Tackling Debt Together: Strategies for Couples Before Marriage

Mar 29, 2024 | Communication, Finances

You’re planning to embark on the journey of marriage, but before you walk down that aisle, let’s talk about something less glamorous yet utterly crucial for building a solid foundation for your future together: debt. Yes, that pesky monster that lurks in the shadows of your financial lives. I know it’s not as glamorous as picking out wedding colors or planning your honeymoon, but don’t worry! Armed with the right strategies and a little bit of financial finesse, you and your partner can conquer debt like the dynamic duo you are.


Facing the debt monster head-on!

Picture this: you and your partner are sitting down, mapping out your dreams and goals for the future. You’re dreaming big, talking about traveling the world, buying a house, starting a business, or even a family together. But then, reality hits like a ton of bricks – debt. Whether it’s student loans, credit card debt, or a hefty car loan, debt can feel like a dark cloud looming over your happily ever after. So what do you do about it?

Well first thing to know is this,  you’re not alone. According to the Mind Over Money survey by Capital One and Decision Lab, a staggering 77% of Americans feel anxious about their finances, and according to Debt.org, seven out of ten Americans will say, “I do!” with some level of debt – mostly student loans or credit card debts. So, if you’re feeling the weight of debt on your shoulders, know that you’re not the only one.


Why tackling debt together matters

Before we dive into the nitty-gritty of debt-tackling strategies, let’s take a moment to understand why tackling debt together as a couple is so important. First off, debt affects more than just your bank account – it can take a toll on your mental and emotional well-being, too. Studies have shown that financial stress is a leading cause of relationship strain and can lead to arguments and disagreements between partners.

A survey carried out by SunTrust Bank found that 35% of couples point to finances as the reason for stress in their relationship, with debt often at the center of the issue. In addition, an overwhelming 43% of people admit to financial infidelity, hiding significant credit card debt from their partner, according to TD Bank’s Love and Money survey.

To avoid becoming a statistic like this, it’s imperative to have open and honest financial conversations with your partner from the beginning. This helps ensure you’re both clear on what you’re signing up for when you say, “I do!” After all, you won’t just be merging your lives; you’ll be merging your finances, too. 

The key to achieving this level of financial transparency is in creating an environment of trust. Opening up lines of communication with your partner where it’s safe to be vulnerable and completely forthcoming, without judgment or retribution, regardless of how sparkling or shameful the reality may feel. 

If the above wasn’t motivation enough to get on the same financial page with your soon to be spouse, then maybe this will be. Research carried out by Forbes Advisor found that 37% of couples cited financial issues as the reason for their divorce. 

But fear not; it’s not all doom and gloom. Research by Fidelity also suggests that couples who tackle financial challenges together report higher levels of relationship satisfaction and are better equipped to weather the ups and downs of life. So, by taking on debt as a team, you’re not only improving your financial situation but also strengthening your bond as a couple.


Actionable steps for tackling debt together

Now that you’re clear on the importance of tackling debt together let’s get down to business. Here are some actionable steps you and your partner can take to slay that debt dragon and set yourselves up for financial success:

Step 1: Take inventory

The first step in tackling debt is knowing exactly what you’re up against. Sit down together and make a list of all your debts, including the total amount owed, interest rates, and minimum monthly payments. This will give you a clear picture of your current financial situation and help you prioritize which debts to tackle first. It may feel overwhelming to see it all laid out on paper, perhaps for the first time. Remember, your past does not equal your future, and you’re making major money moves now to become debt-free, so be proud of yourself.


Step 2: Set goals

Setting specific, measurable goals is key to staying motivated on your debt repayment journey. Schedule your first money date and sit down together to decide exactly how much you want to pay off each month and by when. Maybe you want to pay off your credit card debt within a year or have your student loans paid off before you buy a house. Whatever your goals may be, write them down and hold each other accountable.


Step 3: Create a budget

Once you know how much you owe and what your goals are, it’s time to create a budget that works for both of you. I like to use Zero-Based-Budgeting (ZBB), which is a simple, forward-looking budgeting tool where you tell your money where to go at the start of each month instead of wondering, where did my money go? 

Open up an Excel spreadsheet, put your income at the top, and then deduct all your essential expenses (like groceries and housing) and non-essential expenses (like entertainment and dining out) from your total income number until you arrive at zero. This practice will help you identify where you can cut back, and reassign more money to paying down your debts even faster. 


Step 4: Know your numbers

Stay up-to-date on your budget by scheduling regular money dates for you both as a couple. Use this time to track your joint monthly income and expenses, always coming back to the question, how can we allocate a greater proportion of our income towards paying down these debts? Check-in to see that you’re on track with your goals, and if not, identify the areas of spending that need to be reassessed.


Step 5: Explore debt repayment strategies

There are two key strategies you can use to accelerate your debt repayment, namely the debt snowball method and the debt avalanche method. 

  • The debt snowball method involves paying off your smallest debts first. The benefit of this approach is seeing progress, which may keep you more motivated on your debt freedom journey. However, by prioritizing your smallest debts over your most costly debts, you may end up paying a lot more in the end.
  • For this reason, I prefer the debt avalanche method, which prioritizes paying off debts with the highest interest rates first. These debts are costing you the most so it makes sense to rid yourselves of them before other debts. In either case, choose the strategy that you believe will work best for you both and stick to it.


Step 6: Explore alternative solutions

If you’re burdened by high-interest debt, for example, credit card debt, consider using a balance transfer credit card. This may affect your credit score but may also give you some necessary breathing room from the high-interest rate racking up. You could also consider consolidating multiple credit card debts into a single loan with a lower interest rate; this process is known as debt consolidation.


Step 7: Maintain open communication

Last but certainly not least, communication is key when it comes to tackling debt as a couple. It can be a stressful journey to becoming debt-free, especially if you’re carrying significant high-interest-rate debt and it feels like it’s never-ending. Be open and honest with each other about your financial goals, concerns, and priorities and any change in your circumstances that happens along the way. Keep your money date a non-negotiable in your calendars so you can check in regularly and review your progress together.


Is their debt my debt?

It’s worth noting that if your partner’s debt is a major issue in your relationship, signing a prenuptial agreement is a great way to protect yourself financially before walking down the aisle, as you can specify how debts would be handled in the event of divorce or death. 

There’s also a misconception that marrying a partner who has a bad credit score will automatically affect your credit score. This is not true. However, it’s important to remember that if you plan to access credit as a couple, their low credit score could lower your joint chances of being approved versus if you had applied for the loan by yourself. 

Remember, marriage does not automatically make you responsible for your spouse’s pre-existing debts. However, that said, it’s really crucial that you know what the financial obligations of your future spouse are so you can best prepare to be financially successful as a married couple for the long term. 

Additional considerations

While debt repayment is a top priority for many couples, there are other financial considerations to keep in mind as you prepare to embark on the adventure of marriage. Here are a few additional tips to help you navigate the financial waters together:

Discuss financial goals: Take the time to discuss your long-term financial goals as a couple, such as buying a house, saving for retirement, or starting a family. Having a shared vision for the future will help you stay aligned and focused on your goals.


Plan for the unexpected: Life is unpredictable, and if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s how important it is to have a plan in place for unexpected expenses, emergencies, or sudden loss of income. Consider building an emergency fund that covers three to six months’ worth of living expenses to provide a financial safety net for your future.


Invest in Your Future: Once you’ve paid off your debts and built up your emergency fund, it’s time to start investing in your future. Whether it’s contributing to a retirement account, investing in the stock market, or saving for a down payment on a house, investing early and consistently can help you build your wealth over time.

For more on this, check out my article, Mastering Financial Planning: A Comprehensive Guide to Secure Your Financial Future, here.

Where to next?

Tackling debt as a couple before marriage may seem daunting, but with the right strategies and a little bit of teamwork, you can conquer even the greatest mountains of debt together. By communicating openly, having regular money dates, keeping track of your joint cash flow, creating a budget that you can stick to, and setting realistic goals, you can and will set yourselves up for a lifetime of financial success. So, call your partner, set your money date, and get ready to slay that debt dragon together!

You are writing your life story. Get on the same page with a prenup. For love that lasts a lifetime, preparation is key. Safeguard your shared tomorrows, starting today.
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