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How important is one’s credit score in a relationship? It’s probably not what first attracted you, but it can be pretty important — those three-digit numbers can tell you if someone typically manages finances well. And yet asking about it can feel awkward.

Awkward or not, the conversation shouldn’t wait much past the time a couple decides to make the relationship exclusive, says Tiffany “The Budgetnista” Aliche says — and there’s actually a way to make a money conversation romantic, or at least not positively unromantic. “You can say something like, ‘You know, I’d love for us to be able to go on vacation together — how can we start saving?'” Then you can begin to learn about each other’s financial lives. A goal to look forward to can make the sharing of financial information a little less uncomfortable.

Tiffany Aliche

Tiffany Aliche, aka The Budgetnista

Tiffany also cautions against looking for a certain number when you see your partner’s score. “The score is not scary,” she said. “It’s the behavior that led to it. I don’t mind mistakes — sometimes it’s due to a lack of knowledge. And I’ve made mistakes.”

She didn’t have to ask her boyfriend about his credit, but she was quick to react when he mentioned that he always had to get co-signers for cars. (Worse, the vehicle he was driving when they met had a loan co-signed by an ex-girlfriend. Tiffany was less than thrilled that he was still tied to his ex.)

When she asked why he had needed a co-signer in the first place, he explained that his credit was “not so great.” Puzzled, she asked if they could look at his scores together. (You can do this too; you can see two of your credit scores for free every month on Credit.com.) He was right; his credit was bad — a score of 610, usually considered fair or poor. And yet he was, as far as Tiffany could tell, responsible with his money. She wanted to see what was going on, and why his score was so low.

What Went Wrong

It wasn’t as if he hadn’t tried to improve his score. He’d gotten a secured credit card because he’d been told that would help him build better credit — and he wanted to do that.

And with the best of intentions, he had made a giant mistake. With a credit limit of $500, he charged about $495, and then, methodically and incrementally, started paying it off. He had been told that showing you could handle credit would raise his score, and that those on-time payments (and even that big balance) would show he was responsible with money. He was unaware that a high ratio of the amount of credit he used relative to credit limit was actually hurting his score. (Debt usage accounts for roughly 30% of a credit score.) And using virtually all of his available credit was affecting his credit exactly the opposite of how he intended. “It was a mistake,” Tiffany says. “But he didn’t know.”

The fix was relatively easy; he paid off the bill and then put a monthly $8 Netflix payment on the card and automated payment. A few months later, he noticed a mysterious $500 deposit in his checking account. It turned out the deposit for his secured card had been returned to him and the issuer had approved him for a new, unsecured card. He had achieved his original goal in getting the card: His credit score had improved to 750.

Oh, and that car his ex-girlfriend co-signed for? It’s gone now; he saved up and bought a used car instead.

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Main image: iStock; inset image courtesy Tiffany Aliche

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