Money Talks, So Should You

Having the money talk: Uh oh, you’ve got debt

Temma Ehrenfeld
by Temma Ehrenfeld, Dimespring Contributor

Don’t count on finding a mate who isn’t burdened with debt. In a recent PNC Bank survey of people in their 20s with at least some college, 60 percent said their debt was stressing them out. Nearly 40 percent reported holding credit card debt, which came to $4,600, on average. Among respondents ages 28 and 29, the average debt load was a whopping $78,000.

We asked California psychotherapist Margaret Cochran, who often works with couples, how and why they should talk about debt.

What might you say to a partner who has a lot of debt?

You can say, “I love you and I want to be with you. But we have to find a way to make this debt go away.”  

READ: Having the money talk: Why you need to go bare about money

If it’s credit card debt, ask, “How did you get here and what can we do? How much do we have to pay a month to pay this down?” Then stop using credit cards. It’s good to have a credit card with no balance for an emergency, but you keep it in a drawer, not in your wallet, and you only make joint decisions to use it.

But if I don’t have a problem, why can’t I use credit cards?

You can’t because it’s now your debt, too. It affects your day to day life and your future. If you really want to be married, body, soul and spirit, you take stuff on together.

Does it ever make sense to say, “Pay down your debt before I marry you or move in”?

Yes. You can put off more commitment and say: “I love you, but the way you handle money scares me and I need to see that you get help.” The help may be a financial adviser or a therapist. It depends on the severity of the problem.

READ: Having the money talk: Should you merge your finances?

It may be a gambling problem, or compulsive spending, or even other relationships. I know of a guy who sent his mistress a gift from Tiffany’s on his wedding day.

A lot of people have the fantasy that marriage will change their partner. It won’t. I know a girl who was madly in love with a man who liked to go to Vegas with his friends to drink. She thought that once they got married he would settle down.  

Six months after the wedding, she found phone calls on his cell phone from collection agencies and discovered that he was a gambler with a big debt. The only reason her house wasn’t at risk was because she hadn’t changed the title yet to add him.  

If you’re the one with debt, why is it important to reveal it?

One reason is you may find that the person you’re marrying is a financial bully.  He says, “I make more money than you, so I make the decisions.” If you know about this ahead of time, you may decide it’s not a good relationship. Sometimes the partner who has more debt can feel trapped and the other person regularly reminds him of that. It can get ugly.

Have you seen couples get out of debt?

Money represents the ability to come together and make decisions about our future.  

You’ll need to budget. Put a certain amount of cash in an envelope for food, and have another envelope for each of their major expenses.

Savings goes straight from the paycheck to a savings account. Whatever you pay for debt also goes automatically from your checking account to the card.  

I’ve worked with many couples that used this system and got out of debt. Sometimes a financial planner can help you consolidate the debt or negotiate with credit card companies to lower rates.  They’ll also give you a financial plan.


Temma Ehrenfeld is a New York-based writer. After many years at Fortune and Newsweek, she now writes on a variety of subjects for The New York Times, CBS Moneywatch, Scientific American MIND and MS., as well as Dimespring.