One in five Americans say they have more credit card debt than emergency savings, according to a recent survey from personal finance company Bankrate.
And then there’s lingering student loans. Nearly 6 million Americans owe $50,000 or more in student debt, according to analysis from researchers with the Brookings Institution.
You’re probably not going to discuss a person’s debt on the first date, but at some point, you’ll find out about it and the ensuing conversation is bound to be a little awkward. The good news for both of you? Financial experts say personal debt shouldn’t necessarily be a dealbreaker. Below, they share seven tips for handling the conversation.
1. Recognize that not all debt is created equally.
“This has to be an open discussion without judgment. Talk to them and find out how much the debt is, and more importantly, how the debt was accumulated. Sometimes how the person got into debt is more important than how much debt they’ve accrued. For example, there’s a big difference between a person who has $50,000 in credit card debt because they used the money for vacations and fun, and a person who has $50,000 in school debt. In the latter case, they may be serious about money and their future. Remember not all debt is bad debt. I’d much rather have a spouse who used their credit on education rather than fun. That says a lot about them.” ― Samuel Rad, a certified financial planner at Affluencer Financial and an instructor at UCLA
2. Keep an open mind, even if it is credit card debt.
“According to a recent survey from Marcus by Goldman Sachs, nearly 70 percent of Americans say a partner’s credit card debt would be the most bothersome type of debt when compared to student loans, a car loan, or medical-related debt. That said, it’s important in this situation to keep an open mind: Credit card debt doesn’t necessarily mean your partner has an excessive spending problem. A series of unexpected life moments such as a car accident, emergency vet bill or home repair may have contributed to the debt. Identifying the underlying issues allows you to help your partner overcome any potential bad habits and assess strategies to pay it off faster. To get the conversation started and make your partner feel comfortable, open up about your own financial situation. Talk about any debt you may currently have or have paid off before focusing the attention to their situation.” ― Andrea Woroch, a personal finance expert and Marcus by Goldman Sachs ambassador
3. If you feel uncomfortable broaching the subject, frame it as a conversation about your future together.
“These conversations aren’t going to be easy, especially if the person you are dating is in serious financial trouble. Try and frame the conversation in terms of things you want to do together like have kids, buy a house or travel. What will this debt mean for your life together or your financial goals? You may need to put some of these goals on hold until your partner gets their debt under control.” ― David Rae, a certified financial planner with DRM Wealth Management in Los Angeles
4. Have an honest conversation about your relationship with money growing up.
“Your partner needs to be willing to talk about their upbringing around money. What messages did they get from their parents about spending, saving and what money meant to them? Are they really different than yours? If so, this lays the foundation for regular check-ins with each other about money issues as there is more chance of problems. If you both come from a family where saving was part of the expectation, then perhaps you can help get them back on course.” ― Linda Lubitz Boone, certified financial planner and president of the Lubitz Financial Group
5. Ask yourself: Am I OK being in a relationship with someone who has accumulated debt?
“Like any other quality, money should not be discounted when choosing a partner, especially one that you intend to spend your life with, and possibly, a bank account. You need to ask yourself if you are OK walking into a relationship owing money to others, because once you are in a long-term relationship, your partner’s problems inevitably become your own.” ― Roxana Maddahi, a wealth adviser at Steel Peak Wealth Management
6. If you are moving ahead with the relationship, do everything you can to be a supportive partner.
“If you are really into the person that you are dating, and being financially savvy is important to you, become a source of solutions and support. Identify ways that you are able to help without it costing you financially. For instance, instead of expensive date nights, encourage and embrace ways to curb spending by creating a list of free or low-cost events you can attend as a couple. Also, attend financial wellness events together. Many cities offer events geared toward educating communities on the importance of financial education. (You can easily find some of these for free on Meet Up.) Personal finance is extremely personal; remember to avoid any conversations that can be perceived as judgmental or belittling. The more insight you have around the how, why and when of someone’s financial situation, the easier it will be to have an honest dialogue around this topic.” ― Marsha Barnes, a personal finance expert and founder of The Finance Bar
7. Don’t assume your partner wants you to pay off their debt.
“Ask if your partner wants you to help in repaying the debt. This question will help you gain a better understanding of the kind of person you are dating. It’s best to find out early on if your partner wants you to help them out financially to avoid unpleasant surprises down the road. If they don’t want your help in climbing out of their debt, then don’t insist on providing assistance. If that’s the case, let the person you’re dating act from a place of strength and take responsibility over their life by allowing them to resolve their financial issues on their own. ” ― Courtney Cleman, a relationship coach at The V Club and a former financial analyst