Any time you begin to talk about money with your partner, it’s good to remember two important things: One, that 90% or so of all financial decisions are made emotionally. Two, that money problems and fights are not about the money. They are about our money scripts, what we belief and assume around money.
With that as a context, let’s take a look at couples and debt. In the early days of a relationship, debt is one of the biggest issues to be discussed. Unfortunately, it’s common that people will fall in love, get engaged, and get married—and never really talk about either the specifics of their finances, including debt, or their feelings and beliefs about money. Some couples will get married and have no clue about each other’s net worth or debts.
There are a lot of money scripts around this. “If I ask my partner what they’re worth, I might seem money hungry, or they might think I’m going to judge and evaluate them on their net worth.” Or “Their debt is none of my business.” Or “We love each other, so it will be okay.”
Additionally, there can be a lot of shame around disclosing debt. Consequently, it’s common that people marry and only afterward discover that a partner has a huge amount of credit card debt or education loans.
Finding out about each other’s financial situation before marriage is really important. You are going into a business and financial relationship, not just a romantic one. (And if reading that sentence made you flinch, you’re certainly not alone.) However cold or unromantic this idea may seem, it’s true. Marriage forms a legal relationship in which partners become responsible in many situations for each other’s debts, and where making joint money decisions is often necessary. Many everyday transactions like buying a house, investing joint funds, starting a business, and even filing tax returns involve both partners’ financial history, credit ratings, and balance sheets.
So it is really important to address the money part. And yet, parts of us will say the money part is so unromantic; it feels crass or mercenary. If that is true for you, it’s worth exploring how those parts came to believe that money isn’t important or that money is doesn’t belong in a romantic relationship.
Yet the romance is going to turn to reality after the marriage at some point, so it’s really important to start talking about these things early. Otherwise, either or both partners might go into the relationship with dreams and assumptions, only to discover harsh realities like debt or judgements that stand in the way of those dreams. Those discoveries can crush romantic feelings and damage trust much faster than asking money questions will.
Would it make sense to go so far as pulling a credit report on your partner? Yes, absolutely—as long as it’s done openly and with willingness to share your own. As a financial planner, I’d even say that sharing credit reports should be a prenuptial requirement. I know, those of you with money avoidance scripts are probably convulsing on the floor right now because this is so hard to hear. Those of you with money vigilance scripts, on the other hand, are smiling and thinking, “Of course, this makes sense.”
No matter what money scripts you have, the unveiling of your financial self can be incredibly hard and shameful. If there were no shame around it, you both would already have had these money talks; you’d show each other your net worth statements as a matter of course.
Disclosing your financial truths to a partner can be as difficult as disclosing something like a criminal record or an affair. It is not an easy conversation. Disclosures that you feel shame about—such as judgements, debt, and financial mistakes—require courageous conversations.
Difficult as it might be, having those courageous conversations about debt early in the relationship is crucial.
If one partner discovers another’s debts after the marriage—when repaying those debts is likely to be a joint responsibility—a lot of anger is likely to come up. Couples can have lasting conflicts and resentments around money issues that are not dealt with early and transparently. Obviously, I’m a big fan of preventive financial counseling. Marriage is a financial as well as romantic relationship that requires due diligence. Having money talks before marriage is one of the best investments you can make toward building a lasting, loving coupleship.
Check out The Financial Therapy Podcast by Rick Kahler