‘Tom’ and ‘Julia’ have an amazing marriage. They laugh a lot and are pretty content with a simple life. But sometimes when the humor dims, they fight about debt. Not loudly. Not often. And definitely not all the time, but enough that it feels like the “monster under the bed” ready to leap out when they’re tired or feeling overly stressed.
Tom grew up without much so he likes to spend money now that he has a good income. Julia likes to see Tom happy and she doesn’t want to skip nights out to eat ramen noodles and never have any fun, but knowing they have unaddressed debt stresses her out. Maybe more than she realizes.
So is it worth trying to get on the same page?
Totally. Research shows money is the #1 reason people get divorced. Marriages deteriorate or even completely explode when couples continually disagree about money. So your debt could cost you more than just interest payments.
But just because you’re concerned doesn’t mean your spouse suddenly will be. We get that. And fighting never helps. How about trying a different strategy this time? Run through these 6 steps to approach your debt and your spouse differently this time to get different results.
1. Face facts.
Start with the facts. Write down all debt: credit cards, auto loans, personal loans, student loans, etc. (You can jot down your mortgage too, but we’re not primarily worried about it right now.)
It may seem scary to get all the numbers in front of you in black and white, but it will help. Once you see the beast in the scary movie, it doesn’t have the same frightening effect the next time it pops up.
Now, stop. Don’t go running to your spouse.
This is where we usually go wrong. Debt isn’t just about the numbers. Money fights are rarely just about dollars and cents. There are feelings and emotions behind all the numbers. Let’s take a minute and work through those before we discuss any money with your mate.
2. Pin down why the debt bothers you.
Yes, debt is money you owe someone else, so that’s a bummer on some level. But beyond that, really consider why it bothers you.
Are you aware of your debt or afraid of your debt? Did your family have problems with debt when you were a kid? Maybe your parents convinced you that all debt is bad? Did you have a bad experience in the past with debt and another relationship? Are you afraid the debt is spiraling out of control?
Is it really the debt that bothers you or the fact that you aren’t feeling “heard”? Are you upset about the purchases or the reasons for the debt? Feeling stuck or scared in another part of your life and projecting that onto the debt? Are you sad that your kids are off at college, so you’re more emotional about that debt?
Write down your feelings about the debt. No one needs to read it. You don’t need to post it or laminate it or share it with the class. But your feelings about it are real and never wrong. Explore why those numbers trouble you.
3. Step inside their mind.
Take some time to really think about why the other person doesn’t seem to care about the debt. Skip the quick answer that your brain jumps to and see if there is a deeper reason behind the “whatever” response.
Did their parents have a lot of debt? Are they convinced that debt is a part of life, that it will always be there? Is your partner’s outlook on money completely different than yours? Does the risk or challenge of it all energize them? Are they being selfish about your money and not considering you at all? Maybe they just don’t care about money. Or it’s like they consume it, but don’t see it, like oxygen.
Take some time and think through your situation from their perspective.
4. Schedule “the talk”.
You don’t have to be all creepy and awkward about it (like your parents were with THE talk), but tell your spouse you’d like to sit down and talk about money sometime in the next week or so.
Schedule some time when the kids won’t be around, a time when they’re already in bed or out for the night, a time when it’ll be just the two of you. Assure your spouse that no fingers will be pointed, no voices will be raised, you just want to get on the same page about money so it doesn’t end up hurting your relationship.
5. Reassure them that love is the priority.
Start your conversation from a place of love. Your relationship is invaluable. The money can be paid back, but harsh words can’t be taken back.
Try starting with, “I want you to know I love you. I care about you and us. We look at money and debt differently so I’d like to talk about it. This is how I feel and I want to hear how you feel. I know this isn’t a ton of fun, but I’d like to do this together. You are more important to me than money.”
Stop there. Don’t float any conclusions or accuse. Don’t remind or nag.
Tell your spouse you’d like to talk through the reality of the situation in light of making your relationship more fun, more supportive, and stronger. You work hard for your money and you don’t want it to have any opportunities to weaken your relationship.
The debt will eventually go away, but you don’t want your relationship to leave in the meantime.
This may be the point of greatest challenge…and victory for your relationship. Really listen to one another and then give. Give a little on your stance; encourage some giving on their part. Meet in the middle.
Really make some smart, actionable, realistic plans this time with both of you in mind. Maybe the pay-down schedule isn’t as aggressive as you’d like to see, but then again, maybe this time it will be doable because you both agree. Maybe they’d like to pay the debt down, but want to wait until summer when they have been thinking about picking up some additional work on weekends. You won’t know until you ask!
Talk it out until you start to feel like you’ve seen their point of view, heard their ideas, and have started to craft a plan that works for both of you. It won’t be foolproof, but it will be progress.
Count any time spent discussing money and not fighting about it a huge victory!
We know debt can be scary and a source of pain in relationships. We dug ourselves a huge hole of debt before Megan and I were married by buying a car I couldn’t afford in order to impress her. But she helped me to overcome that setback and eventually I was able to regain control of my finances and pay off my debt. If I could do it, so can you!
Don’t let debt have the last word. Your relationship is way more important. Step by step you will get there.
Taylor & Megan Kovar
The Money Couple
Taylor & Megan Kovar, The Money Couple, are financial planners, authors, and speakers who help couples tackle money issues in their relationship. Take the FREE online 5 Money Personalities Assessment.
Pick up a copy of our new book, The 5 Money Personalities: Speaking The Same Love & Money Language on our website!