It’s a new year, which means it’s time for new habits—like finally learning how to manage your money. In each installment of Get Your Money Right, we’ll tackle a different aspect of financial anxiety and offer practical solutions and steps you can take toward a brighter financial future. You got this.
A few years ago a friend of mine was casually talking about her sibling’s relationship with a new partner who had just embarked on the costly but admirable path of becoming a doctor. “He can’t be with her in the long term, though,” she said. “I mean, she’s going to have so much debt. He can’t possibly take that on.” I silently nodded while my insides felt like they had gone up in flames.
Little did my friend know, I, too, was harboring my own bundle of debt, a secret fact that has often made me sick to my stomach. Something about that comment stuck with me like a piece of bubble gum hardened to the bottom of my favorite shoes. I couldn’t help but think, if I have debt, does that mean no one will ever want to date me?
Therapist Patrice N. Douglas says it’s common to identify ourselves by our financial security (or insecurity), especially when it comes to our dating lives. Moreover, Jenn Monahan, a financial trainer at The Financial Gym, believes debt can feel like a “pre-existing condition” when we date or enter a relationship.
When we have debt, some of us develop anxiety and depression because we attach our debt to our emotions and self-worth. “When debt overpowers our minds, we tend to believe we aren’t worthy of happiness or others until the debt is gone,” Douglas tells HG. Sometimes we might even become numb to our debt, because we’ve become so flooded with emotions that it doesn’t feel like there will ever be a way out of it.
Our debt can also make us feel a great deal of shame and guilt, says Megan McCoy, a therapist and faculty member in the Financial Therapy Program at Kansas State University. For example, years ago, McCoy took out a good amount of student loans to help pay for grad school, but when she ultimately met her husband, she started to feel guilty about her loans, and those feelings only increased as they merged their finances.
“The problem with this kind of unsaid shame is that it festers and we become resentful for the feeling,” she says. This can ultimately make us resentful towards our partner just because we are having that feeling of guilt. McCoy says that while it may be subconscious, this factor can impact us when we make purchases that might be seen as frivolous or unimportant, causing us to resent our partner or assume they’ll be upset with us for buying something, when really we’re just mad at ourselves.
Many of Monahan’s clients have admitted that they’ve avoided dating altogether because they’re ashamed to have “financial baggage” from their youth or past; for some, their debt is associated with a series of bad financial decisions or traumatic events that were out of their control.
As far as money and relationships go, while we’ve made serious strides toward establishing more gender equality, there are still dominant narratives that we have not completely escaped. Says McCoy, “I think men feel even more pressure than [women] (in general, not for everyone) to be financially sound to enter into a relationship.” Because of this, they may close themselves off to the idea of entering a serious relationship until they’re financially stable, which is often seen as a measure of adulthood.
When it comes to casually dating when you have debt, Douglas says it’s important to always be honest with yourself and know your boundaries, and never spend money you don’t have to try to impress someone. Says Douglas, “When you tend to spend more than you should, you start to develop resentment towards your partner because you feel you have to sacrifice your goals to please them.” McCoy says it’s important to find a way to live within your means instead of presenting yourself as more financially stable than you are. Make sure you’re spending time developing a plan to help you pay off your debt, so if or when things get more serious you are already taking responsibility for this issue.
So when should you tell a serious partner about your debt, and what should you say?
Douglas believes it’s important to disclose your debt and how you’re working on resolving it when you’re ready to commit to someone. She suggests saying something like, “I want us to be long-term and grow together, and it is important for me to tell you about the financial situations I am dealing with so you can be in the loop.” This will open the door for better communication and trust between you and your partner. A person you are involved with should be understanding of your goals financially, and they might even have some helpful suggestions.
Monahan says that if you initiate the conversation, it will hopefully encourage your partner to be more open and honest about their financial situation, too. When you address the topic, try to remove the self-judgment or shame from your tone. But, she also says, “there’s no specific timeline or obligation to speak to your partner about debt.”
What do you do when you’re trying manage a relationship with someone while also dealing with your debt?
Douglas recommends finding affordable alternatives to big nights out, such as making dinner at home together or finding free outdoor activities. If you do go out, make sure you don’t go over budget. “People may see this as an inconvenience, but remember: building a strong relationship is about spending time and getting to know each other, not about how much money you can spend on each other,” she says.
McCoy says, “You don’t want to scare them with specifics nor pressure them to help you, but just be open.” Tell them about your spending plan, why staying on it is important to you, and how you two could hold each other accountable (and not shame each other if someone falls off the wagon).
When things get more serious with your partner, open communication will be key. While it’s totally okay to keep finances separate, especially when one partner feels resentful of the other’s debt, McCoy says, “I hope that most people will decide to share their finances with their partner with the huge caveat of having a shared spending plan that you both have bought into and that will help you reach your long-term goals.” It’s important to keep in mind that no one’s financial path is perfect and though it can be scary to be transparent about these things, discussing it or merging your finances could allow you to pay off the debt quicker and get you both on the same page, which is an important indicator of any healthy, committed relationship.
Once we remove the shame we feel around debt and create a plan for tackling it, we can be kinder to ourselves and feel proud of how we’re working to address it, which will positively impact our relationships with romantic partners. As Monahan tells her clients, each day is a fresh start. At any point, we can decide when to change the way we think about our debt and find new solutions that serve all areas of our lives.