You’ve met the one. You plan to spend your life with this person, but there is a problem, they have a lot of debt. If you’ve worked hard to avoid or get yourself out of debt, it’s understandable that the idea of taking on someone else’s would be unpalatable at best. At worst, it could be a deal-breaker, as financial conflicts are a major cause for divorce.
47% of couples report being financially mismatched, where one is a saver and the other a spender.
Talking about money can be difficult in the best of times, so even figuring out how to start a conversation about a partner’s acquired debt can be hard. It’s important to work on the debt together, and know that you are not alone, only 23% of Americans report being “debt-free” and 38% report finances being a major issue in their marriage. In this article, we will go over some simple steps to help you and your partner manage the debt, as a team.
Step One: Communication
We are conditioned from early on, regardless of the tax bracket, to avoid discussing money. The reasons are complex and often very individualized. But think about marriage like partnering for a long-term business venture. You’d want to do your research and feel confident in your new partner, right? To do that you have to be frank, both in asking and answering questions. We all come with an elaborate set of money values, amassed over our lives, started as toddlers handling paper money and begging for toys, through how our parents managed their finances, chores, and allowances, to how we paid for secondary schooling. The first step to get on track as a couple managing debt is all about learning your and your partner’s money values. Once you understand where you both come from, then you can discuss where you want to go. What you want your life to look like, your retirement, all of it. It will be difficult, especially if your money values are very different. But everyone needs to put their cards on the table. How much is owed, to whom, and learn the story of their debts? Both parties must be ready to listen and share.
Financial infidelity is more common than you may think, 41% of couples reported hiding financial information, debt, or credit cards.
Understanding how your partner got to where they are will help to understand how best to proceed. For example, is their debt student debt that went toward financing their good career? That is a worthwhile debt. On the other hand, is the debt from credit cards because of a consistent habit of poor money management? Both result in debt, but the underlying causes, and how to help, are quite different.
Step Two: Make a Plan Together
Once everything is on the table and fully disclosed, the next step is devising a plan together. It is important to remember that debt incurred before marriage does not transfer to a spouse. Their existing debt will not affect your credit score as long as it remains separate. Anything after marriage though, including cosigning, or community property depending on the state, will be the responsibility of both parties and can alter credit scores. The goal of the debt plan for your partner should be to pay off outstanding debts, get finances under control, and into good standing. That being said, emptying out your savings or the good-standing partner taking on the others debt, are not good options. Instead, this is a time to be creative. Create, together, a very thorough budget including living expenses, money allotted to savings, and some left for non-essentials. Once you have that number, look at your incomes coming in and how much you can put toward the debts. Perhaps, for a time, one partner covers the majority household costs while the other focuses on paying down debt. There are many ways to go about paying off debt, attacking the most expensive and highest interest is a good place to start. Paying more than the minimums across the board can help as well. This is the perfect time to cancel unneeded subscriptions and monthly fees, sell off unused valuable items, and pare down lifestyle-wise.
The average American consumer spends around $5400, or $450 a month, on impulse purchases.
Step Three: Bring in Professionals
If you are having trouble with either of the first two steps, communicating or planning, then it’s time to bring in step three, which is where you seek out help. What kind of help depends on your situation, if there has been financial infidelity, for example, marriage counseling may be best. If some foundational aspects of your relationship, you need to address that before you can work as a team. If the issue is that the debt is so large or complex, a financial advisor or debt counselor may be the person to talk to. The goal here is twofold: the first is to get the debt under control and the second is to do so as a team. Opposites attract and the majority of couples are somewhat financially mismatched. There is a difference between being financially mismatched and being so strained by debt that it starts to hurt or even end a relationship.
Approaching the debt as a team, being open to understanding and withholding judgment, planning together, and reaching out for assistance will get you on track. Working together, learning to be open and communicate, may also strengthen your relationship for the future.