In Love and in Debt: How I Learned to Talk Money with My Significant Other

I still remember the first serious conversation my husband and I had about money. We weren’t married at the time, but we knew engagement was right around the corner. I was lying in his bed, face down, while he sat across the room listening as I put it all on the table.

I was so nervous. I knew his financial status, and I knew how his family felt about debt:  They had gone to great lengths to prevent any of their kids from owing money of any kind. As a senior in college, he may have been barely scraping by, but he also didn’t have a cent of debt. I was another story, with my student loans and the credit card I had carried a balance on since I was 18 years old. Up until that point, we hadn’t really talked about money, and I felt nervous about how he would respond to the debt I was bringing into our relationship. I worried that my debt would cause a point of tension between us.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by his response. He was gracious and unphased by my debt. We were engaged shortly after.

I came into our relationship a debtor. It took me time to feel OK about that. Although my husband wasn’t concerned, I felt I owed him some sort of apology or that I had to work harder to make those balances disappear. It took time for me to realize that when we were married, the scales became even. The balances on my student loans were simply ours to tackle together.

Debt hasn’t been the only financial hurdle we’ve dealt with since we married eight years ago. We’ve faced unemployment. We’ve paid medical bills off quickly, and we’ve chipped away at them over the course of years when money was tight. We have learned to care for a family with little money to spare, and we have learned, through mistakes, how to be responsible when we had more than enough.

The single thing that has made facing these challenges and bouncing back from setbacks possible has been learning to talk openly about our money. I hate talking about money and my husband is conflict-avoidant, so it wasn’t an easy start for us. Over the years, we’ve learned to work through our dread so we can make good decisions about our money together. Here’s how we did it:

Commit to financial equality

Early on, we had to adjust to the idea that I owed money to a few different institutions, and my husband did not. I think it could have been really easy to see him as my financial superior or to feel like I was working my way toward equality in our finances. I’m so glad that wasn’t the case. Treating each other as financial equals from the get-go saved us from unnecessary conflict in the long run.

This goes beyond debt, too. Throughout our marriage, we have each been the breadwinner, been out of work, or struggled to thrive in our young careers. Never have we allowed making more to be something that gave one of us more power in the relationship.

Find your common ground

Conversations about money can be fraught with disagreement. Bringing two people together means bringing together two sets of ideas about how money should be saved and spent. Some people prefer to live frugally, socking away every extra penny in exchange for financial security. Others would prefer to live a little, dedicating portions of the budget to fun, even if that means it takes more time to reach their goals.

No matter when my husband and I have held different views, we’ve found a lot of disagreements can be avoided by finding common ground first. Before any big budget meetings, we take a minute to look over where we see ourselves in the future. For us, being prepared for our future, giving generously, and being able to spend on experiencing the world together are priorities. Taking the time to remind ourselves that we share common goals makes sorting through the numbers a whole lot easier.

Be honest and upfront

Personally, I dealt with a very real temptation to downplay my financial situation when I first brought it up while we were dating. Now, I see that my $12,000 in student loans and small credit card balance weren’t all that bad compared to other young adults my age, but at 19, five figures of debt felt insurmountable.

I’m so glad I laid it all on the table that first time we talked about money. Not just because honesty works best in relationships, but because my then boyfriend, now husband, brought a new perspective to my finances. He saw the debt for what it was, a tool I had used to pay for my education, not an evil I should be ashamed of. We were able to work together to decide what our plan was for moving forward.

Work as a team

Here’s the honest truth: My husband and I have work left to do when it comes to finances and how we talk about money. We’re young and we’re still learning to navigate spending, saving, and earning now that we can’t think about ourselves as islands. The decisions we make about money affect each other, and they impact the rest of our family.

The most valuable thing our finances have taught us hasn’t been how to budget better or how to crunch numbers, it’s been how to work harder to become more intimate with each other on all levels of our relationship. Each disagreement, each financial blunder one of us makes, each dream for the future nervously confessed to the other is an opportunity to accept each other for who we are and work as a team to move toward our goals.