Is debt ruining my marriage?

Marriage is hard without introducing debt - or worse, a spending addiction - into the equation. Here’s how to deal with both.

Jean Chatzky Photo

Marriage is hard. Marriage with debt is harder. We know that money is the number one cause of divorce, and we know that couples who fight about money more than once or twice a month are significantly more likely to head for divorce than other couples. But can debt take a toll on even a relatively healthy marriage?

In a word, yes. But just because you’re carrying a credit card balance doesn’t mean you’re automatically headed for divorce court. Many couples navigate the waters of debt reduction and come out just fine. It’s the couples who don’t communicate, and who engage in risky financial behavior, who are at a greater risk for a break-up. Here are some new (I) dos and don’ts to help you get through this storm.

DO disclose debt as soon as possible.
Whether you’re engaged, newlyweds, or even longtime-married, you need to disclose whatever debt you may be carrying to the other person if you haven’t done so already. If your spouse-to-be has a lot of undisclosed debt (and the shaky credit report that goes with it) that’s not information you want to learn only when you jointly apply for a mortgage and get the cold shoulder.

DO carve out a time to discuss.
Talking debt (in fact, talking money in general) is stressful, so I want you to schedule time for it — maybe after you’ve watched a favorite TV show and know you’ll both be calm and in a good mood. Be open and honest, and start the conversation off with a promise not to get mad. What’s done is done — you can’t magically erase debt, but you can agree to move forward as a team. Isn’t that what marriage is about?

Don’t hide (or underplay) your spending.
Uncontrollable spending often leads to debt. If you’ve got a problem (warning signs: you put half of a purchase on the plastic and pay the other half with cash so your spouse will think it cost 50% less, you constantly buy and return, you have many things still in bags and with tags) keeping it from your spouse is a huge mistake. It’s the sort of mistake that leads to a lifetime of distrust.

Do get the help you need.
How to deliver this information is another question: I want you to picture yourself telling your spouse about your problem. How does he (or she) react? Of course he/she is likely to get angry at first, but overall, what’s the tenor of the conversation? Supportive? Helpful? Or completely the opposite.

If you think your spouse will be supportive, then I want you to talk to him within the next three days. Pick a good time (that’s the reason for the three-day timeframe, to give you enough room to maneuver), a time when he’s relaxed and not overly stressed out, and tell him what’s been going on. Be prepared for the conversation with facts about how much you’re spending, what you’ve already done to cut back, if anything, and what you plan to do about it for the future. And if you have no plans, if you’re at a complete loss as far as how to stop, tell him that, too. Explain that you need his help.

If, on the other hand, you believe your spouse won’t be supportive, and that airing your dirty laundry will exacerbate the problem, take some steps to get a handle on the situation first. Talk to a friend, relative or therapist. Join a support group (Debtor’s Anonymous is a good place to start). Then, once you feel like you have more control, bring it up to your partner, outlining the actions you’ve already taken to get on track.

It’s important to understand that no matter when you ’fess up, you’re going to have to dig yourself out of this shopping addiction. And it will help to have your spouse (or if that’s not possible, someone else close to you) aware of the situation, so that person can hold you accountable for your actions.

Don’t combine credit accounts.
This may sound counterintuitive if you’re merging everything else, but you don’t have to combine your credit accounts. John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at SmartCredit.com, told me that you don’t have to have two people applying for credit card – and in most cases, you won’t be able to apply jointly. One spouse will be the primary card holder, and the other, if you choose the share the account, will be an authorized user (the account and information about it – late payments, balances – will appear on both credit reports and be factored into both credit scores). Nor do you need two people to qualify for a car loan. “If you do,” he said, “you may be buying a car that is too expensive.” The only debt you should take on jointly is your mortgage. Otherwise, you should maintain credit independence, especially if you have good credit but your spouse has poor credit. Applying jointly isn’t going to do anything but cost you more. And paying more is never a good thing — especially if money is already an issue.

 

As a member of Alliant Credit Union, you’re eligible to take advantage of GreenPath Debt Solutions, one of the industry’s most respected financial counseling programs – for free. To learn more about the financial counseling available free to Alliant members, visit the Financial Counseling page on our website.