Money: The Root Of All Issues

I knew the union was doomed when he picked up a $12 triangle of aged Parmesan cheese and tossed it in our shopping cart at Trader Joe's as if it were just another affordable family-sized tray of frozen enchiladas. Lactose I could tolerate, but $12 cheese made me queasy.

I was in my 20s, and I couldn't begin to articulate my discomfort with the casual way in which he added the princely Parmesan to our joint grocery bill. I couldn't explain why his sturdy sense of financial entitlement flew in the face of my belief that to buy ridiculously posh cheese was to practically invite financial disaster. For his part, I'm sure he thought it was strange that a parking ticket would inspire the type of overwrought reaction in me generally reserved for a community college production of "Medea." When I saw that little pink paper under my windshield wiper, it was more than just a $30 street cleaning violation; it was a Greek tragedy.

Suffice it to say, he and I grew up in two different worlds. His father was an Ivy League professor, mine was an auto mechanic. None of this was discussed, not the parents, the Parmesan, the parking tickets or the paranoia.

Here's the thing. When it comes to dating, money is the last conversational taboo.

In my entire dating history - as long and storied as the Ming Dynasty, with almost as many uprisings - I've never asked a guy what he earns, what he has or what he owes.

In today's relationship climate, we are far more likely to discuss STDs than TRWs.

Think about that. We'll review our entire sexual histories - unexplained itches and inflammation - but discuss the interest rate on our overdue Banana Republic card? No way. That's personal. Sex is one thing, but can you think of anything more intimate than saying, "I'll show you mine, and you show me yours" and sitting down at the coffee table to swap bank statements and credit card bills?

The whole topic makes me squeamish, and I'm not the only one. Money is the biggest cause of fights during the first year of marriage, according to the Assn. of Bridal Consultants. This suggests that money issues probably don't come up much during the courtship phase, which is where I live. (I know you're thinking, wow, a statistic from that eminent think tank, the Assn. of Bridal Consultants.)

"I can't believe how many couples I see who never discussed money before they got married," says Karen McCall, financial counselor and founder of the Financial Recovery Institute. "If you're crawling into bed with someone, taking off your clothes, having sex, wouldn't you want to know about their credit and debt? I would. Full disclosure about financial issues is key when you start getting serious with someone."

SEEMS reasonable, but how do you bring up money without sounding like a calculating, unromantic gold digger? McCall says you have to choose the right moment.

"If you're going on your first weekend getaway, just say something like, 'Can we talk about the financial aspects of the trip? I don't want to assume you're paying. Should we share some of it?' This is a perfect opportunity," she points out. "Ask open-ended questions, be nonthreatening and don't bombard."

Does this mean bombarding and total avoidance aren't two of "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People"?

Obviously, there's a middle ground, some sort of mature, gentle and early inquiry. I guess an actual conversation, as painfully well adjusted and foreign as that sounds, beats trying to read the tea leaves - or the cheese slices.