Here's How To Deal With Your Partner's Debt

A tough topic, made a touch simpler.

Debt can be complicated, overwhelming, and personal. It’s hard enough if you have to deal with your own debt but what happens when you have to deal with your partner’s debt?

I talked to the counsellors at Credit Canada and here are three examples: Small, medium, and massive.

  • Small: The couple was constantly fighting because one of them was a frequent online shopper and only paid the minimum of $4K in credit card debt, infuriating the spouse.
  • Medium: The person overspent on joint credit cards which he was in charge of. The spouse didn’t know until the collection calls started and her credit score was trashed.
  • Massive: Young woman, 3-year-old child. In our offices because the husband had secretly racked up tens of thousands of dollars in gambling debt and then died. So, she was left as a single parent, with massive debt.

So what happens if your partner’s in debt, are you on the hook for that?

Yes, and no. No, if the debt is listed in their name alone. And yes, if it is a joint credit card account or a loan agreement you signed. But even if you aren’t technically on the hook for it, your partner’s debt can affect you in a number of ways:

  • Like Renting an apartment: The landlord wants both your credit scores.
  • Or Applying for a mortgage: Again, both your credit scores.

But I think the biggest thing is that it may affect your ability to live the life you want. You want to travel or save for a new car, and you can’t because of your partner’s debt. (Now, I say “your partner’s debt,” but it could be you. You’re sitting there, wanting to change the channel, because you realize your debt is affecting your partner).

Impact on relationship

It can have a huge impact, in tangible ways, like you can’t save for retirement. And in intangible ways, that you can’t measure, but you certainly can feel: Stress. Resentment. Anger. Very often, the debt issue is a secret. Secrets in a relationship can be really damaging. Secrets are at the source of betrayal.

Advice for couples 

We want to make your debt stress disappear. So, you need to talk about it. That can be uncomfortable and upsetting, but it is so much better than the alternative. I have a few steps to guide you:

  1. Park the blame-mobile outside: It just isn’t helpful. It might make you feel better, for a minute but it is not helpful. We’re going to get the finger-wagging done in advance. (Grab your finger, let’s wag it out. Feel better? Good).
  2. Look for the root cause: When you’re in it, it might feel like your partner is doing this on purpose. Not likely. The problem with debt may be connected to:
    • A mental health issue – They’re anxious, so they shop. They’re depressed, so they gamble. They have ADHD, so they have weak impulse control.”
    • Or, it could be connected to the lack of skill— they have never learned how to budget. They don’t know how to stay organized, so things are paid on time.

How do you plan for what lies ahead?

  • Agree on the goal: Figure out what you can agree on as a couple.
  • Brainstorm solutions: This is going to take some creativity. Depending on the circumstances, you may participate in the solutions or not. So, maybe you cut the cheque from your bank account and get it done with. Or you lead the process to refinance your mortgage. Or, you stay out of it entirely.

What resources are out there?

  • Marriage counsellor: Money is one of the biggest topics they deal with. They can be more objective on what’s actually going on, and help you practice the communication skills you are going to need.
  • Non-profit credit counsellor: There are agencies across the country that will take your call for free and guide you through your options. From basic budgeting to a debt consolidation program, to a consumer proposal or bankruptcy.

This is such a tough question to time correctly. Too early and you could sound money hungry. Too late and you’re in love.

What I would do is listen for the signs:

  • As you get to know them better, how are they about money?
  • Do they talk about it?
  • Are they stressed about it?
  • Do you see them spending wildly?
  • Does that fit what they do for a living?
  • What are things they’re excited about?
  • Are they the things you’re excited about?