Issues with debt are often cited when couples split. Writer Gwen Rockwood explores the complicated relationship between love and money and debt in this regular feature.
Our grandparents’ generation used to joke about being attached to a “ball and chain” once they got married. For today’s couples, that heavy “ball and chain” is likely to come in the form of debt that one or both people brought into the marriage.
Should you marry someone with credit card or student loan debt? Wendy Hernandez, a Phoenix divorce attorney, advises people to delay getting married until their financial lives are in better shape, especially since money stress can be a predictor of divorce. “Entering into a marriage with a boatload of already existing ‘bad’ debt is overwhelming,” Hernandez writes in a Lifehack post titled “10 Reasons Not to Get Married While You’re in Debt.” “Instead of focusing on your financial future together, your energy will be spent figuring out how to manage money messes created in ‘another life.’”
“It is all too common for at least one person to bring a significant amount of debt baggage into the marriage.”
But most people aren’t willing to put their life as a couple on hold while one or both partners make debt payments. Experts say that if you decide to get married to someone in debt, you should have an agreement about how that individual debt will be handled once you’re a married couple.
Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, who writes a nationally syndicated finance column called “Ask Carrie”, said that spouses are not legally responsible for the debt their partner accumulated before they were married, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be a factor going forward. “You could decide to pay off your debt separately, or you could work together to pay it off as a team. Either way, of course, your joint lifestyle will be impacted.”
The mindset a person has about his or her spouse’s debt sets a tone for how successful they’ll be at paying off the debt without letting resentment sink the relationship. Dave Ramsey, author of Total Money Makeover, has counseled people in this situation during his time as a nationally syndicated radio talk show host. He advises couples to avoid making these three mistakes:
- + Referring to it as “your” debt
- + Holding the debt over your spouse’s head
- + Giving up on the plan to get out of debt
Ramsey writes, “This situation is not unusual for a newly married couple. It is all too common for at least one person to bring a significant amount of debt baggage into the marriage. Yes, you or your spouse-to-be may have made some stupid money mistakes in the past – like we all have. But now you’re a team, and it’s time to attack it together.”