The first rule my boyfriend and I made when we started dating seven years ago was that we would be totally honest with each other — about everything. He’s seen me through panic attacks, missed airline flights and hiring a trash removal service to deal with my hoarding. But money has been the hardest subject to discuss openly.
When we started dating, I carried more than $100,000 of debt from student loans, credit cards and back taxes.
The average American adult in my age group, 35 to 44, carries $133,100 in total household debt (but that includes mortgages as well as credit card debt and car and student loans), according to the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances. Those under 35 owe $67,400 on average.
I owe just under $70,000, and my student loans are paid off. When I first revealed the sad state of my finances, including my credit score in the high 500s, I was immensely relieved that instead of flinching as though I’d killed a puppy, he calmly asked me how I’d gotten into debt and what I planned to do about it.
Bad credit can be a relationship deal-breaker. Some people even have a specific credit score they’re looking for in a potential partner. There’s even a website for these number-conscious singles: CreditScoreDating.com.
Thankfully, my boyfriend wasn’t scared off. Not once has he made me feel stupid or guilty for my money mistakes. In fact, he has guided me in setting up a retirement fund and made me a budget spreadsheet, something I’d never done before.
Even though he’s been helpful and patient, letting him in on how I handle my money feels deeply scary. Before meeting him in my late 30s, I spent my adult life keeping my financial issues to myself; the instinct to continue doing so hasn’t gone away. A not-so-small part of me fears he’ll leave me for someone who’s more fiscally responsible, someone who has a “real” job and doesn’t experience insomnia while waiting for their royalty statements.
According to financial therapist Amanda Clayman, fear of talking about your finances with a partner is totally normal. “Debt or any financial struggle is not something we necessarily feel super-confident about,” Clayman said. “It can make us worry that somebody might see us differently and not find us as desirable as a partner.”
Whether you, your partner or both of you are carrying a lot of debt, here are some tips from experts on how and when to talk about it.
• Talk about debt when the relationship gets serious: “Even if you’re not legally bound, if your relationship is at a stage where you have joint goals and you can see a future together, it needs to be discussed,” said financial planner Cristina Guglielmetti, president of Future Perfect Planning. Clayman advises setting a deadline for yourself to broach the topic.
My boyfriend and I got truthful about our finances when we began contemplating moving in together. I had to tell him that my poor credit and my debt meant my name couldn’t be on our lease. He was comfortable taking on that responsibility, but some people might be right to be wary.
• Put it all out there: “The worst part is that first step. It’s not going to get better if you keep some stuff hidden,” said Guglielmetti, who advises being completely honest about how much you owe.
It’s not as simple as just deciding to “pay it off.” You need to know exactly how much you owe, what the interest rates are, and what the repayment options are before deciding how you’ll tackle them. Guglielmetti makes all her clients do cash-flow planning so they can set up an emergency fund and strategize how to make their money as efficient as possible.
• Don’t insist on making an action plan immediately: Clayman suggests saying the following to offer you both time to process your thoughts: “This feels so huge for me that I’m going to ask that we take a day before we come back and talk about this.”
In my case, my boyfriend gently asked me how I’d gotten into so much debt, and what I planned to do about it. Once I’d assured him I was no longer adding to the debt, his concerns were alleviated.
• Look at someone’s current spending rather than obsessing over their debt: “Not all people who are good with money have no debt, and [there are] people who have no debt and are terrible with money,” said Ryan Bayonnet, a financial advisor at Hyland Financial Planning. He encourages focusing not on a specific number that someone owes but rather on whether you have shared financial values — such as approaches to home and car ownership — to assess long-term financial compatibility.
You don’t need to show each other receipts from every random purchase, says Gaby Dunn, author of “Bad with Money” and host of the podcast of the same name. But you do need to share a common frame of reference and baseline of information. Communicating your money values includes setting limits. “If you notice somebody’s spending to keep up with you, you have to say something,” Dunn said.
• Treat the debt as a team project, not an individual burden: Financial planner Robert Stromberg, president of Mountain River Financial, helped his now-wife pay off six figures in student loan debt, starting when they were dating. Once he knew he wanted to settle down with her, he began thinking of the debt as his too. This process was easier because she demonstrated she was serious about contributing.
Dunn sees a positive side in talking about financial issues with a partner sooner rather than later. Revealing how much debt you’re carrying could be an “interesting litmus test” for a budding relationship, prompting you both to ponder: Is this person going to run from the first sign of a challenge, or are they going to stick around? It’s an opportunity to see how your would-be life partner reacts to the news that you’re not the totally together person you may have presented yourself as in the getting-to-know-you stage.
• Find a system that seems fair: To ensure that the person without debt doesn’t resent their partner, figure out a system that lets you both contribute. Stromberg suggests the more financially secure person could shoulder discretionary expenses such as going out to eat or vacations, or necessities such as utilities. This frees up one person to be aggressive in paying down debt, while still splitting the rent, for instance.
• If one person is struggling, offer incentives: If you’re bringing in significantly more income than your partner, you can follow in Stromberg’s footsteps. He used his quarterly bonuses to fuel his wife’s debt repayment, telling her, for instance, that if she saved $5,000, he’d kick in $4,000 of his own.
• Paying off debt together saves you money: Rather than one person playing the stock market while the other pays interest, Bayonnet advises pooling resources as a way to generate more wealth in the long term. After you’re both debt-free, you can focus on investing.
• Check in regularly. Debt probably won’t go away in a few weeks or months. It requires maintenance, as does your joint approach to it. Guglielmetti recommends that couples with debt have a “check-in money date” monthly or quarterly (and at least twice a year for couples without debt).
As hard as it was to disclose my debt, the relief of having it out in the open is immeasurable. I regularly update my boyfriend on my progress in paying it down, and I eagerly await the day in 2020, if all goes according to plan, that I can tell him I’m debt-free. I now welcome having someone to hold me accountable — who I know loves me regardless of my credit score or bank balance.
Bussel is a special contributor to the Washington Post.