How Your Spouse's Debt Affects You

  • Debt that partners bring into a marriage is newlyweds’ number-one stressor.
  • Blaming your spouse for past debt isn’t useful. Create a payoff plan together.
  • Premarriage debt isn’t a spouse’s legal responsibility, but many couples choose to tackle it together.

Time to talk

Before getting married, you might consider having an honest discussion with your fiancée about four key topics: in-laws, kids, religion, and money. These topics can cause misunderstandings.

The money portion of “the talk” needs to cover more than just how you’ll spend paychecks and whether you’ll have joint or separate accounts. Talk about the “D” word: Debt. What are you each bringing to the marriage? How will you get rid of that debt together?

Nonmortgage debt brought into a marriage is the biggest challenge facing newlyweds.

A study published in the Journal of Extension* found nonmortgage debt brought into a marriage is the biggest challenge facing newlyweds. The stress of paying off loans is a major cause of marital spats – particularly if one partner didn’t know about them before the wedding.

This can distract couples from focusing on their relationship. Debt issues can strain even happy marriages and make it tough for couples to reach goals like buying a home or saving for retirement.

Here are some ways to deal with debt issues both before and after you tie the knot:

Start with honesty

Along with simply talking to each other about their debts, some couples share copies of their credit reports. Your credit report is a snapshot of your “debt life.” It also shows whether you’re behind on payments or if any accounts have gone to collections. You can get one free credit report each year from AnnualCreditReport.com.

“Good” debt vs. “bad” debt

infographic - Debt before 'I Do'

Coming into the marriage with student loans or a mortgage? Irresponsible spending didn’t cause these “good debts.”

Credit card, personal, or even car-related debts are a different story. Those loans can make it difficult to pay your bills. If that’s the case, you and your partner may need to strategize about how to pay them off or even meet with a credit counselor.

Remember: It’s about the debt, not the person

Try not to judge each other for past debt mistakes. Everyone has habits, attitudes, and situations affecting how they’ve handled money up to now. Maybe a medical emergency meant your partner had to put some other expenses on a credit card.

Drop the blame. Start talking about how you’d like to handle debt together from this point on. If your debt feels overwhelming, get a referral to a credit counselor through the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

Some things stay separate

Loans you take out after you’re married may belong to both of you, even if you only put one person's name on the paperwork. Keep in mind, your credit ratings don’t get married when you do. Your partner’s credit is linked only to his or her own Social Security number. It's the same for yours. That means your new spouse’s less-than-stellar credit rating won’t hurt yours.

If you live in a community property state, you are legally responsible for loans your spouse took out while single. Even if you're not responsible, many couples work on paying off premarriage debts as a team, since two incomes may get the job done faster.

Many couples work on paying off premarriage debts as a team, since two incomes may get the job done faster.

Develop a payoff plan

Once you've identified your debt level, it's time to create a way to get rid of it. A good start is to include a category for debt payoff in your monthly budget, so you know you're making an effort every month.

If you and your spouse are keeping separate accounts, determine whether one of you will be responsible for debt payoff or if both of you will tackle a portion. If one of you has a mortgage, it may make sense to refinance it at a lower rate in both of your names if your spouse has a better credit rating.

Another option? List all of your combined loans and create a “debt snowball” payoff plan. Focus all your available money into paying off one loan at a time. You can start with either the smallest loan or the one with the highest interest rate. Pay only the required minimums on all other loans.

Once that first loan is paid off, focus your payoff efforts on the next-biggest loan, and so on — wiping out your debts one at a time.

Living your new life together

The silver lining to dealing with your debt? Once you pay it off or develop a plan to do so, you can focus on the positive things you’d like to do with your money as a couple.

Whether your goal is to start a family, launch a business, or retire early and travel, getting rid of debt frees up your money. You can start thinking about your future, instead of just paying for your past.

Next steps

  • Get a free copy of your credit report to share with your spouse-to-be at AnnualCreditReport.com.
  • Talk about getting a referral to a credit counselor if you decide you want help.
  • Include a category for debt payoff in your monthly budget, just like you would for food and utilities.
  • Write down your strategy for paying off your debt – and stick to it.

* The Effects of Debt on Newlyweds and Implications for Education, June 2005, http://www.joe.org/joe/2005june/rb7.php

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