Marriage is a partnership, through good and bad times. For some couples, this includes tackling debt together.
Married couples are more likely to handle debt together than non-married couples, according to a new Policygenius survey. The survey asked more than 1,500 in people in relationships how they handled money. Of respondents who were married, 36% of married people treated their debt as joint debt compared to only 11.7% of unmarried people.
“It can be easier for married couples to get out of debt because both feel they share and own the debt,” said Neal Van Zutphen, certified financial planner and president of Intrinsic Wealth Counsel. “Couples who are financially aligned are far more likely to achieve both personal and coupleship financial health than couples who cannot agree on money matters.”
Couples who manage their debt separately may be less prepared for other financial goals, like retirement, said Van Zutphen.
The survey supports this. People tackling debt with their partners reported less stress about debt. In the survey, only 29% of married respondents said paying off debt was their biggest source of financial stress. Of unmarried respondents, 37% said debt was their biggest financial stressor.
The survey was based on responses from a nationally representative group of 1,526 adults across the U.S. All of them were in couples and living with their partner. It was conducted by Google Surveys between Aug. 28 and Aug. 31, 2018.
Why couples take on debt together
Married couples share resources more often than non-married couples. In the survey, 41% of married people pooled income and expenses, while only 19% of unmarried people did. The same goes for debt.
“As soon as you walk down that aisle, you don’t have a choice,” said Cherie Lowe. “You are in this together now.”
Lowe blogs as "The Queen of Free" and has authored personal finance books drawing on the experience of paying off $127,482.30 in debt with her husband. The Lowes were married for nine years before they started paying the debt off.
The debt strained their marriage.
“We never fought about it in a way that blew up into plate-throwing,” she said. “It was just passive aggressiveness. You start feeling like your purchases are necessary and your spouse’s purchases are frivolous.”
It wasn’t until they started discussing money that Lowe said they saw a future without debt, and their relationship grew stronger.
“Finances was something I didn’t think about in the beginning. I was in love,” she said. “Most people are willing to share a bed before a bank account. But you have to be asking those questions before you walk down the aisle.”
How debt can affect your relationship
Debt, like any other money issue, can ruin a relationship, said Van Zutphen. He said couples who talk about money and agree on financial goals are more likely to be successful than couples who value money differently.
“Imagine a spouse wanting to pay down and pay off debt, while the other spouse is intent on spending every dime and more,” he said. “The battle typically leads to divorce and financial infidelity.”
Couples who are married or are planning to get married have some understanding that their finances, including their debts, will combine, said divorce attorney Paul Rudder. But no couple should go into a relationship thinking their partner will pay off their debts completely.
“If you are coming into a marriage with debt, you’ve got to find a way to take care of your debt.” he said. (Here are 6 easy ways to get you started on paying off debt.)
Rudder said in a marriage, anything one partner does financially affects the other. It’s not the same with unmarried couples.
“It’s like, ‘You piss me off, I’m out the door. I don’t owe you anything.’” he said. “Whereas, in a marriage, you have a possibility for alimony, there’s a possibility for child support, there’s a possibility you could lose your house. There’s more consequences, which makes you rethink breaking up.”
Van Zutphen agrees, especially when it comes to dealing with debt together.
“Co-habitating couples whose money is separate may not feel they 'own' the other's debt and therefore, consider themselves financially fine,” said Van Zutphen.
Like with any area of a relationship, Rudder said, you should always communicate with your partner. He said you shouldn't feel pressure to take on all of your partner's financial woes, but you should have "some shared vision of the future together," without debt.
"You look at your partner and say, 'I want to share this dream with you,'" he said. "You should be focusing on building a life together, not creating money problems for yourselves."
How couples can manage debt together
The best way couples can manage debt together is, well, together. It's important to have open communication from the beginning about how much debt you have and your goals to tackle it.
Lowe said she and her husband regularly discuss their finances to make sure they never fall behind again, something she believes more couples need to do.
"A lot of people are getting married without talking about debt," she said. "If you keep your finances separate, together, whatever, you just need to know — that's the most important part."
Couples should also consider consulting a financial professional to stay on track.
"Best step, engage a professional to provide the kind of financial coaching that can facilitate the rewards of being aligned in money and love," said Van Zutphen.
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