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Is it Okay to Get Married With Debt?

I turned 27 this year, and my mailman started delivering more wedding invitations than bills. It sounds lovely, except that those damned lacy invites end up costing more than the bills! My opinions of showers and gift registries aside, all this nuptial nonsense got me thinking: Is it safe to get married when one partner, or both, has a lot of debt?

In Love? Got Debt? Look Out!

Given that money is routinely cited as a leading factor in divorce, I think couples considering marriage need to proceed with caution whenever debt is involved.

Personally, even if I wanted to get married this year and everything else was right, I wouldn’t do it because I still have way too much credit card debt.

Now, would I worry about my student loans? Probably not, even if I had gone to grad school and had a big tuition bill to repay.

Conventional wisdom says that education is an investment. I might not even worry about an auto loan – assuming it was affordable in the first place. But all credit cards, personal loans, and anything else must go.

If you are thinking about getting married but haven’t brought up money with your partner, you must. If you don’t, and subsequently don’t sign a prenuptial agreement, your debt will become your spouse’s debt, and your spouse’s debt will becomes yours.

When Marrying With Debt Is OK

In some cases, when you and your spouse have been completely transparent with each other, are in similar financial situations, and have similar financial aspirations, it may be OK to marry with some bad debt, even without a prenup, but only if – after being brutally honest with each other – you are on the exact same page financially.

Even still, people change, and the unexpected can happen, which is when one spouse’s whopper credit card bill or lack of savings can trigger resentment in the other.

My Advice for Marrying With Debt

If you want to get married but find yourself (or your future spouse) still in oodles of credit card debt, take these steps to ensure the situation doesn’t set your marriage up for failure:

Talk Money – Don’t even think about marriage until you have discussed everything financial: Your incomes, your debts, your assets, your goals, whether you like to save or spend, and how you want to handle money after marriage (separate accounts, joint, or both?)

Try to Start at $0 – If one of you has debt, try to pay it off before getting married. Not only does it make financial sense, it will make your new life that much more meaningful to be rid of the burden of debt.

Postpone Marriage, If You Can – Consider postponing marriage by a year or so to work on your finances. If you already live together, it shouldn’t be much of a sacrifice. If not, invest time now in earning additional income so that when you do marry, you will be in a better financial place.

Get a Prenuptial Agreement – Prenuptials sound so cold – as if you expect the marriage to fail – but they serve to protect spouses in marriage too, not just afterwards. For example, signing a prenup can make sure debt collectors can’t go after your spouse’s assets for a debt you owe, or vice versa, whether you are still married, or not.

Keep Talking – Perhaps the most important step of all, never stop talking about money. Don’t let your spouse be surprised to hear about a large purchase you made, or a credit card you opened. At the same time, if your spouse spends more than you, don’t freak out every time he or she goes to Starbucks. Life is about choices, and marriage – at least when it comes to money – is about compromises.

Are you – or were you – married to somebody who hid debt or other money problems? Are you planning to get married but taking steps to prepare your finances before you do? Let me know!

Next Wednesday, check out the debt help topic for “Debt Management Programs: Saviors or Scammers?” Need a reminder? Subscribe to our RSS Feed.

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About David Weliver

David Weliver is the founding editor of Money Under 30. He's a cited authority on personal finance and the unique money issues we face during our first two decades as adults. He lives in Maine with his wife and two children.

Comments

  1. my husband was $70 in debt when we got married. He had no financial literacy when we met. He was very willing, and relieved, to take guidance on how to get out of debt and learn about money. It was tough for the first couple years, because i supported us while he paid it all off. However, once he paid it all off, we then had all that money (his income) unallocated, which was awesome.

    I definitely agree with you that there has to be total transparency and a ‘come to jesus’ conversion financially for the other person.

    We are in great shape now, but 9 years ago it looked like a long slog.

  2. oops i meant he was $70k in debt, not $70.

  3. I married in debt – and was open and honest about it. If I was to wait until my student loans were paid off, it would have been years before I got married – and my wife was kept fully aware of it before hand. We said ‘no’ to a prenuptial agreement, as we felt we’d discussed all our issues fully (we communicate, heavily, about everything).

    That being said, her Uncle/Aunt who recently married fell into the camp of marrying into debt, getting divorced and losing a lot of their money because of it. Because they’ve been together for so many years post-divorce (and seeing us openly discuss our finances and other issues) helped convince them to remarry.

    The key is always honesty and communication, and willing to realize that you may have to have two separate bank accounts if you can’t control your bills/spending issues, but that’s almost a separate issue altogether…

  4. I am getting married next month, and have had several conversations with my fiancee regarding finances, but have not been able to come to a solution to his negative debt and bad credit history. I think there are many valid points and suggestions given here, anything else I should know? will his credit score affect mine? what if I keep my own last name?

  5. My fiance and I are marrying in June, and he still has some small debts from opening his own business two years ago. I’m not sure how delaying marriage would have helped us to improve our situation, as the author suggests. We’re living together already, and we have the generous support of our families to finance the wedding. Why wait? We’ve been very open and honest with each other about our priorities, and although it’s stressful, we’re tackling the issue together.

    I have had friends marry into massive amounts of debt, for which they became responsible after their divorces. However, these situations were untenable for a number of other reasons. Mutual respect and a heck of a lot of open communication can overcome a less-than-stellar financial past.

  6. “try to pay it off before getting married”

    I would say start after the honeymoon

    You never know if one has a change of heart

  7. Need advice says:

    My fiance and I are both is debt. I must say I am more in debt since being with her. She has a tendacy to spend more money than she makes and I tried talking to her. She is just in a rush to get married and start a family. I’m uncomfortable with getting married in debt and she just had her car repossessed and now she expects me to let her drive me to work and pick me up so that she has a car to drive to and from work. I’m wondering if I should walk away from the relationship now before it’s too late.

    • pakaji70 says:

      Yes, This is definately a red flag. I was married to a unmedicated bipolar gambler, of course I didn’t know this at first. She doesn’t want her actions to end in consequences. You shouldn’t be the one paying for her mistakes. Back up from the situation and imagine what you would tell a buddy, and then listen to yourself.

  8. Yes my live in patner hid dedt from me and I found out by asking to read his cerdit report.I was shock to find out he has $80.000.00 in back taxes that he owe to the IRS he also has a lean on the deed for that and I also found out he is 300.000.00 in DEBT and we was to get married 2010 June 26. At this point the wedding is off. Did I metion I’m Dedt free. He is 54 years of age and I’m 47. What a shame. He came into the relationship as someone he was not.I thank God I found out. He naver told me about this untill I ask for this report.I will tell everyone before you married look at the Credit Report.

  9. Let me also metion he has 4 civil judemet on the report as well. I will walk away from this nightmear.

  10. Hello,
    I am getting married May 1, 2010. My bride to be has terrible credit. Not so much credit card debt (like $800.00) but she has 2 car repos, unpaid traffic fines, gym membership collections and so on. How is this something I can keep out of? My credit is ok I am concerned with it being damaged.
    Thanks
    J.R.

  11. my fiance has a little debt and i was wondering if I keep my maiden name along with my new married name if his debt will follow me also.

  12. Where do you stand on medical debt? (i.e. large bills sent to creditors from past medical procedures that couldn’t be paid)

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