Relationships and Debt

If love is blind, money problems can be a real eye-opener. For many couples when the issue of personal debt is revealed it can raise doubts. The big question is whether those discoveries will alter your choice of a life together.

A few years ago I interacted with a couple, Trent and Jenna, who were recently engaged. They had dated for two years and were excited to take this next step in their life. We discussed their future plans for home ownership, travel, and starting a family. In the conversation, Trent revealed he had more than $10,000 of credit card debt—this was the first Jenna had heard the amount of his debt.

During our conversation it became clear Trent had made a number of short-term spending decisions that had long-term consequences. As time passed, the debt increased because he was only making minimum payments. Jenna was stunned and began replaying Trent’s numerous spending decisions from their two years together.

Few relationships are founded on the full financial disclosure that would help create a healthy money dynamic. Only when you are both committed to that openness can you make informed decisions about how it will impact your relationship.

Ninety percent of people in a serious relationship—married or living together—combine finances—meaning that, at some level, “what’s mine is yours”, even when it comes to debt.

Coming up with a plan to deal with debt can be challenging. So too is deciding if debt will be a deal breaker in a relationship.

I worked with Trent and Jenna to help them embark on a process, so they could discover—discuss—and decide how the debt would impact their future relationship.

Here are questions for you to use with a significant other or spouse.

1. How much do we each owe?

  • Create a spreadsheet or other document with this data—a list of HOW MUCH you owe and TO WHOM
  • Add up your debts by category—and enter a total amount.

2. What is our plan to pay off our debts?

  • Add a column in your document for “monthly payments".
  • Who will contribute—how much, how often?
  • Add another column called “Time to Repay.”
  • Discuss how your plan to repay fits with your overall budget.

3. Once we pay down the debt, how will we allocate that money?

  • What are your short-term goals? Long-term goals?
  • How will articulating your goals motivate you to pay off your debt?

4. How will our debt impact the life we envision?

  • The data you’ve compiled might help you decide you have your debt under control. Or you might find yourself dealing with practical and emotional consequences.

5. Would the process of paying off our debts strengthen or weaken us as a couple—and where does that leave us?

Every couple has to decide whether the benefits of a relationship outweigh the challenges. For Jenna and Trent that meant delaying marriage for a bit and focusing on reducing debt.

Relationships and debt can both raise doubts and evoke a range of emotions. By utilizing a process to proactively engage in the issues, you will be able to assess what role debt plays in your future together.

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