Is Your Partner in Debt? Here Are Some Tools to Help You Talk About It


This is a guest post by Marc Sandor Woolf.

Imagine that you’re out to eat with your date. You’ve just finished a delicious meal at your favorite new bistro. The server brings the check, your dinner partner reaches for his/her wallet and hands the server a credit card.

In a few minutes, the server returns to your table and, in his most apologetic voice says, “I’m so sorry, but your card was declined … do you have another method of payment?” Your date is obviously embarrassed and nervously fumbles for another card while the server hovers over your table.

You want to stay calm and keep a smile on your face but your heart begins to race, your muscles tighten and you secretly wish you were psychic so you could see your partner’s credit report and debt-to-income ratio.

In an instant, this wonderful dinner date has triggered your ‘flight’ response, and you’re about to head for the hills because you’re afraid of the ‘financial skeletons’ that might be lurking in your friend’s closet.

What’s the best way to handle this situation?

When we meet someone we are attracted to, we make both conscious and subconscious decisions about their appearance, compatibility, occupation, status, religious beliefs, parenting ability, earning power, net worth, how s/he would be perceived by our family, their value system and whether they reflect and fit our view of the world.

But if you cannot talk and communicate effectively about money, your relationship will become a breeding ground for resentment, mistrust and conflict, no matter how good looking s/he is.

Back to our dinner couple – let’s assume this friend is someone you really like. You might even see yourself in a long term relationship with this person. The most destructive thing you can do is to ‘shame and blame’ your date for what just happened. But it’s important to start the money conversation immediately, to determine your financial compatibility.

Here are some conversation starters…

  • “I would lovingly/as a friend/without judgement like to talk to you about what happened at the restaurant this evening, and what came up for me … how would you feel about that?”
  • “When I was growing up, we/my parents/my family didn’t have/had (fill in the blank regarding the financial situation). Although I don’t live in the past, that experience had a huge impact on me. As a result, I (fill in the blank) when it comes to money and finances. I’m interested in what it was like in your family/home/childhood and how did that affected you?”
  • “It makes me feel safe/secure/great when I’m able to save money. What’s your philosophy about putting money aside?”
  • “My ex spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend once spent (fill in the blank) on a (fill in the blank). I felt upset because we never discussed/agreed/compromised on the (fill in the blank). Has anything like that ever happened to you? How did it make you feel? How did you resolve things? What, if anything, would you do differently?”
  • “I’ve created a monthly spending plan which I stick to pretty closely. How do you plan your expenditures?”
  • “I really enjoy paying for you when we go out. Money is a little tight for me right now. How do you feel about spending time together doing something inexpensive or even free?”

You probably already know this, but each of the suggested money conversation starters you’ve just read follows a distinct pattern:

  1. Pattern #1 – say when (fill in the blank) happens, I feel (fill in the blank). Then ask an open-ended question of the other person regarding their own experiences, thoughts and feelings.
  2. Pattern #2 – make a personal statement of fact. Then ask the other person an open-ended question regarding their own experiences, thoughts and feelings.
  3. Pattern #3 – make an observation statement. Then follow up with an offer to listen without judgement.

These are specifically designed so you can communicate your own boundaries around money while learning more about your date’s outlook.

Remember, healthy financial relationships are based on the T.R.U.S.T™ (Transparency, Responsibility, Understanding, Self-awareness, Together) model.

Transparency about your financial status is one of the building blocks of a healthy relationship. When is the right time to share information about your income, debts, spending plans, expectations and goals? Don’t wait until you’re shopping for an engagement ring or planning a wedding. You might be setting yourself up for major disappointment and shock.

Although there’s no hard and fast rule, this is a conversation you should have when you become a committed couple. And if you’re married or in a long term relationship and haven’t been communicating on this level, today is the best time to start.

► Take Responsibility for your financial situation. When we become responsible for our own lives and the success of our relationships, we have to establish boundaries, not only for ourselves, but for the protection and safety of those we love and care about.

In a relationship in which there’s shared financial responsibility and obligation, one of those boundaries is a benchmark or amount of money one partner can spend without prior discussion or agreement with the other. This could be five dollars or $500.00 dollars.

The key is to agree on a specific amount and keep within the plan. That way there’s no fertile ground for problems to take root and begin to grow.

► Understanding your financial history and behavior and learning about your partner’s financial past and how s/he conducts business today is critical. Do you remember hearing your parents talk about money? Perhaps they never discussed the family’s financial situation directly, but you certainly received hints about mom and dad’s personal finance picture, whether those messages were overt or the result of muffled arguments heard through closed bedroom doors.

As you are thinking about what it was like growing up, realize that much of what you learned about money and financial behavior is a result of how your parents handled money.

Although the die has been cast from a very tender age, you’re not necessarily destined to repeat history. And the odds that your significant other had the exact same experiences and developed the same values and behaviors as you, are about the same as winning the lottery.

Most of us didn’t choose our mates based on their credit scores. And financial compatibility was probably way down on the list of ‘must haves’ when we got into our relationships.

However, it’s vital to acknowledge and respect each other’s differences and learn how to operate as a team.

► Self-awareness is achieved by looking at your financial reflection in life’s full-length mirror.

Together you and your partner will develop a new set of financial behaviors and guidelines which are based on your mutual core desires.

It is not “… I want a million dollars …” or “… I want to be rich …” or “… I don’t want to have to worry about money …” or “…I want to win the lottery…” That’s like living in financial fantasy land. And those fantasies won’t come true.

These new behaviors are a result of asking each other probing questions that reveal your true motivation for wanting or not wanting something. Then determine if there’s any internal conflict that will prevent you from following through with your commitment to your partner.

An example of that conversation might look or sound like this:

Partner 1: I hate getting those collections calls in the evening.

Partner 2: How do you want evenings in our home to be like?

Partner 1: I want to have more fun and laughter, just like we used to and not argue as much. And when we have fewer arguments, we might communicate better and feel closer to each other.

Partner 2: How can we make that happen?

Partner 1: We can discuss the bills and figure out a way to pay them on time so we won’t get any more collection calls.

(Remember to check with your partner for internal conflict. An example question is below.)

Partner 2: Is there anything more important to you than us feeling closer to each other or is there something that might be a stumbling block to making this happen? Let’s figure this out so we don’t sabotage our efforts.

Partner 1: No, I really want to feel closer and there’s nothing getting in the way.

Partner 2: I feel so happy that we were able to have this conversation and work through something that’s been bothering both of us. Let’s continue to discuss these topics.

In this case the motivation for not getting collection calls is what? It’s the desire for more intimacy, less conflict and a more peaceful relationship.

Everyone’s desires are different and you’ll never determine someone’s true motivation unless you keep asking those probing questions and determine whether s/he is conflicted.

The key is to do this together as a couple. Link the desired outcome to a new set of behaviors and implement your plan.

I’d love your feedback!

This is a guest post by Marc Sandor Woolf. After living through the pain of financial infidelity and its devastating consequences, Marc realized that unresolved fights about money had literally bankrupted his relationship. As a result, he developed a system that couples can use to communicate more effectively about money, create realistic spending plans and build wealth. Marc is the creator of You can read more of his work there and follow him on Twitter @MarcSWoolf.

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  • Christine

    Great article! When I educate our clients about spending plans, talking to their partner is the biggest concern they raise. Not too many people out there talking about this — thank you.

    • Hi Christine, thanks for your comment. I’m so glad you found the post to be useful. We’ll try to write more about these topics in the future. By the way, have you ever tried ReadyForZero? It might be something that could help your clients who are trying to get out of debt. The basic tool is free, which allows you to make a customized plan to pay off your debt, and then there is a premium version that allows you to make payments directly from the ReadyForZero platform. If you’d like to learn more about it, just let me know!

    • Marc Sandor Woolf

      Thanks for the feedback, Christine. Productive language patterns should be taught at a very young age. Instead, we often model what we experience at home and on Reality TV. How would your clients’ conversations be if they were able to talk, hear and respond to each other?