The Uncomfortable Thing You Need to Talk About Before You Get Married
Having debt is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, according to CNBC, 70 percent of college students graduate with student loan debt (the most common type of debt faced by newlyweds).
But if you do have debt (or your partner does), the one thing you need to do—no matter how uncomfortable or awkward it feels—is discuss it with each other.
“It’s important you’re transparent, for better or worse,” says Jeff Motske, president and CEO of Trilogy Financial and author of The Couple’s Guide to Financial Compatibility. “Get it out on the table now, because there’s nothing worse than statements showing up in the mail or online and all of a sudden, you realize you’re both liable for paying off the debt.”
Yep, if you don’t know much about finances (or merging them when you get married), the one thing you should know is when you get hitched, your spouse will take on your debt, and vice versa. So—depending on the state you live in—you’re liable for having to pay it off (even if the debt was accrued by your partner, and not you).
And debt doesn’t just go away—you have to pay it off eventually.
Maybe you’re not sure how to broach the topic (we get it, it’s awkward). First, Motske recommends taking an online financial compatibility quiz.
“It’s a great soft opener to having these conversations,” he says. “You’ll end up discussing debt, spending, saving, how much you care about charitable giving—it gets into lots of areas so you can actually have a fruitful discussion about finances.”
Odds are, you won’t be perfectly “financially compatible” on paper. And that’s okay. “You’re not going to align on everything,” Motske says. “That’s where good communication and having a [financial advisor] to help you through it comes in.”
In most cases, your finances are just a matter of talking through disagreements. Motske suggests a monthly financial date night—either leading up to your wedding or once you’re married and have more time on your hands.
“Get a cup of coffee, dinner or wine and talk about future financial goals with your partner,” he says. “Like travel, kids, college, buying a home, retirement and so on.”
Remember to leave your home for these “date nights” too—according to Motske, when you’re in the home, it’s too convenient to start pulling out “receipts” when you’re upset. It’s simply not the right environment. But when you have a pre-planned “dinner,” you’re more likely to come levelheaded (instead of, say, angry after opening up an unsightly credit card statement).
If you’re facing debt—whether it’s an aforementioned student loan that comes from investing in your future or credit card debt, which has a higher interest rate—you’ll be able to dig yourself (or help your spouse dig themselves) out of the hole eventually, with a little help and training.
“Before making a purchase, ask yourself, ‘What’s more important: this item or event or getting rid of my debt?’” Motske says.
Motske also recommends hiring an accountability coach—or financial advisor—who can help you keep you stay on track. (He recommends meeting with them once a quarter, or every 90 days.)
Getting your balance sheet in a positive direction—like wedding planning—will be going smoothly sometimes, but often you’ll have setbacks.
Luckily, with some open and honest conversations with your partner (and maybe a few bottles of wine), you’ll undoubtedly be headed in the right direction.