Picking someone to combine your life with can be tricky. We’re part of the generation that has seen almost half of our parents end their marriages in divorce and many of us are eager to make sure we do things differently. While most people have a relatively common checklist of ideal qualities (physically attractive, funny, nice, caring, smart, etc., etc.), only a few of us spend time discussing the finances of the person we’re dating. Now I’m not suggesting to ask someone on the first date how much money they make, how much they owe in student loans or credit cards, and what their plan to pay these debts might be…but this conversation must be had long before marriage is even considered. This post will take a look at the idea of dating someone with a significant chunk of debt and what you should think about before saying “I do.”
Before getting started, I want to make it clear that I’m not encouraging people to avoid a potential mate just because they have debt. I’m just saying that priorities with money usually reflect priorities in life.
Type of debt matters
Student loans are a fact of life for many of us, but keep in mind that not all student debt is created equal. Borrowing a bunch of money to go to dental school is a relatively low-risk, high-return investment if one plans on practicing dentistry for 30 years. On the flip side, if you’re dating a guy who borrowed $90,000 to attend an unaccredited online degree mill that he didn’t complete, you might want to ask yourself why he thought that was a good idea. He might have a good reason, he might not. It’s worth it to politely ask.
Credit card debt is slightly trickier. The recession that the country is slowly recovering from created a lot of job loss and financial harm to many people’s wallets. As a result, credit cards were often the only means to buy groceries and pay bills, even if there wasn’t enough money to pay those bills on time. It is difficult to fault a guy for keeping his head above water while looking for a new job (for example). What a guy CAN be faulted for is trying to live life like Diddy (or Donald Trump or a Kardashian) on $50,000 per year. The type of person who thinks they must have $200 dress shirts or $1500 purses is likely to continue to desire additional items to feed their craving for high-end things. This would be no big deal if they were simply looting their bank account or running up their own credit cards, but if you all eventually marry, their expensive habits become your financial headache.
Does your partner have a plan in place to reduce their debt?
As I have mentioned many times before, debt isn’t necessarily a bad thing if used responsibly or as a well-thought-out investment. That being said, there should always be a plan in place to determine how debt will be repaid, before the money is even borrowed. Check out my post on saving and investing when you’re in debt for tips. If you’re dating someone who is gainfully employed and making regular monthly payments on their student loan, I see no problem. I also don’t see any problem with learning from a few costly mistakes and making an effort to aggressively pay off a credit card. On the other hand, I do see a major problem if your partner continues spending recklessly, infrequently makes payments, and hopes that things will somehow “work out.” Bills tend to get worse the longer you ignore them and pride has the possibility of making the other person feel embarrassed. A respectful, open conversation with your partner about their plan to tackle debt might be a bit awkward at the time, but it shows that you care about the long-term health and success of the relationship. If they don’t understand that, you don’t need to be with them. Sorry, but you’ll thank me later.
Why does this even matter?
How we spend our time and money says a lot about what we value and what type of lives we want to lead. People who quickly spend their money without paying attention to the consequences tend to care more about the satisfying the present over securing their future. The whole mantra of “You Only Live Once” aka YOLO, has led people to put off planning for tomorrow in order to feel good today. It may seem like a lot of fun to be in your late-20s driving the BMW you can barely afford, running up your Visa buying Grey Goose and tonic for your friends at the bar, and living at an apartment building with a doorman…but it’s a lot less fun when you’re in your late-30s moving back in with three roommates (or your parents) because you didn’t become rich like you thought and you’re dodging bill collectors on your prepaid flip phone.
The previous example is relevant because when two people decide to get married, the debts and financial mistakes of your partner become your own. This will have consequences if you decide to purchase a home together, buy a car, and make other major financial decisions. You might have plans to start your own business or make a large investment in your friend’s new company. This may have to be put on hold if your spouse is paying off his or her Neiman Marcus debt which has been steadily accumulating for the last 8 years.
If you plan on spending your life with someone who owes a lot of money, this will undoubtedly impact your financial health in one way or another. If you believe he or she will eventually change their spending habits over time, you are in for a rude awakening. Just like you should consider how a person treats other people, you should also consider how they treat money. Money is often cited as the #1 or #2 reason couples file for divorce. While you and your partner don’t have to agree on everything, where money is directed should be something you can see eye-to-eye on. If not, best of luck.
What do you all think about dating someone with debt?