5 Ways to Help Ensure Debt Doesn't Derail Your Relationship
Be open, understand your differences about money management, and check in with each other regularly to help keep your bond healthy.
Money talk isn’t exactly pillow talk. In fact, if you’re like most people, talking about money with your partner probably ranks as one of your least favorite activities. But if you’re in a relationship, it’s something you have to learn how to do well.
One of the big stumbling blocks that a lot of couples encounter when it comes to talking about money is debt. Debt can be a touchy topic, fraught with emotions. You need to find ways to talk about money together that are healthy and lead to productive outcomes, not fights.
Here are five tips to help make sure debt doesn’t derail an otherwise successful relationship:
1. Be Completely Honest. It’s important to be forthcoming when you talk about debt with your partner. Having a large amount of debt (or even a small amount) can feel embarrassing to some people, but hiding the truth won’t do your relationship any favors. I always recommend that couples have an open discussion about what you “own” and what you “owe” early on in the relationship, and check back in regularly on these topics (especially if you maintain separate accounts.)
With some couples, you may need to have a conversation early on about differences in debt load, particularly if one person has significantly more. You may find that, even if your salaries are similar, your discretionary incomes may be very different because of debt.
For couples who have been in relationships for a long time, it’s important to build trust by being honest about your financial mistakes and misgivings. While you can’t always be totally on the same page, being transparent will help both of you feel like you are a team.
2. Understand the Legal Implications. The good news? You are not legally required to take on the existing debt of the person you marry. So just because your partner has massive student loans or a sizeable credit card debt before you tie the knot doesn’t mean you are putting yourself in financial peril. However, in certain states, any debt taken out while you are married can be considered a joint liability regardless of who signs the paperwork.
That said, you will need to decide whether to work together to pay off debt or attack it separately. There’s no right or wrong here; it depends on you as a couple. But it’s a good idea to have this conversation and come to an agreement before you make your relationship official in the eyes of the law.
3. Examine Your Feelings About Debt. It’s easy for conversations about money—and particularly about debt—to become emotionally charged. Conflicts can arise when one person is a spender and the other is a saver, or when one person likes to stick to a very specific budget and the other handles money more loosely.
But differences in how you approach money don’t have to spell doom for your relationship, as long as you treat each other with respect and find ways to reduce conflict.
One way to tackle this is to spend some time examining your own emotions regarding money, and debt specifically. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- How did your parents talk about and approach money? What about debt?
- Are there specific events from your past that influence how you think about debt?
- Do you have any unhealthy thought patterns around money that you can work to improve?
- What are your worst fears and greatest hopes regarding your financial future?
Getting a handle on not just how you feel about money but why you feel the way you do can go a long way toward helping you approach the subject in a calmer and more rational way with your partner. You may even want to talk through the answers to the questions above with your partner; it can foster empathy to see clearly where you’re each coming from.
4. Formulate a Plan. If you have individual or joint debt, you’ll want to get on the same page about how to pay it off. Some couples prefer to share household expenses but keep individual debts separate. Others will treat all debt as shared debt and work together to pay it off.
When it comes to deciding how you will tackle debt, as a couple or individually, some things to think about include:
- Are you comfortable just paying the minimum each month, or do you want to pay it off as quickly as possible?
- How will debt payments figure into your overall spending plan?
- Will you put certain goals on hold in favor of paying down your debt? Which ones? For how long?
Remember, if you are dealing with student loan debt, there are a few different options for paying it off. Here are some unconventional approaches to paying off student loans you may want to consider.
Also keep in mind that if you are thinking about making a big purchase as a couple—say, buying a home—you should check both of your credit scores using a tool like Credit Karma to make sure you know where you stand. (Here’s a credit score primer that can help you better understand this important number.)
5. Check in regularly. Finally, remember that the only constant in life is change, and that applies to debt as well. Your financial situation will change—you’ll get raises or switch jobs—so you’ll want to check back in periodically to make sure you are on the same page.
If you’re working hard to pay down debt, it’s a good idea to touch base regularly on whether you are both sticking with it. If one or both of you is struggling to keep up with your debt pay-down plan, don't play the blame game. It won't always be easy, and that's okay. Feel free to share your feelings with your partner. Talk through the challenges you are facing and work to find a solution together. The key here is keeping those lines of communication open!
As I mentioned before, there’s no right or wrong way to address debt as a couple. It simply depends on your goals and values, both individually and as a couple. That said, it’s vital to have an understanding of each other’s perspectives and develop a system of communicating about and paying down debt that both of you are comfortable with.
Money talk probably won’t ever be pillow talk, but as long as you’re talking about it—not fighting about it—I call that a win.
QUIZ: Are You a Money Savvy Couple?
Karen Carr is a CFP® at the Society of Grownups. She believes financial planning doesn’t have to be intimidating and that it’s definitely not one-size-fits-all.
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