How Much Debt is Too Much in a Relationship?

How Much Debt is Too Much in a Relationship?

What would you do if your fiancé came to you a month before your wedding and revealed that he had $370k of debt?

Sadly, this is a true story. I was browsing the boards of a wedding website a few months ago when I read this post. The woman’s fiancé told her about his $370k of debt only about a month and a half before their wedding. He had made bad decisions in borrowing money for his undergrad and graduate studies. He also did not work when he was on academic probation or when he spent a year trying to pass the professional exam to be a physical therapist. And he bought a car. She knew he had debt, but not how much. 

As I read on, I almost couldn’t believe her story. Would she still marry him? And how much debt is too much in a relationship?

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When is debt reasonable?

Given that there are over 44 million borrowers with an average college student loan debt of $37,172 in 2017, being romantically involved with someone who has debt is common these days. You might nod your head in understanding and continue dating if the following were true:

  • Your partner is financially responsible in all other areas of life. His debt may be only student loan debt versus credit card debt.

  • Your partner is taking steps to pay off his debt. If he’s still in school, this may mean having a solid plan to pay it off in the future.

  • Your partner earns a good income or at least has high earning potential. It can cost a lot to become a doctor, lawyer, and other professional, but they can earn good pay when they practice.

  • You do the calculations and realize the debt can be paid off in a reasonable amount of time. Whew!


Additional considerations

Besides thinking about whether or not the debt is reasonable, it’s important to consider how the debt will affect the two of you in the future. I write this mainly considering large amounts of debt, whatever that amount is to you.


Will his debt become yours if you get married?

It’s possible. It depends on your circumstances and your state. Do your research, possibly even with a lawyer, if this concerns you.


Can you afford to buy a house?

If this is a goal of yours, having debt may cause you to wait longer to buy a home simply because you don’t have the money for it. You may have difficulty obtaining a mortgage and qualifying for lower interest rates.


Can you afford the lifestyle that you want?

Regarding your work, you may have to pick a job that pays well rather than one that you like more but pays less. You may want to work part-time or be a stay-at-home mom, but not have those options because you need to earn money.


Can you afford to have children?

There’s no denying that raising children costs money. Would you be willing to limit your children’s educational opportunities if you want them to attend private school or you want to fund their college education? You may have to cut back on extracurricular activities and family vacations as well.


Can you deal with the stress of having debt?

Everyone handles stress differently. Some people may brush it off while you find yourself mulling over it day in and day out. I think I had more white hair when I had student loans.  


What if you or your partner becomes sick or disabled?

Unfortunately, I see this in my work as a speech language pathologist. A two-income family suddenly becomes a one-income family when one of the partners has a stroke or is diagnosed with cancer. No one ever plans on becoming disabled at a young age, but it happens. Medical treatment, caregivers, and long-term care are expensive. Would you be able to handle an emergency or a sudden decrease in income?


Dating and Relationship Lessons


1)  It’s okay to have financial criteria for dating and marriage.

Everyone has criteria that a potential partner must meet when dating. It could be that he has not been previously married or that she brushes her teeth at least twice a day. It’s okay to have financial criteria too. It could be that he brings no debt to the relationship or that she has a steady job. It’s unromantic to think about, but financial stability and compatibility are important to a successful relationship.


2)  Have the financial talk with your partner.

If you’re planning a future together, then talk to your partner about everything related to your finances. Lay everything on the table: salary, debt, retirement funds, investments, financial goals and worries, life goals, and so forth.  Have the discussion well before you plan to get married.


3) Protect yourself (and your partner).

Consider if a prenuptial agreement is right for you and your partner. It sounds unromantic. People typically don’t go into a marriage thinking that they’ll get divorced, but we all know it happens. Setting up a prenup in good times can prepare you and your partner to handle the difficult times, should they ever come.


4) You have a choice.

If you’re engaged to a person with heavy debt, you may feel like your fate is set because the invitations have been sent and guests’ travel plans have already been made. But as long as you’re not yet married, you still have a choice. You can continue dating, postpone the wedding, or walk away. Or you can put a plan in place to tackle the debt and get married.


The women’s story from above shows that love doesn’t conquer all. Real life isn’t a fairy tale, and there are serious consequences to poor decision making. She said she may not have children due to the fact that they wouldn’t be able to afford them.

I didn’t intend to make this post a depressing one. I wrote it out of shock and sadness over the woman’s story, imagining how difficult her future may be. Whatever the woman chose would be bittersweet. She could marry her fiancé and carry some of the burden of his $370k of debt or walk away from a long-term relationship with someone she loves. She said she intended to marry him. I don’t know what she chose in the end, as she didn’t provide a final update. What would you do?


When would you consider debt in a relationship reasonable? How much debt is too much before you would reconsider the relationship? If you broke up with someone because of financial issues or you decided to stay with someone with a large amount of debt, did you come to feel relief or regret about your decision? 

How Much Debt is Too Much in a Relationship? 2
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