Should You Pay Off Your Partner's Debt_

One of the first issues that couples face in a serious relationship is how to handle their finances. Dividing up the household bills is one thing, but what happens when one partner brings other financial baggage – such as credit card or student loan debt – into the equation?

In marriage, what’s yours is technically mine, and vice-versa. But how should couples treat debt that was incurred prior to marriage? And, more to the point: should you pay off your partner’s debt?

One philosophy is that “he who spent it pays it back’, an approach that might sound better in theory than in practice. It doesn’t make sense for one partner to struggle with credit card debt while the other earns 1 or 2 percent in a savings account.

In some cases the type of debt can make the difference as to whether one partner is willing to help out the other. Student loan debt, for example, is often seen as an ‘investment’ and doesn’t carry the stigma of consumer loans or credit card debt.

Should you pay off your partner’s debt?

My wife and I met when we were in post-secondary, and student loans were a fact of life for us both. When it was all said and done we owed a combined $60,000 in student loans, line of credit, and credit card debt.

I say “combined” because by the time we moved in together in 2003 our finances became a joint effort. We opened a joint account, pooled our income, and started paying off our debts.

It wasn’t a concern that, since I earned more money, I was paying proportionally more toward her debt than she was. As far as we were concerned we were in it together.

Automatic payments came out of our joint account and we tried to pay more than the minimum on our higher interest loans.

My wife left the workforce to stay home full-time after our first child was born in 2009. We decided to live on one income, which meant the remainder of our debt would become my responsibility to pay off.

We made our final student loan payment in 2011 – killing it off with a $2,000 lump sum transfer from our joint account.

I can’t recall if it was my loan or my wife’s, but that’s not the point. For eight years we treated that debt as “our debt”, just like the income we earned was “our income”, even though there was a clear disparity. 

Final thoughts

The decision to pay off a partner’s debt shouldn’t be taken lightly, as it can lead to resentment or even divorce if the couple is truly financially incompatible. That’s certainly true if one partner brings significant savings into a relationship while the other is a spendaholic with heaps of credit card debt.

For us, we met in our early twenties and made all of our money mistakes together – figuring out how best to manage our money along the way. We got into debt together and paid it off together – and even though it was technically “my income” that paid off most of the debt, I never resented that decision. I embraced it.

How did you decide whose responsibility it was to pay off the debts in your relationship?

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6 Comments

  1. Maria @ Handful of Thoughts on February 26, 2020 at 12:04 pm

    When we got together and eventually combined our finances I had no debt but my husband had some student debt and a car loan. Together we worked to pay off the debt and then made new saving and investing goals from there.

    It may have been different if there had been more consumer debt. Even though I was not a fan of the vehicle loan, that vehicle is now 15 years old and we still drive it.

    • Curt on February 26, 2020 at 1:18 pm

      Great comments. We, with 45 years of marriage behind us, have always shared in debt, mistakes, successes and most important, in my opinion, decisions. We discussed and set guidelines early on, and still live by them adapting them as circumstances change. I will be sharing your post with our adult children.

  2. Cheryl on February 26, 2020 at 1:12 pm

    I think you answered it when you said what kind of debt it is. In BC waiting times for surgery are horrendous. Many people use their credit card and go through a private clinic. Spend $10,000 to get the surgery done in 3 weeks, or wait 2 years and be in a lot of pain and maybe unable to work and probably using their credit card anyway just to pay their rent/mortgage and other bills. Lots of people have medical bills and as you pointed out, student debt. Debt just because someone can’t control their spending is a whole other story. I’d be less sympathetic to someone who wants mag wheels and entertainment system and Caribbean cruises and wouldn’t help pay it back than someone with medical bills.

  3. Mark on February 26, 2020 at 1:19 pm

    One perspective you didn’t mention was timing/age. The examples given and the first comment all reflect a couple coming together at the start of their adult voyage. In this case it makes perfect sense to look at the joint goals of the couple and how they are going to manage finances going forward. I was in the same situation many years ago. My then fiancé (soon to be wife) and I both had student loans, the prospect of good jobs, but no savings or assets. We worked on paying down those loans and saving up for a down payment on a home and prioritized where we were going to put our money. Looking at my net-worth tracking spreadsheet – we purchased our first home in 1988, but didn’t finish paying off student loans until 1993 since the student loans were at a much lower interest rate than our ~12% mortgage (yes, times have changed on interest rates).
    The question you pose is much more difficult for couples getting together later in life – either due to delayed marriages or due to being widowed, divorced etc. Now you can be faced with two partners that have very different financial situations – one could be saddled with significant debt, or few savings, the other could be financially independent and well off. Not so easy a discussion.

  4. Jeff North on February 26, 2020 at 4:34 pm

    Definitely different accumulating debt together than inheriting it in a blended marriage. I had no debt entering the relationship late in life and significant assets yet not a lot of free cash as I don’t agree with holding three months of “emergency” savings preferring to be fully invested in the stock market with that cash. Therefore when the debt came out of the closet it was quite a shock. Could I have paid it all off, yes! Did I? No. My wife is very proud so the sharing of her financial situation was painful and in her eyes a little embarrassing. To me it was more about the disclosing of the information versus how to deal with and the fact there was debt. Having been a single mom for years her debt was her investment in her children and unfortunately her knowledge of financial management was limited. What I did do was help her understand how to consolidate her debt using MBNA’s twelve month no interest credit card transfer. I then used my credit to consolidate the remaining balance under a card in my name. As this method requires absolute discipline in not using the cards and paying on time I set the internet access in my name so I could monitor both cards so as not to lose the no interest privilege. The agreement was she paid those cards before anything else and if she needed help elsewhere and couldn’t contribute to any joint payments I would cover them. We’ve successfully cycled this pair of cards along with the occasional offer on my other cards to the point she is two payments away from paying the debt off. I’m so proud of her achieving it predominantly on her own working extra overtime and foregoing daily Timmies like me and learning what makes me tick on my financial journey to retire at 50 and adopting some of my financial habits. Further she made my day after I told her that she only has two payments left on the card and the rest of the outstanding balance was for the new roof I put on last year using the card as well. Her response, let’s just use what I was paying each month to clear that balance quickly babe. Just clearing the debt would have missed the opportunity for a great life lesson and it also gave her a feeling of accomplishment. Some people have a stigma about sharing finances. The more transparent finances are the easier it is to have a game plan. Not everyone is aware great blogs like this are available and finance can be greatly simplified with some simple practices. My mantra is to live within my means, never refuse an opportunity to make more money, pay myself first and invest every extra dollar.

  5. James on February 26, 2020 at 4:38 pm

    Paid off my wife’s HFC loan of $24,000 the year we got married as I had no debt and had that money in my bank account. Interest was 18% back then in 1988. Happily married for 23 years then she left me, got a lawyer and took half of everything plus alimony. No mention of the debt that I had paid off or the fact that I had got two loans from my parents to help pay of our house. Put it in writing, don’t assume things will turn out all right for 50% of you it won’t!

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