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Debt is the Kiss of Death for a Relationship?

Debt isn’t just hazardous to your financial well-being, it can destroy your relationships as well.  Just ask one young lady featured in today’s New York Times article.  Three days after she divulged to her fiance that she had over $170,000 in student debt, he broke off the engagement.  For her future relationships, she decides that she needs to share that information much sooner, because it can be a “deal-breaker.”

Still, all of this raises the question: At what point do you have a moral obligation to disclose your indebtedness during courtship? On the eighth date? When you get to third base? In your eHarmony online dating profile?

“It’s a sliding scale,” said Ms. Riesel, the Manhattan lawyer. “It depends on the person and the nature of the relationship.” Ms. Winters, the Short Hills divorce lawyer, said it might depend on your definition of a serious relationship. “But I wouldn’t wait until you were signing leases for apartments or picking out engagement rings.”

With a dual-career couple, it’s not unsurprising to have combined debt levels of hundreds of thousands of dollars. An MBA and a doctor, or a pair of lawyers, for example, can easily graduate with over half a million dollars after their studies.  If both CB and I attend graduate school as planned, we will probably come out with around $100,000-$150,000 in individual debt loads, baring any unexpected windfalls (ahem, lottery, anyone?).  It makes a little easier knowing that any significant debt we incur will be when we are in a relationship together, so no one is blindsided by the topic.

I wonder, though, is there a dollar amount of my significant other’s debt at which I would “walk away” from an otherwise loving and secure relationship?  I would say no.  But I have never been in a situation similar to what was profiled in the New York Times.

Before a relationship gets serious, I believe in a frank discussion about finances, especially on the debt burden, is certainly in order. Whipping out your student loan statement or your credit report is a bit of a mood-killer, so I’d save that discussion until at least the third date! 😉

Questions for readers:

1. If you have significant debt, at what point would you share that information with your significant other?

2. If you are dating someone who has significant debt, at what point do you expect or would want to know that information?

3. Is there an debt amount that is a deal-breaker?

Photo by Sean Hering Photography via Flickr

  • BudgetBabe - 1) I was lucky and had no significant student loan debt, but my husband did have some loans from school. We talked about it when we started talking about long-term plans (i.e. talking about getting married) and what liabilities we would be bringing into our union. I think until you're serious with someone, there's really no point in bringing it up. That and ex-partners.

    2) See above.

    3) I don't really think there's an amount, especially student loan debt. Credit card debt might be another story – I think that might say something about their behavior, as opposed to student loan debt (someone who just wants to get their learn on and better themselves).


  • Jaime - I understand why someone would choose to break off a relationship with a huge amount of debt. Its a tough call, its really up to the two people themselves. I had debt but it was only $700 and its all paid off. That's the most debt I ever had. My bf never had debt. He's always been a saver.

    It can be a tough call at times, there are some people who work very hard to pay off the debt they incurred in college, I honestly would be too scared to get involved with someone with that much debt. Once you get married, their credit can ruin yours and there's no way that I would want that, then you become responsible for them. So no way.

    The best thing to do is to wait and pay off the debt, put the wedding on hold. I just think by at least the 2nd,3rd date a debtor should say "You know what I have all this debt from college and I'm doing my best to pay it off, this is what I'm doing (being frugal,moonlighting) etc."

    Its possible to pay that much debt within a lifetime, some people do it in 5-10 years after college. So its possible but the thing is most don't, most people keep that debt until their 40s,50s, so I'm wondering if her fiance just got scared that she might not pay it off ever.

    Everyone deserves to be loved even debtors, so I dunno, its a tough call, but all anyone can do at that point is to just keep working on paying it off and hopefully the debtor will find someone that understands them and realizes they're serious about paying off their debt. ReplyCancel

  • Samurai - I'd want to now the debt info before I proposed so that I know what I'm getting myself into. I think she would want full disclosure the same way.

    $170,000 is A LOT of debt! Can't they just be a loving non married couple? ReplyCancel

  • Paragon2Pieces - I don't think there should be a specific deal breaker amt. what's more important is the debtor's attitude towards repayment, work ethic, and financial responsibility. my brother nearly proposed to a woman with a comparable amount of debt and i was really concerned–not so much about the number but about her declaration that she would only be working three days a week (implying he would be the one paying off most of her debt and that she didn't consider herself personally responsible for those debts). ReplyCancel

  • Margo - Only share after you've said you loved each other, and you've assessed the strength of his character. The big question for women, regardless of debt, is that if you both decide you should stay home with the kids, will "his" money be spent on according to "his" priorities, or is it truly "ours"?

    Threshold amount: total debt load should be less than his earning capacity in the first 1-2 years after the degree, with his level of drive and motivation factored in. If I perceive someone as highly talented and motivated in a well-paid field, my debt tolerance is a whole lot higher than for someone in a lower-paid field. (Financing Harvard to be a journalist or teacher just isn't realistic.) ReplyCancel

  • Personal Finance Round-Up: The Real Skinny on The Cheapest Long Distance - […] Debt is Kiss of Death for Relationship? At what point does debt start to cause a marriage to deteriorate? Be careful about too much debt because financial problems can ultimately cause marriage problems. [Well-Heeled Blog] […]ReplyCancel

  • Serendipity - Wowza. I was lucky to meet a man who although accepts my student loan debt, he would also like to have part of it paid off before we get married. Although my student loan debt might still be looming, I'm making an effort to clean up the rest of it. I'm not sure if the debt itself is a deal breaker or the person's attitude towards it. But it should be brought up, I feel, once things are getting serious and if your thinking about moving in, a future, etc. ReplyCancel

  • Sandy L - I stand with the man on this one. The woman was either very dumb financially or downright dishonest with him. Either situation is a deal breaker for me. I knew exactly how many student loans I took out down to the penny.

    Finances came up naturally in my relationships pretty early on. I think about my financial goals a lot, so as a result, I talk about them. I knew I wanted to pay off my student loans in 3 years, then save for a house. This was apparent to my then boyfriend pretty early. When we took our first vacation to Africa 3 months after our first date (our friend was from Africa) , we openly discussed what we could afford to pay with cash upfront, vs charge temporarily. We were just out of school so we didn't have a ton of cash. We also both had room mates when others had apartments all to themselves and bragged to each other how cheap our living expenses were.

    On the flip side, I also dated someone in a ton of debt who would buy stupid things that made himself dig even deeper in the hole. It was very stressful. Again, it was apparent pretty quickly because he would never have money for gas and his car was always on empty. I paid for stuff more often than I care to admit. I went from having decent savings to nothing when I was with him. I just couldn't do it.


  • Jennifer - I think it has to do with salary as well. A doctor making 300k can handle 200k in debt. A social worker making 30k will have trouble with 75k of debt. I think the deal breaker would be 2 times their salary. ReplyCancel

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  • Money Reasons - Sadly, I have a friend that married a woman before he discovered that she has massive debt levels.

    Even after finding out about the debt levels, he made the mistake of sticking with her, and the debt snowball continued to the point where they had to declare bankrupcy twice. They lost their house, and then finally my buddy filed for divorce. 1 year prior to his filing, they bought a luxury car, and joined a country club. The irony was that shortly after, he lost his job to downsizing…

    If your spouse is misleading and doesn't tell you about their debt, this should set off a big red flag!!! ReplyCancel

  • me in millions - I think it depends on how the debt was accumulated. Is the person living outside their means? Or is it for education? Do they have a plan to pay it off? I think it's about being responsible for your debt. ReplyCancel

  • Bea - I think that the questions from Me in Millions are good. I'm also wondering whether debt like this couldn't be addressed in a pre-nup agreement? (Assuming that you felt comfortable that your partner wouldn't keep accumulating similar debt after you were married.) ReplyCancel

  • FabulouslyBroke.com - 1. If you have significant debt, at what point would you share that information with your significant other?

    From the get go, because I was aware of it and working to get rid of it. I am not shy to talk about it, and to say what I am doing to remove it. It's when you don't know your #s and are vague about the situation, that's when red flags appear for me.

    2. If you are dating someone who has significant debt, at what point do you expect or would want to know that information?

    Right away.

    3. Is there an debt amount that is a deal-breaker?

    Yes, it could be. I don't want to be pressured subconsciously to help them pay it off or even be limited in my own spending, because I feel guilty that the other can't pay their bills or are "struggling". That's not to say I'll say no to anyone with debt, but if they don't have a plan, aren't disciplined and determined, I am willing to walk out. This is of course, in the first year of dating when you assess each other… ReplyCancel

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  • Sunflowers - I'm one of those people with significant debt. But I was with the bf as I was accumulating that debt. We started dating near the end of undergrad, and I had just accumulated 10k or so. And now I have more than 200k (thanks, law school). But he knows all about my debt, I share everything with him. It's a unique situation because he's now making a great deal of money, so the number doesn't phase him too much… and also (soon!!! hopefully!!) I'll be making a respectable salary as an attorney.

    That said, if I was going into a new relationship… uh, no, I'm not going to announce the amount of debt I have right away. It wouldn't be a matter of wanting to hide it, finances just would not be something I would discuss right away. If I felt I had a definite connection with the other person, and things were moving in a serious direction, then definitely. Maybe a month or so in?

    I have to be honest though, if situations were reversed, and I was debt free or had minimal debt and encountered a man with as much debt as me… yeah. I don't know if I could date him. : And I'm sure there would be men who would feel the same way about me.

    So I just feel very lucky having found the man I did, who loves me unconditionally, despite this great big cloud hanging over me.


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  • Rachel - I waited a couple of months before I told my current (very serious) boyfriend about my significant debt (which is a mixture of many many student loans and some shameful credit card debt). He is 9.5 years older than me and has been very fiscally responsible, owing nothing but his mortgage. After I told him about this he spent two (agonizing) months trying to determine what he was going to do… about me.

    I told him that a) i had never asked him for any money or any help with anything; b) that I would never expect him, or anyone else for that matter, to be responsible for my debt.

    He decided that I was worth it. But it truly was an agonizing decision, for both of us. ReplyCancel

  • KNS_Financial - I think that the debt would be acceptable if the person had a clear and thought out plan to attack it! Also, if I see them wasting money and refusing to live a frugal lifestyle, there is no way I'm going to become one with them and their debt! ReplyCancel

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  • DMM - I am also one of those with significant debt. After reading most of these comments, I'm thanking my lucky stars that my BF still loves and respects me! I went to an Ivy League school, but came out at a time when the economy and job market had just crashed. It was impossible to find a job that would help me pay back my student loans immediately.

    My BF and I moved in together a year ago. We had a serious discussion about it last December. However, when I told him, I also included the repayment plans that I was already on, so he knew I was taking action to tackle my debt. His finances and credit are perfect. I know he wants us to be more financially stable before he proposes, but even if he wanted me to sign a prenup, I would have absolutely no problem with that. It's my debt, and I don't think he should have to pay for it, and I would never expect him to or ask him to. ReplyCancel

  • Shauna - I think it depends mostly on the kind of debt and the person's attitude toward paying it off. I wouldn't necessarily run away from someone with debt, especially student loan debt (even if the student loans are huge, some majors are only found at expensive schools, and some people do more than undergrad). However, the woman in the linked article does raise some red flags for me. I don't think she was lying to her boyfriend, nor would I expect her to know the exact amount of her loans, but the fact that she was $70k off and only making the minimum payment suggests that she needs to get her finances together before getting into a marriage. ReplyCancel

    • payday loans - I agree with you Shauna. For me, it depends mostly what kind of that debt and whether my partner is able to solve his financial problems or not. Like you, I wouldn't run away from someone with debt, but he needs to show me how he will solve his debts. I definitely will not marry a man with unsolvable debts. ReplyCancel

  • keerthikasingaravel - I'd be open about debt with anyone I'm serious about and absolutely expect the same from the other person.I'm not fazed by actual amounts per se as how the person has financed their debt and how they are paying them off and how risky the whole set up is. ReplyCancel

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