How to Discuss Debt and Credit Scores With Your Partner

Here's why you must have this discussion before marriage.
balanced scales between savings and spending with debt talks
OsakaWayne Studios
kathy entwistle the knot financial expert
by
Kathleen Entwistle, CFP
kathy entwistle the knot financial expert
Kathleen Entwistle, CFP
Financial Advisor & The Knot Wellness Contributor
  • Kathleen “Kathy” Entwistle is a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) and Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA).
  • She is a Managing Director and Private Wealth Advisor at Morgan Stanley.
  • She is a Forbes America Top Women Wealth Advisor.
Updated Mar 23, 2022

Getting married is a merger. Part of that merger is your financial history, habits and capital (or lack thereof), which is why discussing debt prior to marriage is an all-important step. That way, you know what's being brought to the table. A great question to ask about debt prior to marriage is: "Do you have any outstanding debts or obligations I should know about? If so, do you have a plan in place to address them?"

While creating a life together is magical, it typically brings with it a whole new meaning to the word "compromise." To avoid letting money become a sensitive issue, you should be open about any assets or debt from the start. Debt is a drain on combined net worth and can be a source of contention. By talking about finances sooner than later, you'll have a better understanding of how debt will affect the marital financial foundation and what if any responsibilities are incurred in paying it down.

After all, once you're married, you'll share everything from family responsibilities and budget restrictions to credit histories and spending patterns. Don't be shy when it comes to sharing your financial hopes and fears.

In This Article:

What Is Debt?

Have you ever wanted to buy something but didn't have the money in the bank to do so? Instead, you borrowed it–from a friend, a family member or an institution–and promised to repay the borrowed funds. What just happened is you've just created debt.

Debt is something owed. Borrowing money from another means you owe a debt and you are under obligation to return that money within a certain timeframe and with a rate of return. Debt can either help or hurt your financial life, depending on how much you take on and what the debt goes to. Debt can also be classified as good debt or bad debt, depending on how it affects your finances and your life. Good debt helps you increase your income or build wealth. Bad debt does the opposite; it decreases your income and it decreases your wealth.

What Is Good Debt vs. Bad Debt?

Good debt increases your net worth or future value. It allows you to manage your finances more effectively, leverage your wealth, buy things you need, and handle unforeseen emergencies. Low-interest debt that helps you increase your income or net worth are examples of good debt. Good debt can help you achieve goals, while bad debt is expensive and can derail them. Examples of good debt may include a mortgage, student loans and car loans. But remember, too much of any kind of debt–no matter what the opportunity or potential–can turn it into bad debt.

So then, what exactly is bad debt? Bad debt is expensive debt that can create stress and a challenging situation when it comes to paying your bills. High-interest credit cards and personal loans for discretionary purchases are two examples of bad debt. Credit card debt can be a tricky and challenging scenario in marriage, especially if one partner is a bigger spender.

How Do I Discuss Credit Scores With My Partner?

A good reason to have a good handle on your debt, as well as your partner's debt, is to ensure you both have good credit scores. A credit score is your financial DNA. It is a numerical expression of your likelihood to pay back your debt and represents your creditworthiness as an individual.

Why is this important? If you have a good credit score, you will qualify for better interest rates and you will lower charges on credit card balances and loans. For example, if your credit score is strong and your partner has a much lower score, you may not get approved for a mortgage for that first-time home you're buying. Or, the rate to borrow is so oppressive that it doesn't make economic sense to apply.

When you share a vastly different credit score than your partner, it can impact where you live, how much money you can borrow, and how certain employers may even view your job application. All of this can have an impact on you and the type of life you lead. Understanding the amount and type of debt you each have, as well as what your credit scores, are critical to setting up yourself for financial success.

When you have the credit score discussion, you'll want to be direct and inquisitive. Ask your partner, "What is your credit score, and why do you think your score is at this point?" This is a good question for couples to understand underlying spending or payment habits that can be improved upon before they're exacerbated further?

Is It OK to Marry Someone With Debt?

We all have a history with money. How we grew up learning about it and how it has impacted us emotionally, there is a lot of stress and anxiety built into the topic of money before we even start discussing it.

If you or your partner has a low credit score, it usually indicates one of two things: you either don't have enough history to assign a credit score or you have been irresponsible with your payments. If you have bad habits that are reflected in your score and your partner has healthier habits and a better credit score, you can adversely affect your partner and that can cause a negative impact on your relationship.

This is a personal decision but remember, over the course of the marriage there will be all sorts of obstacles and debt is just one of them. The most important thing you can do is talk about it. Communicating early and often will help you both become more comfortable with the topic and avoid unpleasant surprises in the future.

Questions to Ask in Your 'Debt Discussion' Before Marriage

This conversation is critical before marriage so that you both have a clear understanding of each other's priorities when it comes to goals and values and how your money decisions come into play with these priorities. Here are the questions to ask your partner. By addressing your financial DNAs before marriage, you'll be better prepared to talk about these topics throughout–and find relationship wellness in the process.

  • What are your life goals and dreams?

  • What are some of your earliest money memories (the good and the bad), and how did your family talk about money growing up?

  • What are some of your biggest financial concerns about the next 5–10 years? What about the next 20–25 years?

  • Do you have any outstanding debt or obligations I should know about, and if so, do you have a plan in place to address them?

  • If you were to receive a $2,000 tax refund tomorrow, how would you spend it and why?

  • What are your professional goals? How do you envision balancing career and family? What are your expectations for each other's career responsibilities?

  • What does your dream retirement look like? Do you even want to retire? Do you want to live in the city, the suburbs, or a more rural area?

  • If you plan on having children, how do you envision sharing parenting responsibilities and what values do you want to pass on when it comes to money? How do you envision dividing household expenses and who is going to be responsible for financial chores such as paying bills, tracking expenses, and managing the budget?

  • How do you envision dividing household expenses and who is going to be responsible for financial chores such as paying bills, tracking expenses, and managing the budget?

  • If one of us were offered a career opportunity in another city or country, how would we handle it?

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