Bringing Debt into a Marriage

Marriage is an intricate arrangement. Two separate individuals decide to join together to form a new institution – the married couple. Each person brings the totality of his or her self into this new entity; all the good and not-so-good qualities they possess are part of the deal. Of course, the expectation of each partner is that the good will outperform the bad, and that whatever bad does exist can be met and more effectively vanquished with a united approach.

Debt is one of the most common problems an individual can bring into a marriage. Money is high on the list of topics that couples most often fight about and the number one cause of divorce in the country. Financial problems, including debt, increase stress and marital discord. And yet seven out of ten American men and women enter into matrimony with some amount of debt – primarily credit card debt and student loan debt.

And the bottom line is this: In most cases, once you are joined in marriage, the debt of your partner becomes shared debt, not just in the moral sense, but legally, as well. In marriage, more than souls are intertwined – finances are part of the mix.

Be Honest About Your Debt

The most important thing that you can do to avoid financial fights in a marriage is to be honest about your debt situation, particularly before the wedding. Hiding debt from your future spouse is simply a very bad idea. Your partner needs to know your economic circumstances in advance of saying “I do,” just as you need to know his or hers. You can’t make shared decisions and settle upon mutual goals without talking about money.

Consider these questions and discuss them with your partner:
  • How many credit cards do each of you have and what are the balances?
  • Do you pay your bills on time or do you have collectors dunning you?
  • How long do you expect it will take to settle outstanding debts?
  • What is your situation in regards to credit?
  • What are your spending habits and how much money do you save, or plan to save, each month?
  • Are there any financial obligations from a previous marriage such as alimony or child support?

Make Decisions as a Couple

Married couples have many financial arrangements to make. Once you and your partner discuss preexisting debt, decide together how you’ll move forward.

Consider these questions:
  • Will you be combining assets by opening joint accounts, or will you keep money separate?
  • How will each partner contribute to the new family’s bank balance?
  • If you plan on having children, how will you support them?
  • What kind of investments will you make and how will they be funded?

Of course, there are no right or wrong answers to questions like these. That’s why it is essential that you communicate with your spouse, agree to common goals and make decisions as a couple.

Once both partners are on the same page regarding all monetary issues, including how to manage debt, they need to “quantify” their objectives. Partners need to write down plans and goals using actual dollars and cents and make formal agreements. Couples are generally happier when they decide to run their financial affairs in a business-like manner. And that means developing a budget, keeping track of all income and spending, and making sure bills get paid on time and checkbooks get balanced regularly.

Tackling Debt

After a couple decides to tackle their debt, there are several ways in which they can improve their finances. However, willingness to stick to the plan is the single most important quality to have; having discipline and a strong desire to get out of debt is more than half the battle.

Here are some useful tactics for combatting different types of debt and money problems:
  • Credit cards – Try to pay off balances in full every month. See if you qualify for a lower interest credit card. Transferring your balance can reduce debt payments, an especially useful tactic if full payment is not feasible.
  • High-interest loans – These need to paid off as soon as possible to avoid paying extra interest. Consider tapping into your savings to pay off loans with the highest interest.
  • Student Loans – Many different repayment options exist for government-backed student loans. Borrowers should get the details from their loan servicers.
  • Debt consolidation – Combining all debts into one loan with a lower interest rate can help retire debt more quickly and efficiently.
  • Debt settlement – Settling debts by paying less than what you owe to creditors is a strategy that can be implemented by you, the consumer, or with the help of a professional debt management company.
  • Credit counseling – Another option is to speak with a nonprofit credit counselor, review your income and debts, and see if you qualify for a debt management program. With a debt management program, your payments are consolidated (though you are not taking out an additional loan) and you pay your debt off with lower monthly payments, in three to five years.

No married person will deny that marriage can be one of the most rewarding and one of the most difficult aspects of adult life. Making a marriage work is an ongoing process that takes honesty, patience and commitment.

Couples can reduce the inevitable stresses and strains between them by managing their financial lives with intelligence and focus. Those with no major debt problems are generally happier with themselves and with one another.

Bill Fay

Bill Fay is a journalism veteran with a nearly four-decade career in reporting and writing for daily newspapers, magazines and public officials. His focus at Debt.org is on frugal living, veterans' finances, retirement and tax advice. Bill can be reached at bfay@debt.org.

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