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.
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?