“I have $60,000 in credit card debt, so you may not want to marry me” and other ideas for debt confessions.
Infidelity and unwelcome surprises come in all shapes and sizes. “Financial infidelity” (i.e. someone not being forthright about his or her finances) is unfortunately all too common. A survey from CreditCards.com found that as many as 1 in 5 respondents have spent $500 or more without their partners knowing, and 6% of those surveyed confessed to having secret credit cards and bank accounts.
Financial infidelity can be as toxic to the relationship as any other infidelity. It can cause stress, trigger health issues, and damage all aspects of the relationship. No matter which stage of the relationship you are in, the conversation about debt is uncomfortable. Whether you are dating and getting serious, or long married, having “the talk” seems like the right thing to do.
The questions is, how exactly do you go about it?
First, make the decision to be honest.
This may sound too obvious to mention, but many people walk around with heavy debt balanced out by an equally heavy load of excuses.
The truth is that you will always find reasons not to talk about difficult subjects like debt. Some explanations may sound perfectly reasonable and considerate (“I just don’t want to trouble her now that she is stressed out by work deadlines”). Others make no logical sense at all (“I will pay it all off when I win the lottery next month”). Regardless, your first step is to make the decision to be forthright and honest about your money troubles. The longer you avoid the tough conversation, the tougher it becomes.
Step two, choose your time and place.
Dropping the news on your significant other as you head out the door in the morning is not your best move. “Tacos for dinner sound great! Oh and by the way, I have $15,000 in credit card debt that I may have forgotten to mention to you. Bye!”
Choose a time and place that will keep the conversation private and uninterrupted. That might look different for different couples. Some do best talking on a weekend morning over a cup of coffee, others prefer to “walk and talk” in nature. There is no one perfect time and place, but you might stack the deck in your favor by reminding yourself that you and your partner both deserve the best chance to build a good life. That begins with quality conversations, even when the subject is as difficult as secret debt.
Have a plan for what you will say
The strategy of “just blurting it all out” tends to misfire, so I recommend going into the conversation with a bit of a plan. It could be as simple as preparing a conversation starter, like “I thought this was something I could handle on my own, but I now understand that two heads are better than one.” Own your part of the problem. Be as specific as you can – concrete numbers and deadlines (no matter how large and tight) are better than an amorphous sense of doom. Mention the things you have tried or plan to do to manage the situation. If there is specific help you need from your loved one, ask for it (“I know that we planned to take a vacation to Bali this year, and I hate to do this, but we will have to delay travel until I fix this” or “There is nothing you need to do about this, I just wanted you to know.”)
What should you do if you are on the receiving end?
If you are on the receiving end of “the debt talk”, it is ok to be surprised, discouraged or disappointed. To the best of your ability, try to name your emotions (to yourself or out loud) as that can help you work through them and get your mind ready to think about solutions.
Keep yourself from spinning into judgment. Questions like “How could you do this to me?” and “How could a reasonable person have not noticed that this is a problem?” do not have real answers and won’t make the conversation more constructive.
Finally, remember that it is OK to not know what to do next. In a perfect world, together you will be able to focus on big priorities and build a system for keeping the debt from mounting (such as tracking your expenses and setting a budget). Some couples find that working with a debt counselor or a financial planner can help them regroup, create a plan, and overcome this financial hurdle.
One last thought: be sure to get a credit report every year. While the report is specific to your Social Security number and won’t tell you about your spouse’s accounts, it can give you early warning about any joint account balances spinning out of control, as well as unauthorized lines of credit that you may not be aware of. (You can get free credit reports at www.annualcreditreport.com. You will not be asked to enter a credit card number.)
Tag words: budget, financial planning, debt
Image credit: http://www.confessionsofacouponaholic.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/workingonbudget-672×372.jpg