Love and Money

Illustration by Dave van Patten

Love and Money: How to Handle Marrying Someone With Tons of Debt

John McDermott

Don’t wait until you’ve tied the knot before discussing your student loan burden

In 2001, Cary Carbonaro and her then-husband were on their way to buy a new car when he told her, “I can’t put the car in my name because of my credit.” Carbonaro was confused. The newlyweds were living in New York, and she was under the impression he was well-off financially — certainly not the kind of person who’d have trouble getting an auto loan.

Then he divulged he had $70,000 in unpaid student loans, at which point Carbonaro freaked out. “I felt horrible,” Carbonaro says. “I was taught by my family, especially my father, to pay every single bill on time. Good credit was of the utmost importance in my life.”

Carbonaro and her husband divorced in 2008.

“Its very hard to say if his debt broke us up because there were so many other things going on: verbal abuse, lying, cheating, stealing,” she says. “But learning about it was the moment I thought, This is not going to last.

Carbonaro’s was a rather extreme case of what she calls “financial infidelity”: lying to your partner about your financial situation. Her husband was an attorney and CPA who thought only “suckers” pay back their loans and concocted schemes to avoid his. But the experience of marrying someone with loads of debt and having that debt weigh heavily on their relationship is a common one — a situation that causes guilt and resentment in equal parts and, if left unaddressed, can ruin a relationship.

Talk about your debt before you get married

It’s far harder to deal with debt if the reveal comes after you’ve tied the knot. The deceit alone is enough to kill a relationship, says Carbonaro, now a financial adviser at United Capital and author of The Money Queen’s Guide: For Women Who Want to Build Wealth and Banish Fear. She suggests couples in this position seek marriage counseling (and that’s even before trying to reconcile any underlying money management differences).

Preferably, the indebted party initiates this conversation, says Oakland University professor Terri Orbuch, author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage From Good to Great. “The partner who is finding out about the other’s debt should feel free to ask questions, recognize whether it was a one-time situation or a general approach to money, and if their partner is trying to fix the situation,” Orbuch advises. The responses will indicate if the couple can effectively manage the debt together, or if their approaches to money are irreconcilable. After all, the single most important component of a successful, long-term relationship is having similar attitudes when it comes to money and finances, she adds.

Benjamin Van Loon, a 31-year-old PR professional in Chicago, learned about his wife’s $100,000 student debt load when they were still just college sweethearts. He briefly considered breaking up with over it, but the thought of losing her “terrified” him. After several frank discussions (and some fights), they resolved to work through it together, he says. They’re still married, and to date have paid off $80,000 of her (their) debt.

Avoid resentment

Key to dealing with a partner with loads of debt is learning how to avoid resenting them for the financial strain they’ve placed you on your relationship — and this can occur regardless of when the debt’s disclosed.

“Don,” a 31-year-old Kansas City resident, married a woman with nearly $130,000 in debt, most of it student loans from her undergraduate and master’s studies. Don’s wife didn’t spring this news on him after they tied the knot; she disclosed her massive debt load six months into their relationship, “after we got pretty serious,” Don says. But the revelation was still shocking.

“My first reaction was Holy shit, man. What the hell is going on?” he says. “I didn’t even know having that much debt was possible.”…



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