What to Do When Your Partner Has Debt
If your boyfriend or girlfriend has accumulated debt in the shape of student loans or credit cards, how do you handle it? Here’s what to do when your partner has debt.
In the golden days of a new relationship, money is usually the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. Hearts are fluttering, connections are being made and love is in the air — why would anyone want to ruin that with a conversation about dollars and cents?
But as the relationship progresses, the importance of discussing financial issues grows exponentially. Many people ignore it, only to wake up one day and realize there are real challenges to marrying someone who has a heaping pile of debt.
If you’re still dating, here are some points to consider so you can avoid that situation. This doesn’t mean all hope is lost if you’re already married when your partner comes clean about his or her debt — it’s still completely possible to tackle the debt together, but having a mutually agreed-upon plan that both of you can stick to should be a priority.
Here are some tips for discussing the facts when your partner has debt.
GET THE DETAILS ON THE DEBT
It’s one thing to have $5,000 in debt and quite another to have $50,000. If your boyfriend admits he’s paying off loans, ask him for the total. Make sure not to judge or make him feel worse. When people feel attacked, that’s when they’re tempted to start lying. Most of us have made poor financial decisions, so try to be as understanding as possible.
A big part of getting the debt details is uncovering how they’re paying everything off. Some people take 20 years to pay off $10,000 in student loans, even though they could’ve been paying more. If this is a long-term repayment situation, it will almost certainly affect your life together.
For a comprehensive look at someone’s finances, Valerie Rind, author of the award-winning book, Gold Diggers and Deadbeat Dads, recommends taking a peek at their credit report. You can find a free copy at Annualcreditreport.com, which will show if there’s a pattern of late payments, high balances, collections, judgments or even worse — bankruptcy.
Giving side-eyes when your girlfriend is buying a new pair of shoes won’t make her more financially responsible. It’s like dating someone who’s on a diet. Asking, “Should you be eating that?” when she orders dessert is akin to saying, “You shouldn’t be eating that, and I’ll judge you if you do.”
Paying off debt is a process. As long as your partner is making progress and learning from their mistakes, lay off the judgment. If this is someone you truly want to spend your life with, focus on encouragement and guidance rather than shame and anger.
“Your sweetheart may have valid reasons for prior money troubles,” Rind says. “Issues in the past don’t necessarily mean he or she is destined to screw up everything in the future. Maybe he was impulsive when he got his first credit card in college but now handles his finances responsibly. Unemployment, divorce, or unexpected medical expenses could have hammered your partner’s savings and retirement accounts.”
DON’T SKIP OTHER BASIC QUESTIONS
If you’ve just uncovered your partner’s debt and emotions are running high, that’s not an excuse to skip over some of the other basic financial information you two should know about each other.
When is it appropriate to ask about your partner’s credit score, savings, and salary? The answer is: when it feels right. If you ask too early, you risk looking like someone who values privacy too little and money too much, aka a gold digger. Ask too late and you may find out your financial lives are not compatible. But better late than never.
Talking about finances is unpleasant, but it’s better to jump right in and get the awkwardness out of the way. It’s akin to ripping off a bandaid: You’ll never look forward to doing it, but you’ll always be glad you did it quickly and efficiently.
IF YOU WANT IT TO WORK, YOU’RE IN THIS TOGETHER
Relationships are about trust, but only a fool starts trusting without a good reason. Ideally, this conversation should be one of the steps along the road to building that trust. You’ll be much happier and more confident in your relationship if you aren’t harboring any lingering doubts.
“You need to know exactly what you’re getting into,” Rind says. “You don’t want to be blindsided later.”
The good news is your partner’s debt incurred before marriage won’t become yours. It’s the debt you acquire while you’re married that can affect your credit (knowing whether or not you live in a community property state doesn’t hurt either). Your credit will also not be affected by your new spouse, unless you cosign for their loans.
Just remember, having a conversation about debt is the key. If you’re both willing to be upfront and honest, you’ll know more about the relationship’s future than the credit report can really tell you.