What to Do if You’re Scared of Your Partner’s Debt

What to Do if You're Scared of Your Partner's DebtYou may have seen our recent blog entry about dealing with debt as a couple. Now let’s talk more about what you can do if you just found out your partner has debt – and it totally freaks you out. Believe it or not, it’s okay to feel that way! Recognize the emotion but know that, unless you’re married, you’re not responsible for anyone’s debt but your own. You can, however, help your partner tremendously by setting your fear aside and being there as a support system for him or her. Here are some ways to do that.

Remember It’s Not Your Debt

Now that you’ve acknowledged your fear, allow it to be alleviated by the fact that this is not your debt. Of course, when you love someone and see a future with that person, you may feel like it is your debt – either because you want to help your partner get through it or because you plan to get married someday soon. But until that day comes, you are not responsible for any of it.

With that said, your partner likely could use your emotional support in getting through it. Have you been there before? If so, maybe you can help answer questions your partner may have. Maybe you’ve never been there before. You still can be there for your partner by listening to him or her and maybe even giving a fresh perspective on the situation.

Walk in Your Partner’s Shoes

It’s easy to judge someone who has debt, even if we have it ourselves. But the quickest way to suspend judgement is to walk in that person’s shoes. Talk to your partner about how he or she got into debt. Maybe the bulk of it is student loans because his or her family couldn’t afford to help out with college tuition. Or, it could have been credit card debt that accumulated during a time of economic struggle. Then, there’s always the possibility that your partner simply made poor spending choices and is now paying the price.

No matter how it started, try to walk in your partner’s shoes as he or she tells you how it happened and how he or she is feeling now. Debt can cause a roller coaster of emotions from fear and anxiety to frustration and shame. Nothing can be done to get out of debt until these feelings have been addressed first and someone then has the confidence that he or she has the power to eliminate it. From that will come a determination to do so and that’s when things really start moving forward.

Talk Strategy

Speaking of moving forward…it’s time to talk strategy. Don’t assume your partner doesn’t have a plan to get out of debt – ask first. If your partner does have a plan, then you two can still talk about it and see if it can be improved upon. If your partner is happy with the plan and the progress, then let it alone. Now all you have to do is be a mental and emotional support system.

If your partner doesn’t have a plan, don’t get upset. Maybe all he or she needed was someone to talk to about this. Now you two can really talk strategy together. What kind of debt is it and – if multiple types – which should your partner pay off first? Is there a way your partner can earn extra money on the side or even search for a career that will pay more? (The latter will only work if your partner isn’t already happy and fulfilled at work.) Maybe your partner just needs to rethink his or her budget or sign up for sites like ReadyForZero to stay motivated and on track. Whatever the case may be, two heads are better than one. This is your chance to provide the kind of support your partner really needs right now – help figuring out what to do about the debt.

See How This Relates to Your Relationship

You’ve now hopefully come to understand how your partner feels and talked about his or her strategy to get out of debt. The next step is to evaluate what this means for your relationship right now. Think about the plans you’ve made. Were you going to take a vacation together soon? Does this still make sense to do right now? What if you were going to relocate to a different city, buy a house, or get married? Come to an agreement on how these goals look now that you know about the debt and how long will take to pay it off. Maybe you want to continue on the same time frame for your goals or maybe you think it’s best to put some of them on hold. Just make sure that the two of you are on the same page so neither one of you ends up feeling resentful.

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Set it and Forget It

This one is going to sound much easier than it will be to do. Now that you’ve come to a mutual understanding about the debt  and payoff strategies, don’t let this hang over your head like a black cloud (believe me, your partner is probably already dealing with that him or herself). You’ve done all you can at this point and the most important thing moving forward is that you simply allow your relationship to move forward. Be open to discussions about it as needed by your partner, but don’t ever let it dominate every conversation you two have.

Debt is scary, frustrating, and can slow down and even prevent goals and desires. If you’re debt-free and you just found out that your significant other is carrying debt, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed. However, if you follow these steps then you two can come together and realize that debt is just another part of life that some people (many people) have to work through. What’s important isn’t the problems you encounter in your relationship – it’s how you handle them together. So be honest with your significant other about how you feel. But once you’ve talked it all out, don’t let debt ruin your future together.

This article is part of our Relationships and Money Resource Center.  If you’re looking for additional information about dealing with money in your relationship, be sure to pay a visit!

Image credit: vonderauvisuals

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  • John S @ Frugal Rules

    Good post! I think a lot of it can come down to the fact if the one with the debt wants to get out of it or not. If they do, then you can work on it together and come up with a plan. I had some debt coming into our marriage, but was working my way out of it. When we got married it was ours and my wife was great in helping getting it paid off.

    • Shannon_ReadyForZero

      Thanks John! That’s wonderful that your wife understood where you were coming from and was so supportive! I have debt as well but my fiance seems pretty fine with it since he knows how aggressively I’ve been trying to pay it off. I think it does help the other partner a lot if they know someone is doing all they can to work through it.

    • That’s great you guys were able to tackle it together! And kudos to her for helping you.

  • I can totally relate since hubby married me and my 106k deficit bank account-yes it was from school but debt is debt! It might be different since we’ve been together since we were in highschool but he still chose to marry me for better or worse 😉

    • Shannon_ReadyForZero

      Debt should never get in the way of a couple’s dream to get married and I think it’s awesome that your husband stuck with you through it!

  • Pedro

    get someone else….. also make sure you check her/his driving record.. insurances go up as well….

    • Toddnews

      Some people don’t want to, or don’t have the self control to, or don’t care enough about it to, get out of debt. I tried everything for 10 years with my ex, finally divorcing her after learning about secret bank accounts. I left with nothing, but half of her remaining debt and started my life over. Remember, once you marry you’re responsible for the relationship’s debt., etc. As cruel as it may sound, it’s better to thoroughly check out what you’re getting into before living through he!!, only to start over again (and often in worse shape financially and emotionally than before the first round). People don’t change just because they get married.

      • fyrefly816

        Just wanted to remind everyone that you do not always assume the debt of your spouse.
        E.g. Georgia is not a joint-debt state – were I to divorce my spouse, I would not take on any debt that was not incurred by me or jointly (and you can negotiate the amount you would take on in the event that you accrued it together – e.g. a home or auto-loan).
        In California, we would split it.

  • Tannith Cattermole

    Great post, but what if your partner doesn’t want to look at debt realistically, and the ‘plan’ for paying it back is always the end of the rainbow ‘next pay rise’ or ‘next bonus’ while consistently living beyond their means every month? This man is my soul mate, but his debt is stressing me out so much. I want to get married but I’m too afraid to take on his debt, and a lifetime of irresponsible spending.

    • Shannon_ReadyForZero

      Thanks Tannith! I think in this situation, you need to somehow show him how serious you are about debt payoff and that waiting for the “next” anything isn’t going to be good enough. It’s not an easy conversation to have, but if you work together on small changes that you can both make perhaps he will find it’s not so hard to get started now. For example, let’s say you celebrate or spend time together by going out to dinner. You could switch that habit to cooking dinner together at home. You still get to have the time together while saving money – and may find a new hobby in the process. Little things like this can make more room in a budget, allowing for more money to pay off debt. And doing it together shows him that you are serious about it but aren’t trying to single him out or make him feel bad about the situation. Rather, you are showing him positive ways you can move forward together.

  • Brooke

    I had some idea about my partners debt. But he has never came clean about how much. I have pieced things together and have figured out it to be around the $60k mark. Including $2000 to me and $11000 to his parents. I was never in debt until i bought my first property this year at 23. He is 28 and still finding the motivation to get out of debt. It has been a very very big obstacle for us. Never been on a holiday and cant plan our future too much, whilst all our other friends are travelling. I have come here to read advice so his situation doesnt see the end of our relationship.