Hiding serious debt is not a harmless secret
I’m overwhelmed by student loan and credit card debt, and I’m embarrassed to admit it to my partner. Should I come clean?
Some secrets are harmless, like eating the last slice of your partner’s favorite cake. Or saying you’re sick to avoid his aunt’s retirement party.
Hiding thousands of dollars in debt does not fall into the “harmless” category. While having debt is just one piece of your identity, it could directly affect your partner also: Maybe you’re unable to contribute to joint savings or keep up with your share of the bills, or you’ll have a harder time qualifying for a mortgage as a couple.
The debt might not come as a surprise if, say, your partner already knows about your lavish sneaker-buying habit. But the longer you wait to divulge the details of your financial stress, the more betrayed your beloved may feel when you eventually do it, says Don Cole, clinical director of the Seattle-based Gottman Institute, which conducts research on relationships.
“It’s better to be honest than to get caught,” Cole says. “The relationship is going to be able to repair much better from a shared problem than one that’s discovered.”
Gather the facts: First, nail down the specifics of the debt for yourself, says Kelly Luethje, a certified financial planner and founder of Willow Planning Group in Boston.
Understand your loans’ and credit cards’ outstanding balances, accompanying interest rates and payoff dates. That may help you gain some control, and it’s also the first step toward developing a plan to get out of debt.
Time it right: Confessing your debt balance isn’t first date fodder. Tell your partner the truth once the relationship gets serious, like by the time you’ve hit the six-month mark.
At the very least, get everything out in the open before you decide to move in together. At that point, your debt will have an immediate financial impact on your partner. A credit card balance at the top of your credit limit means a lower credit score, for instance. And that could make getting an apartment together challenging.
If you’ve been together for more than six months or you’re already shacked up, don’t panic. But prepare to spill the beans soon. Cole explains it this way: After the fun and excitement of first falling in love, the next step is to make sure we can be our true selves with our partners.
“That is an essential phase in developing a lifelong, happy relationship,” he says. And it takes trust, which you can build only by being honest and transparent.
Broach the subject gently: Ask your partner to set aside time to talk. Pick a weeknight rather than a Friday or Saturday, says W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. He says weekends should be reserved for having fun, reconnecting and maintaining spontaneity, all of which strengthen long-term relationships.
Cole recommends starting the conversation with an “I feel” statement, followed by what you’re concerned about and what you need next. The Gottman Institute calls this a “softened start-up,” and it lays a positive foundation for hard discussions. You might say, “I worry about talking to you about money, but because I love you, I need to tell you about my finances.”
Explain the circumstances of your debt. Are you spending beyond your means, or did you pay for school without any help from family? Has your behavior changed since you first built up a credit card balance, or is spending still an issue?
Then talk about how you plan to pay it off. Work on eliminating credit card debt first, for example. Credit cards generally have higher interest rates than student loans. And think of coming clean as a positive step.
“Debt is stressful, and it takes away future options for people,” Wilcox says. “It robs you of a horizon, of the possibility to dream financially.”
Having debt doesn’t erase the fact that you’re the world’s greatest karaoke duet partner or banana bread baker. Opening up about it and asking for encouragement to address it could bring you and your partner closer — and give you permission to dream.
Brianna McGurran is a staff writer at NerdWallet. Ask Brianna is a Q-and-A column for twentysomethings or anyone else starting out.