centuries of having to cook him mutton.

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Dear Alana: I split everything with the guy I've been dating (for six months) and there have been no financial issues. But when I subtly suggested that since he's fairly in debt (and I'm in debt) he should not spend $3,000 on some cosmetic issue for himself (hairline related), he would have none of it. Now I'm questioning his priorities and wondering: Is this a bad sign?

Brad from Los Angeles

Dear Brad: Is your boyfriend an actor, a hair transplant salesman or a recently impeached Illinois governor? If so, the $3,000 might not be the craziest thing in the world: Without a full head of hair, how will he land roles on soap operas, sell transplant surgery or rally support from the masses and thus ink a book deal? However, if he's none of those things, spending that kind of money on cosmetic surgery when he's in debt is just plain shallow.

How do you tell him that without hurting his feelings? Constance Hoffman, the owner of Redondo Beach etiquette firm Business & Social Graces, says the important thing is not to blame him. So I would avoid: "How can you spend $3,000 on cosmetic surgery when all you got me for Valentine's Day is this stinkin' free calendar from the 99 cent store?"

Instead of questioning his decisions, talk about your own, she says. You might say, for instance, "Hey, boyfriend, I wish I could spend money getting rid of my love handles with an experimental new procedure in Mexico or maybe even the Philippines, but I am careful with my money and only spend it on caviar and shoelaces. Discuss."

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