Let’s talk about debt, baby.
Before 45-year-old Theresa got married a few years back, she and her now ex-husband shared many details of their financial lives — even showing one another their respective credit reports soon after they were engaged. But there’s one financial thing the life coach, who asked that we use an alias to protect her privacy, didn’t tell her husband: how much foreign debt she had. And when her ex — whose government job required spousal background checks — learned of the $50,000 business loan his wife had taken out while living abroad, it didn’t go well. “He was furious and never recovered from it,” she said. “We divorced a year and half after marriage. He said that I misrepresented my finances.”
Nowadays, Theresa says that if she had to do it again, “it would all be on the table.” And financial experts agree, as money secrets like hidden debts can wreck a marriage. “Keeping financial secrets in a relationship, just like any other type of infidelity, is a sure-fire way to spark an argument,” says CompareCards.com chief industry analyst Matt Schulz — and arguments about money are the No. 1 predictor of whether you’ll get divorced, research shows. Still, an estimated 15 million Americans are actively keeping some kind of financial account a secret from their partners, data from CreditCards.com shows. And millions of others may be keeping a secret without fully meaning to: 60% of couples admit to rarely talking about debts with their significant other, according to a new survey out Friday from Merrill Edge.
It’s best to tell the person about your debt pretty early on in the relationship, experts say. For Jacksonville native J.R. Duren — who had $111,000 in student loan and credit card debt when he met his now-wife in 2008 — that point was five dates in, when he thought the relationship could be going somewhere. “I didn’t want our relationship to be in doubt over my financial situation, so I figured I might as well eliminate that possibility and tell her before making our relationship official.”
So when exactly is the right time? Erika Martinez, a clinical psychologist in Miami, says that while you should not mention your debt level after just a date or two (“this is private information,” she explains) once you see that the relationship is getting serious — and before you move in together or get engaged — it’s time to talk. “It’s about trust and authenticity, which are pillars of solid relationships,” she explains. “If a relationship is getting serious, it would be important to continue deepening that trust by sharing who you really are with your partner in many facets, including financially.”
Of course, it’s not the most comfortable conversation to have. Forty-year-old Toronto resident Max, who asked that we withhold his last name, admitted that it was “a little embarrassing” that he had a $35,000 car loan in his name, “especially since she [his partner] did not have any debt.” And a survey released by LendEdu found that one in four people admitted to being “embarrassed” by the credit card debt. What’s more, 40-year-old Duren, who had $111,000 in debt including credit card debt, notes that “you share that kind of thing and you worry that person is going to say ‘that’s crazy.”
It can also be challenging to figure out how to bring up the topic. “Ideally, the conversation would be had at a relevant time — you want to segue from an existing conversation regarding finance rather than bring it up out of the blue,” explains Nate Masterson, the director of finance for Maple Holistics . That’s how a handful of couples that Moneyish spoke to did it: When Max told his partner about his $35,000 car loan, it came up when they were talking about buying a home. And when Foster City, Calif.-resident Katie Austin, 32, told her partner about the $22,000 she still owed on her student loans, she was going through her bills at the time and mentioned that she had these loans and was going to be paying them down more quickly.
Sometimes, of course, that opportunity doesn’t present itself, so you’ll have to force the conversation. “As a general guideline, it’s best to be straightforward and clear,” says Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, the senior vice president of Charles Schwab Co. — who says that you must “share all of the details” including what you owe, to whom, and how you plan to pay it back. “Try to keep your emotions at bay. For example, if you’re contemplating a joint expense — for example, a vacation — simply say ‘You know, I have to budget X per month to repay my student loan, so I can only afford X for our trip.’” She adds “if you’re having to reveal a spending problem as the cause of your debt, try to pick a time when you’re both relaxed and focused, whether that’s a prearranged date or an impromptu talk. Share your information clearly, and present a solution.”
While few look forward to the dreaded debt conversation, it can be a boon for a relationship: Duren, who says he “did not mince my words” when he told his partner about his $111,000 debt, adds that the conversation was “a little awkward.” But, he says, “the dividends of transparency were far more valuable than any small moments of discomfort.” The couple are now married.
This story was originally published in January 2018 and has been updated.
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Catey Hill covers personal finance and travel for MarketWatch in New York. Follow her on Twitter @CateyHill.
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