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October 04, 2010


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Ever since I first thought about growing up and falling in love, I knew that I needed financial security. Granted, I probably didn't think in those terms, but my future included a house and dogs and having a great time hanging out with a close group of friends. It didn't include worrying about money.

That mindset stuck with me and by college, I knew that I just wasn't attracted to the idea of debt. Luckily, the love of my life feels exactly the same way. Would I have married him if he had immense debt? Probably not, but that could be because he would not have been the same guy if he was okay with immense debt...

I'd define deep debt as anything above a year's salary other than a house. And yes, having home or school debt would mean something different to me than having $50,000 in credit card debt because he couldn't shake an electronics habit or something...

So yes, debt would matter to me. Honesty would matter to me too and that first lady wasn't being honest with herself or her future spouse.

- Would you marry someone who was deeply in debt (however you define "deeply")?

Hmm. I did marry someone deeply in debt, and I honestly don't know if I would have changed my mind if I knew before we were married. I can tell you it negatively affected the marriage early on. I can say that if I were single now, absolutely it would affect my decision and I probably wouldn't marry them.

- Would it make a difference if they were in debt from over-spending or had little to show for it versus if they had something valuable like an education as a doctor?

Another tough one. To me, debt is debt; it doesn't matter how you acquired it if I have to be responsible for paying it off (would you marry someone who had $500k of mortgage debt even if they had the house, or someone with $100k in car loans even if they had the cars?) I guess I just answered myself - no, it would make no difference for me.

- If you would go ahead with the marriage, would you try to make sure they were responsible for the debt in case the marriage didn't work (by using a pre-nup)?

Ouch. Being who I am, probably not. If I were going to marry this person, I would marry them - the good and the bad - with no contractual caveats.

- Does it not really matter? If you really loved the person, would debt even be a factor?

It would. It's the "golddigger" syndrome in reverse; how would you know if they were marrying you for you or for your ability/willingness to pay off their debt? It goes back to the trust issue.

And, I agree with Crystal regarding the definition of "deep debt". When I got married, she had about $30k in debt and that was about a years salary (this was a while ago, mind you). It took us 7 years to pay it off and stunted our marital growth.

If it were educational debt, and my fiance was in a field with good job prospects, and if he were ambitious, and the debt was not consumer related, and if he had solid good saving/spending habits, then I wouldn't be turned off.

If I was older, and considering marrying someone, not only would I look at the above, and I would not marry someone who is still paying for their children's education, or still supporting adult children.

This is a legitimate concern, because it could be pointing to a character issue. If a person "needs" to buy things to make themselves happy, that is a big problem. (Danger signal - will you ever keep them happy?)

I married a wonderful lady who brought substantial debt into our relationship. Her debt was almost entirely due to student loans associated with private, religious schooling (BS and 2 MS's). This debt was not of the income potential type that comes from medical school. Nevertheless, she and I are on the same page when it comes to financial planning, consumption, tithing, and life goals. When we were engaged, she was following the Dave Ramsey course, and we had a lot of pre-marital discussions about financial goals. Today, after 3 years of marriage, we have paid down 80% of the debt she had, and are well on pace to erase the last of it in mid-2011.

So I mention my story just to say ... it depends. Although usually I would agree that a large debt from your fiance' should be a danger sign, the real issue is character. Be careful in judging it.

I'm already married so this is just rhetorical.

I hate to say it but the amount of debt someone has is part of the equation. Much like whether or not they can hold down a job or if they're a spendthrift. For debt I think it depends on the whole situation. Sometimes debt is a reflection of personality traits. How much it matters to me would depend on why they are in debt, do they have assets at all, what their income is and what your income is etc.

The first example is worse than the 2nd in my opinion though the 2nd owes more money. Not knowing how much you have in debt is a bad sign of financial irresponsibility. That much debt for a photography degree is also not good choice. Lots of debt to be a doctor is often unavoidable and not a bad investment at all.

I think as long as the debt comes from student loans (which is the case in both of these examples) then it isn't a reflection of a person's spending habits. What is worrisome about debt is when it is going to be an on-going problem, such as not controlling spending or budgets. This country loves "bootstrappy" ideals, and one of the ways that people can go to college to improve their lives is by getting student loans. They don't really have many other options. (until a few years ago when the GI bill was increased, even that didn't cover college tuition).

If someone made poor financial decisions, such as going to a more expensive college than necessary, than maybe that would be a reason, but I don't see the problem with just student loans.

It depends. If they already had a plan to pay off it off within a reasonable amount of time (which means we share the same money management goals), then yes. If not, a lot of debt would certainly give me pause and that can possibly be a deal-breaker. In my latter years, I want to enjoy my life and my money. Not work steadily to hand my paycheck off to creditors and not enjoy the fruit of my labor.

No, I'd never marry anyone now with significant debt at this point in my life. Especially not someone who didn't even have an idea how much they owed!

I think it's a character issue, and also s "how do you want to live your life" issue. I don't want to deal with that kind of a mess. And I especially don't want to try to live with someone who could get into that kind of a mess.

But I was stupid enough to not pay attention to financial (& other) irresponsibility of my partners in 2 previous marriages. Live and learn, you know?

I feel fortunate to have gotten out of those 2 bad marriages and I've rebuilt my life including my financial security. I'm in a position now to be able to send my kids to college and maybe even retire pretty well-off in 20 years or so. No way would I screw that up by marrying anyone again with money problems.

I wouldn't let it be the only factor in the equation, certainly.

But just as certainly, anyone who still buys the romantic notion that money just doesn't matter when it comes to love and relationships is living in a dreamworld.

I made my wife pay off her credit card before I proposed. She still had about $5k in student loans which I was okay with.

Debt due to living beyond your means presents warning signs, and once you get married it's your problem. I would not marry someone in that kind of financial position.

Student loans, on the other hand, are fine so long as their job allows them to pay them off.

OK - here's another spin on this.

If you won't marry someone with debt - what about someone with lousy earning power compared to yours. Are they a gold-digger, or do they love you? How do you know?

What about a stay-at-home wife? If she forgoes $200,000 or more in earnings over a 10-year period isn't she as much a burden as one who come to the marriage with $200,000 in debt?

What if your husband is less capable than you and as a result, doesn't get the promotions you think he could have, or works in a field which doesn't pay well? So he falls behind by $20K or more per year. Dump him?

Mark makes some really excellent points.

If I begin dating someone, and I find out that they're deeply in debt, and what's more, that they don't want to learn about managing their money, then I might stop dating that person.

But if I'm already engaged, and have decided to spend the rest of my life with this person, and then find out that they're in a lot of debt, I don't think that's a reason to call off the engagement. Hopefully you love someone for more than what's in their wallet.

My dad was married before he married my mom. His ex-wife ran up a ton of debt, and when they divorced he was left with it all. Obviously I'm very grateful that my mother decided to marry my dad despite his debt!

I think to me, the key is willingness to learn and change. If my future husband doesn't think his debt is a problem, and isn't willing to do anything to fix it, that is a huge problem to me. But if the debt is compiled from student loans, or from bad behavior that he is working to change, that person is definitely worth staying with.

I would not marry someone with serious debt problems (unless they had just received a high-income-generating degree and were not a spendthrift).

From experience, No. I probably would have reacted differently if the debt was for medical or some other important reason (then it would mostly be a question of how big is big), but this was for typical shopaholic junk like shoes.

No way.

Excellent points, Mark! My comments on them:

"If you won't marry someone with debt - what about someone with lousy earning power compared to yours. Are they a gold-digger, or do they love you? How do you know?"

I married someone with lousy earning power compared to mine (although, at the time, she had better than I; I had just gotten out of the military). Debt is baggage; earnings are, well, earned. Someone who is in deep debt at the time of marriage makes that debt yours; someone who earns 1/3 or 1/4 of what you do means you have to arrange your lives together accordingly. The difference is baggage - bring the debt from the past versus making your lives moving forward. Are they marrying you for your money or for you? Well, hopefully you can figure that out as you are experiencing the relationship.

"What about a stay-at-home wife? If she forgoes $200,000 or more in earnings over a 10-year period isn't she as much a burden as one who come to the marriage with $200,000 in debt?"

Again, baggage versus living your lives together. If you both agree that your spouse stays at home (for whatever reason - kids, passion for art, lifelong dream of being a couch potato, whatever), then more power to you both.

"What if your husband is less capable than you and as a result, doesn't get the promotions you think he could have, or works in a field which doesn't pay well? So he falls behind by $20K or more per year. Dump him?"

No, adjust your spending styles. Everyone has bad years or even decades; you have to work through them.

I think you may miss the point FMF was trying to get to - does being in debt matter *before* you get married. The question of poor fiscal decisions after you get married is a different discussion :).

Debt matter before mariage?


Debt matter after marriage?


Pretty simple really. It's not where you have been. It's where you are going.

Never! Unless it was tuition debt.

Hard to say seeing I have been married 20 years and did not have to face that question.

If I were single it would definetly be a conversation worth having and NEED to know what you are geting into. Keeping it a secret is about as bad as cheating on that person. Not knowing what that person owes is just plain stupid. There should be no secrets and full disclosure at all times and not knowing is just hiding the problem.

Considering both of these examples were only dealing with student loans, how would you feel about someone who had a house? What if both people in the relationship came into the relationship with real estate that they owed a significant portion on? How is this different than student loans, considering the fact that most people who bought in the past 2 or 3 years probably owe more than it is worth?

Re the stay at home partner foregoing future earning power.....I do think you have to take into account the cost of child care and housekeeping that the stay at home partner does. Having someone at home isn't 100% worthless to the marriage.

On the other hand, I have to say that as a woman myself, planning only on raising children & not bothering to create a career for yourself is a really bad plan. So you are going to stay home for 15 years to raise the kids...what are you going to do after that?

Having an education and an interesting career to pursue is important for your mental health even if you plan to stay home and raise your kids. And it may be critically important for your financial viability if you get divorced, like 50% of people do.

I overspent for my entire working life from 16 until 36. Then I saw the light and dealt with my pile of (consumer) debt. Got rid of $27K in credit card debt in a little over a year.

At the time when I still had the debt, I informed my future wife-to-be the amount of the debt while we were still just dating. And informed her every time I paid off another chunk of it. I paid all of it off and paid cash for the engagement ring before proposing.

I didn't want to bring any past debt into the new marriage. I can see how bringing a pile of debt into a marriage would be problematic if it was lopsided with one partner owing a lot more than the other.

My husband and I both had a heavy debt load compared to our earning potential when we became engaged (and we had crappy credit scores). I owed about 3500 in credit cards, and 4500 on a car... my husband owed about 4000 on credit cards and 11500 on his car. We probably only earned $35k during that first year of marriage. 5 years later and we've made a complete 180, sticking to a budget, earning not much more than we did then (I'm a SAHM), we have credit scores in the 700's and we're completely debt free (other than our mortgage).

It's not about where you've been... it's where you're going.

I agree completely with Jenni's comments: "I think to me, the key is willingness to learn and change. If my future husband doesn't think his debt is a problem, and isn't willing to do anything to fix it, that is a huge problem to me. But if the debt is compiled from student loans, or from bad behavior that he is working to change, that person is definitely worth staying with."

While there are "dealbreakers" that come from a potential mate not wanting to do better, for me real, true love trumps debt. Even if the person's debt is 100% from credit cards, bad decisions, etc., as long as there is an honest willingness to learn, change, and do better going forward, I would not let that stop me from marrying. Everyone has a past.

I watched my now-husband turn around his spending habits while we were friends and later dating. He did still have some lingering consumer debt when we married, but we were able to finish paying that off within the first few months we were married.

He had much larger student loans than I did, but we were both open and honest with each other about our financial situation(s) and made a plan for how to move forward. We still have some debt, and will for a long time (we added a house/mortgage to our debt load a few years ago), but the important thing is that we're on the same page about it. We did not use a pre-nup; marriage is for life, and we consider all our assets AND liabilities to be a family matter. We rarely even call it "my student loan" or "your student loan".

So yes, I married someone "deeply" in debt. For the most part, it didn't matter to me, because I was confident he would not be adding further to that debt, and we worked out a plan (a monthly budget) before tying the knot.

It irks me that the debt consists of something that was a total waste. I could not see myself contributing my money to this monumental disaster. The example shows the character of the girl. Not finishing the program, picking a photography degree just is not logical. Her decisions are a preamble to her future choices.

The burden to the young marriage would be very hard to carry. The postponing of the divulging of the news does not go well with the openness of the relationship. There is no good side to this story.

I would not mind being in a relationship with someone who has debt SO LONG AS they do not have the debtor's mindset. That is, "Debt is OK". The second they think that way, even if they don't currently have debt, then I know we are not financially-compatible.

However, if they can at least follow something like Dave Ramsey's Total Money Makeover, and even quote it, then I'm OK with that, even if they are currently in debt.

this is stupid. Of course debt matters, specially before marriage. It doesn't matter how much you "love" the person. If the person loves you just as much, he/she wouldn't ask you to share their debt with them. Pre-nup.

Maybe before you label a person as "stupid" you should consider you are talking about an actual human being.

When my now-husband and I began dating, he did not know how much he owed on his student loans either. They were in forbearance at the time, and it was too frightening for him to add them all up. While he had tackled other areas of his financial life, it took us looking at the student loans together, and him getting a better paying job, before he was ready to add up the total.

While paying on the student loan debt has certainly been a challenge for us in our marriage, both of us make financially responsible decisions about how we spend and save. What is important is how someone is behaving now and if they are taking responsibility to get out of their debt.

Perhaps it is easier to say "not my debt" when both people make relatively equal money (or perhaps when you are the person making more money) but when there is a significant income discrepancy, not approaching financial decisions as a team seems to lay the road for future problems. To keep debt separate, are you keeping individual bank accounts, and each person is paying 1/2 the bills? What happens when the person trying to pay off their debt wants the thermostat at 68, and the person with more disposable income wants it at 72? Or when the person paying their debt off wants to use hand-me-downs for the kids clothes, and their partner doesn't want to?

In my instance, my husband had around $7,000 of debt that he was actively paying off when we got engaged, and we worked together to get it all before we got married. The team approach works really well for us, especially since he started working for himself, and the first few years weren't exactly "booming", plus these days he is a stay at home dad, and is continuing his business part time until our kids are in school. None of this would have been possible if I had taken the "yours is yours and mine is mine" approach.

I find it fascinating that, for so many of the commenters, "good money management" = "character." There are several very wealthy men on Wall Street who helped bankrupt the global financial system and yet probably live completely debt-free. Admittedly, debt is 21st century slavery, and, if possible, should be avoided. But having debt or amassing large sums of debt has nothing, zero, zilch to do with the integrity of an individual. I'd rather marry a good person with a huge debt load than an SOB with an 850 FICO.

I married my wife despite her having around $40k in student loan debt. However she was very up front about it and showed me everything before we were married. Since then we've paid every one of her loans off except for the largest (which is her consolidated loan) and it still stands at around $30k. But it is at such a low interest rate we are focusing on the other debt which were so foolish to acquire since getting married.

Debt is related to responsibility and responsibility is related to integrity and integrity is related to values. If two people hold different values, it can be difficult for their relationship to succeed. It's rare that an extreme spender and saver have a lasting relationship- their values and goals in life tend to be very different.

I must commend you on your ability to bring the financial crisis and evil bankers into this discussion. I'm sure we can all agree that a few evildoers, perched upon the aching bodies of the populace, cause the entire complex system to collapse. Let us gather the pitchforks of the simple mob and attack them at their homes in the Hamptons! Who cares if this simplistic view fails to burn in effigy every guilty party? Let bitterness consume intelligence yet again! By the way, the entire global financial system is bankrupt? I hadn't realized such carnage had occurred. Guess we should learn how to start a fire with two sticks while we still have youtube.

This is a really tough question. I think in principle, someone's debt situation alone should not affect your decision to marry them. If you love them, you'll love them in spite of their debt situation and because you want to help them. But I 100% hear all of your points too.

All of you on your high horses, how's the weather up there? Middling chilly, it seems.

I love the assumption that the ER doctor will blithely decide to throw away her earning potential and stay home with the kids. Also the sneering, "Photography?? Please." Does anyone here have any data on how one becomes a professional photographer, the earning potential of such a career, or average income of photographers with and without bachelor's degrees? It's quite possible that the degree might be a good investment. It might well be a bad one, but I don't assume that up front.

I've been married so long I find it hard to imagine starting a new relationship, but if I were... I'd want my fiance to see the debt as a problem and have a concrete plan for dealing with it. That would include knowing the exact extent of it; in the first case the denial would bother me a lot more than the pursuit of a "frivolous" degree. (Although I'd get that data I mentioned, and I'd worry some more if it showed that the degree wouldn't translate to increased earning power.)

It's a good question. I have quite a lot of credit card debt, but I also have a lot of equity in my house and have worked 2 jobs for many years in order to be able to pay my bills. I would never ever want a spouse to help me pay off debt that was mine & mine alone. I also would not want to take on someone else's debt.

I think that times have changed to where most women don't have the luxury of simply staying at home and not earning an income. If you are raising small children, that is one thing, but once they are in school, chances are good that one income is not going to be enough (even if you don't have much debt to consider). I would not marry someone who had a lot of debt & would not expect someone to marry me until I had my debts paid off (for the most part). Being responsible is more about your determination to pay off what you owe rather than how much you actually owe. Most Americans owe a lot on debts, but most do not talk about the actual dollar amount of those said debts. Neither do I.

To Mark @ Oct 4, 1:54pm

Your response makes not mathematical sense, I hope you are not a Math or Finance major LOL!

A stay at home wife adds exactly $0 to the bottom line. A wife with $200,000 in liabilities will REMOVE $300,000 or even more (depending on interest rate) FROM the bottom line. It's a liability she brings into the relationship.

Wow. Having read the comments and walked the walk I can speak from experience. No I wouldn't marry someone in huge debt. I qualified it like this. His ability to resolve the issue himself ........was not possible unless he filed bankruptcy. Something he would not do. Marriage to me, would .........resolve his debt. Not over night but a definite solution for him in many areas. He got himself into the mess by ...........his basic ideas about money, his definition of wealth, his habits with money and his work ethic. He was a thrifty person when it came to shopping. He couldn't tell you what an ROI is or what his overhead was on a side job he bid. He was horrible at collecting what was due as well.
His degree of honesty..........when he said he was in debt 180k, then in another few months it rose to 280k. This didn't include funds he needed to finish a house he lived in and it didn't include the other 2 properties he was upside down in.
You walk away in this case.

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