Whether you’ve been with your significant other for two weeks or 20 years, there’s a good chance they have some debt to their name. Today, the average college graduate who took out student loans leaves school with $29,800 in debt. And as of last year, the average household credit card balance reached $6,849. As their partner, you might be tempted to help out with that debt. Maybe your S.O. has even asked for financial assistance.
As tempting as it may be to fork over some cash in the name of love, it’s not always a great idea. Aiding your partner in paying off debt may cause resentment down the road, according to Kumiko Love, an accredited financial counselor, blogger and owner of The Budget Mom. “Supporting someone as they pay off debt may not allow them to grow from the experience, which could result in them quickly accumulating debt again,” she added.
That’s true whether or not you’re married. Love said there are a lot of people out there who assume that finances should be combined once you get married, but that’s not always the case. “Some couples handle money better together when they keep separate bank accounts and divvy up the responsibilities ... the same could be true for debt.”
So how can you be a supportive partner without compromising your own finances? Here are six ways to do it.
Set a good example.
Rather than telling your partner how they should manage their debt or criticizing them for their choices, try leading by example.
“By budgeting, saving and paying off debt yourself, you’re showing your significant other how easy and beneficial making this change can be,” Love said.
She added that it’s important to share your wins, too, both big and small. Did you pay off your car or save up the cash for a major purchase? Celebrate those wins with your significant other. “Keeping your partner involved in these wins will make an impact over time,” Love said.
Respect their lifestyle choices.
Though celebrating wins is important, you don’t want to go too far by flaunting your spending or pushing them to go over budget. For example, if you know that your partner is avoiding eating out so they can put an extra $100 a month toward their car loan, don’t beg them to join you for happy hour every week.
Instead, look for ways to support their financially healthy lifestyle. You don’t have to adhere to the same thrifty lifestyle they do, but you also shouldn’t make them feel guilty or left out.
If you do combine finances as a couple, don’t elect one partner to manage the money ― do it together. “The worst thing you can do is to take yourself out of the equation when it comes to finances,” said Ande Frazier, a certified financial planner and CEO of myWorth.
By being an active participant in the household finances, you will have a better understanding of your progress and challenges when it comes to debt. Plus, your partner will feel like they’re part of a team. Frazier suggested having regular meetings with your partner to discuss the status of your finances, and even hiring a financial planner if you want help from a professional.
Be their biggest cheerleader.
It can be so much more motivating to pay off debt when you know bae has your back. Even if you can’t support your loved one financially, you can prop them up emotionally. Tell them how proud you are of their progress and offer help or advice if they ask for it.
“Consider this a great opportunity to strengthen your relationship by coaching your partner to pay off their debt,” said Mili Mittal, vice president of financial well-being at Capital One, which recently released its latest “Mind Over Money” study. “It may actually be comforting for your partner to know they aren’t alone.”
Encourage them to share their goals.
Does your partner want to cut their credit card balance in half, or be debt-free in five years? Do you even know what their financial goals are? If not, encourage them to set a goal if they haven’t already and share it with you.
Research has demonstrated that people are more likely to follow through on their goals when the goals are shared with someone they respect. “Under financial stress, making your goals more social, especially with others who might share them, can help to make them more real,” Mittal said. “By surrounding yourself with people who know and share your goals, you are creating a virtuous circle that will make your goals easier to achieve.”
Take advantage of the opportunity to talk about money.
Regardless of how you choose to support your partner as they deal with their debt, the most important thing you can do is talk about money together.
“Different stages of life mean different money conversations,” Frazier said. From the early stages of dating, to engagement, to marriage, each season of life will require a specific money conversation to support it. Discuss how your partner’s debt might affect each stage of your relationship and work on a plan for getting to where you want to be. These money conversations might feel awkward at first, but ultimately, they should make you stronger as a couple.