How to Talk to Your Partner About Debt

By Jackie Lam, AFC®
Published on: 01/29/2024

Debt can carry a lot of emotions around it: shame, dread, stress and anxiety, to name a few. And when it comes to bringing up the topic of debt into a relationship, it can take that anxiety level up a few notches—and for good reason.

According to a 2022 survey, nearly a third of couples have experienced financial infidelity. And as you're probably aware, debt is quite common. In fact, 56 million Americans have been in credit card debt for at least a year.

In turn, there's a strong chance you might run into tricky territory when attempting to chat with your S.O. about your respective debt loads. The good news is that with a bit of tact and transparency, you can navigate debt in a relationship with finesse. Here's how to go about it:

Be transparent about your debt situation

Being open about the reality of your debt can be challenging for a number of reasons. For one, you might carry a level of shame and stress about your money situation to begin with. It might come as no surprise, but research reveals that the greater one's financial worries, the higher their stress levels. The thought of being judged by someone you care deeply about and want to build a life with can be terrifying.

Plus, if you and your partner currently keep your finances separate, it can feel intrusive to talk about money, explains Tracy Coenen, CPA, CFF, MAFF, forensic accountant and creator of The Divorce Money Guide, who was interviewed by Self for this story. "However, if someone feels that their partner isn't being forthcoming, telling the whole story or doing lies of omission, that can really become a problem," she says.

To start, have a general conversation about your shared vision for a life together. Some ice-breaker questions can include:

  • What are your hopes, dreams, and goals for your life together?
  • What do you hope to accomplish and build?
  • How does money play into these goals?
  • How much money is "enough?" In other words, how much would you need to be comfortable and content?
  • What are some fears, concerns, and blocks you might have around your finances?

Going big-picture, versus firing off questions about each other's credit scores and debt load can be a gentler way to approach these sensitive topics. "People shy away from these conversations because of the discomfort," says Tracy. "So anything that can be done to make it feel less serious or less intimidating is really helpful because it will get people to open up and talk about it more."

Make it clear talking about debt is a no-judgment zone

Because people carry so much shame around their debt, the first hurdle is getting your partner to actually talk about the "D word" and give full disclosure, points out Coenen.

"People tend to hide the truth, especially if they have a lot of credit card debt," she says. "It's important to let your partner know that you’re not judging them for their debt and past money choices.”

Decide whether you want to continue the relationship

Once you get down to the details of each other's debt situations, there's a chance you or your partner might not want to continue the relationship. While not an easy decision to make, ideally there shouldn't be any judgment if you decide to part ways.

If you're currently married, make sure you understand how the debt will be split in the divorce, recommends Coenen. Also, see if you can come to an agreement on your own. "Whoever is keeping a debt should refinance it into their name, because generally creditors will not just take someone's name off a debt," she says.

You'll also have a backup plan in case your ex doesn't pay debts that have your name on them. For instance, see what financing options you might have to pay off debt solo. Or establish a debt payoff plan that's manageable.

Work through rough patches

That being said, having debt doesn't have to be a deal-breaker. If you do decide to stay together, establish ground rules for paying down both existing and new debt, points out Coenen. "Monitor what is going on with your debts, including running credit reports for both partners on a monthly basis," she says. That will ensure your partner won’t incur new debt without you knowing.

Hold your partner to these agreements, she adds. And perhaps reconsider your decision to stay together if they can’t abide by them. For instance, if one person wants to keep running up credit cards while the other wants to pay them down and stop the bleeding, that is a fundamental mismatch in money values," says Coenen. But if you can see eye-to-eye on the way you view debt, you can try to work together to come up with a plan to tackle it.

Create a financial plan with your partner

Once the debt cat's out of the bag, you'll want to sit down with your partner and drum up a debt payoff plan. "In addition to being transparent, have very clear expectations and responsibilities," says Coenen. She offers a few pointers for accomplishing this:

  1. Fully disclose the amount and type of debt to your partner. It might not be easy, but it's necessary to create trust and devise a game plan that's rooted in reality.
  2. Come up with an agreement. Know who is responsible to pay a particular debt and understand why that may be. "It doesn’t matter if you want to aggressively pay it down or do it slowly over time, as long as you agree on the approach and who is paying it," says Coenen.
  3. Decide on a debt payment tactic. This might be the debt avalanche, where you pay your high-interest debt from the highest amount to the lowest amount, or the debt snowball, where you start with the debt with the smallest amount, then work your way up.
  4. Start your agreed-upon payoff plan.
  5. Monitor your debt progress together. This means keeping tabs on debt, not secretly taking on new debt, sticking to your course of action and agreeing on deviating from the plan as needed.
  6. Talk about hypothetical scenarios. Prepare for the unexpected by talking through what you might decide to do should "X" pop up. Coenen provides the following example: Let's say we have a big home repair that is going to cost $5,000. We don't have money in an account to pay for it and the only option is to put a credit card on it. How might you proceed? Or, if one of you gets laid off, how will you handle paying off existing debt?

Have monthly and weekly money check-ins

Once you've established a debt payoff plan, you'll want to have both monthly and weekly check-ins. The monthly check-ins can be a time to talk about all things finances, from going over your budget, making sure you're on track with your debt payoff plans, and any savings goals. It's also a good time to talk about big-picture plans.

On top of monthly meetings, Coenen also recommends quick weekly check-ins, which might be a few minutes during a car ride to the market, or enjoying a glass of wine on a Friday as you wind down from your workweek.

You can go over last week's money matters and what to expect the following week, such as bills that need to be paid, and whether you're on track to bulk up your emergency fund. "When these money talks become routine, they become much less intimidating and they don't have to involve a whole lot of anxiety," says Coenen.

Seek help from a professional as needed

If you feel as if you could get some guidance or perspective from a professional, consider working with a financial coach who specializes in debt management. You can also see if your workplace offers free financial counseling or workshops.

Another option? Look into working with a non-profit credit counseling agency, which can help you come up with a debt management plan, and negotiate with creditors on your behalf. You can do a search for such an organization through the Non-Profit National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) member agency database.

Bottom line

When you're in a relationship, trying to wade through each of your debt loads can make for challenging terrain.

However, creating a safe space to be truthful and vulnerable, coming up with a debt payment plan together, and checking in regularly can help you avoid prickly brambles. From there, you can work toward a foundation for building a strong partnership.

About the author

A personal finance writer for over 8 years, Jackie Lam covers money management, lending, insurance, investing, and banking, and personal stories. An AFC® accredited financial coach, she is passionate about helping freelance creatives design money systems on irregular income, gain greater awareness of their money narratives, and overcome mental and emotional blocks.

Her work has appeared in publications such as Bankrate, Time's NextAdvisor, CNET, Forbes,, and BuzzFeed. She is the 2022 recipient of Money Management International's Financial Literacy and Education in Communities (FLEC) Award, and a two-time Plutus Awards nominee for Best Freelancer in Personal Finance Media. She lives in Los Angeles where she spends her free time swimming, drumming, and daydreaming about stickers.

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Written on January 29, 2024
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