How Couples Can Tackle Debt Together

Author: Bill Prichard, Senior Manager, Corporate Communications at CO-OP Financial Services (http://www.co-opfs.org)

In a perfect world, love would be the only thing that factors into the long-term success of a marriage. Reality, however, is a little less kind, and things like money and debt can weigh heavy on a couple. In fact, money continues to be the leading cause of marital stress (http://www.cnbc.com/2015/02/04/money-is-the-leading-cause-of-stress-in-relationships.html), and few couples enter into matrimony completely debt-free. Student loans, car payments, credit cards and other debt variables can create a headache when planning out finances for the upcoming year — or lifetime.

Fortunately, debt doesn’t have to be a marriage-killer, as long as both partners keep an open mind and open lines of communication about it. Follow these four tips and you’ll discover that you and your spouse can indeed overcome debt, and the journey may even bring you two closer together.

Tip #1: Absolute Honesty
According to marital experts, absolute honesty is one of the essentials to a healthy marriage (http://www.marriagebuilders.com/graphic/mbi3900_honesty.html). From a financial perspective, that means being honest about everything related to spending, earning and paying: your income, your regular expenses, your “treat myself” expenses, your existing debts (including interest rates) and more. Lay it all on the table for your partner to see. This is more than just an exercise in trust and communication; without this crucial step, you won’t be able to get the complete big picture regarding your debt and your ability to pay it off.

Tip #2: Know There Will Be Sacrifices
Some of us live real lean, with minimal expenses and smart budgeting. Those people probably won’t experience much of a life change if they engage in a debt payoff plan. Most of us aren’t like that, though, which means that in order to pay off debts, there will be some level of sacrifice. This may be small, like one fewer dinner out a month, or it may be large, like canceling extra services and subscriptions. Either way, sacrifice is part of the journey to a debt-free life, and learning to accept that early on makes crafting a budget and plan much easier to kick-off and succeed.

Tip #3: Know the Rules
Depending on what state you live in, the responsibility of pre-marriage debt may belong only to the originator or it may become communal property. For some of you, that may not matter and as a couple, you’ve already decided how to handle things. For others, this will be a very important discussion regarding how to move forward. Regardless, it’s worth it to learn about your state’s property rules. In addition, you should also look up the specifics about the interest rates and penalties for any debt accounts. That specific information will help you formulate a prioritization plan.

Tip #4: Make a Realistic Plan
When the above tips have been handled and you’re both on the same page, then it’s time to make a plan. The plan should include your expected budget, expenses, acceptable timeline and pay-down options (such as using zero-percent transfer checks or taking weekend jobs). There are many different variables involved with those items but one consistent item should be your go-to starting point with each of those: you need to be realistic. The above tips will help you to be grounded and realistic, but sometimes it’s hard to let that sink in when you actually sit down and plan. It can be easy to get overzealous and commit to impossible goals. It can also be easy to feel overwhelmed and get into an emotional valley. Be realistic and work together; the only way you get through this is walking through it step by step.

Just because one or both of you are in debt, it doesn’t mean that your marriage is bound for strife. Discussing finances can be tricky and uncomfortable, and the debt part of it can bring feelings of frustration, shame and remorse. Remember that you’re in it together and keep an open mind. By doing that, as well as using the four tips above, you’ll be able to come up with a sound strategy for eliminating debt. More importantly, you’ll survive the crucible of debt and have a stronger, more confidant relationship on the path to happily ever after.

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