Marrying Into Debt

Two paper cut out figures with a dollar in the shape of a heart torn into discussing money, mortgages, car payments, and credit cards.

Wedding vows often involve some version of a promise to support each other “for richer or for poorer.” If you’re newly engaged, you’re probably bubbling over with emotions about intertwining your life with another person’s. But what if your future spouse’s debt adds nervousness to the excitement?

I can relate. In my case, I was the one bringing about $10,000 of debt (a mix of grad school and car payments) into my marriage. Here’s what my new husband and I learned together about marrying into debt.

Financial Attitude Can Matter More Than Debt

Fortunately, debt doesn’t have to be a deal breaker. People fall into debt for a variety of reasons:

  • Making mistakes in their 20s that they’re still working to repay
  • Taking out multiple loans to finance several big life decisions they can’t afford out of pocket (hi, that would be me)
  • Living a lifestyle above their means
  • Going through multiple setbacks in rapid succession

The important question to ask is how your future spouse treats money. Do they shrug off the debt, or are they committed to paying it off? And if they say they’re committed, are they following through by making payments and cutting their budget where they can? If you both agree on the lifestyle you can afford, and have the discipline to follow through, that can matter more than the amount you still need to pay off.

You Don’t Need to Combine Finances Right Away

That said, just because you feel like you’re on the same page financially doesn’t mean you need to run to the bank together. Especially before you’re officially married, you may prefer to keep accounts separate.

The awkward truth is that not every couple that gets engaged makes it to the altar. Keeping finances separate may also give you more space to have conversations about money and debt without the complicating factor of both of you drawing from the same account daily. A premarital counselor or financial advisor can help you guide conversations. A few good things to talk about could be:

  • If the partner without debt has the money to pay it off in a lump sum, would you choose this option? Why or why not?
  • How much of an emergency fund would it take for you to feel secure? What do you consider an “emergency”?
  • What’s the right balance for you between spending on fun activities in the short term vs. paying off debt?
  • How much can either of you spend without running the purchase by your partner first?

In my case, my husband had emergency cash that probably could have paid off my debt, but we didn’t go that route. I would have been too worried about needing the money if a car broke down or one of us lost our job. I was also self-conscious about having debt and earning less than he did. Handling my debt independently made me feel like I was providing a more even financial contribution.

Marriage Doesn’t Change Individual Credit

A lot changes when you get married. Where you live, how you file your taxes, and even how you sign your name could be different once you say, “I do.” But your credit score and history aren’t included in the mix.

First off, your credit score is tied to your social security number, not your name. If you take your spouse’s last name (or if both of you legally change to a new name), credit card agencies and credit bureaus can update that information accordingly on the account you already have.

Your credit score is also an individual matter. You may be commingling living room furniture, but credit stays separate after marriage. Credit bureaus won’t average your credit scores together or ding you for marrying a partner with a lower score.

What can affect your credit score is having a joint credit account with your spouse. If both of you use the same credit account, the activity on the account affects both of your individual scores. This can be a good or a bad thing. A reckless spouse could damage your score by using your shared account irresponsibly. Make timely payments and don’t carry a balance on your joint credit card, though, and the good behavior benefits both of you.

Honesty, commitment, open communication: Talking finance comes down to the same values and promises you’ll share on your wedding day, and throughout your marriage.

Article written by
Melinda Opperman
Melinda Opperman is an exceptional educator who lives and breathes the creation and implementation of innovative ways to motivate and educate community members and students about financial literacy. Melinda joined in 2003 and has over two decades of experience in the industry.

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