Many years ago, when I was mostly dating for looks and swagger, my grandmother tried to set me up with her friend's son.
"He owns a house and has a good job," she said to persuade me.
"But Gaga, I don't like him like that," I told her.
"Listen, he is a good man. I married your grandfather because I knew he was a good man who would be a good provider," she responded. "That's what you need to look for."
My grandparents stayed together until my grandfather died at age 98. And because he was a great provider, after raising three children, traveling the world, owning a nice home and prepaying every penny of her funeral arraignments, my grandmother can afford to live very comfortably in an assisted-living community.
Since my grandparents' time, the idea of looking to a man as "a provider" has evolved into something quite different for many women. Many of us are waiting longer to marry and, in the meantime, providing for ourselves. What a man brings to the table financially remains a factor, but how early in the dating process should it play a role?
"Very early," says Jacquette Timmons, author of Financial Intimacy: How to Create a Successful Relationship With Your Money and Your Mate. Timmons says that all single women, even those in their 20s, need to examine a man's financial habits from Day 1. "Money is never just about money," she says. "It is a way of evidencing someone's character, discipline, life philosophy and more."
And that will matter if the relationship does go the distance. A new study reveals that "financial infidelity" — going behind your spouse's back to hide money or credit card purchases — can hurt the relationship and lead to divorce.
"Marriage is all about negotiation, compromise, trust and not deceiving each other," psychiatrist Gail Saltz said on the Today show. "I think when financial deception does go on, it [points to] a bigger layer of deception underneath."
Those first few months of dating are typically way too soon to think about marriage, so it may also be too soon to ask a man intimate questions about his finances. But one expert suggests that there are signs, such as not answering calls on his phone or always paying with a card and never looking at the bill.
"A cavalier attitude toward that dinner bill may be an indication of a cavalier attitude towards money in general … no matter how much or little money he has," writes money expert Manisha Thakor.
So, does early discovery that a man has money problems mean you should kick him to the curb? "Not so fast," says Timmons.
"Find out the reason," she says. "He could have a bad credit score and debt due to medical bills or a failed business." Timmons says the most important thing is that staying with him should "depend on if he has a plan to fix those issues and how is he executing that plan."
But before you go asking a lot of questions, Timmons warns that women should not ask what they themselves don't want to answer. In other words, ladies: How's your credit?
Timmons says that black single women especially need to get their own affairs in order before marriage, or at least have a plan to fix whatever financial troubles they may have. "Not only do we tend to remain single longer," she says, "but when we do get married, our husbands die much younger." And then there is divorce. Timmons says that we need to learn early the importance of managing our money as if we are going to be single forever.
"Then, if you do get married," she says, "that's a bonus."