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What to do when you’re engaged to someone deeply in debt

Debt shouldn't keep you from marrying the one

Debt shouldn't keep you from marrying the one you love, if you take the right precautions. Photo Credit: Getty Images / ArtMarie

A reader asks: I’m getting married, and my partner has hefty student loans and credit card bills. I don’t. Should I be worried enough to reconsider?

You’re fortunate to have found someone you want to spend the next, oh, 60 years with. Debt shouldn’t keep you from putting a ring on it, if you take the right precautions.

More importantly, you need to know the details of what you’re getting into. Financial problems are one of the leading causes of divorce, so avoid potential strain on your relationship by talking candidly about spending attitudes and debt early on.

  • Get the facts

Debt incurred before marriage won’t become jointly owned when you say “I do.” But when you’re building your life with someone, their financial history has an impact on your future plans. Also, if you combine your debts by consolidating them into one joint loan, you’re both on the hook for paying them off.

To kick-start a candid money conversation with your partner, share credit reports. Everyone is entitled to one free credit report annually from each of the three major credit bureaus. The reports show current and past accounts and payment histories. Discuss any patterns, such as frequent late payments, and why they occurred. Were they the result of a short-term and situational issue, such as a medical crisis? Or do they demonstrate ingrained behaviors that could be tough to change?

  • Create a plan

Barring any truly scary revelations from your partner’s credit history, start building a plan that puts you on a shared road to financial wellness.

Your partner should aim to get rid of credit card balances first, then pay extra toward student loans. Credit cards often come with higher interest rates, which will make carrying a balance cost more money over time.

  • Budget realistically

If you want to help your partner pay down debt, make sure you have adequate emergency savings first. A solid goal is to save at least three months’ worth of expenses.

Sharing your financial histories and creating a solid debt-reduction strategy could be one of many challenges you’ll talk through, plan for and overcome together.

“If you can’t talk about money, you’re not going to be able to talk about some of the other, more difficult things that you’re going to encounter as a couple,” said Kitty Bressington, a certified financial planner and president of Linden Financial Consultants near Rochester.

Before getting married, partners should share credit scores, which are based on credit reports. You can get free access to credit report through the major credit bureaus and they’re often included on monthly bank and credit card statements. In general, a score lower than 630 is considered poor. It’s reasonable to ask a partner with poor credit not to take on new debt in the short term, and to try to save at least $500 for emergencies that would otherwise go on a credit card.

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