Published February 28, 2017.
Considering marriage? Consider debt, too.
Sure, his eyes are dreamy chocolate puddles. What's his credit card balance?
Sure, she has a master's degree in English literature. How much does she owe on it?
Unromantic as it may sound when you're gazing into those dreamy puddles or planning your book group for two, the debt both partners bring to your marriage will affect your relationship, not to mention your finances.
Debt and other financial challenges are among couples' top causes of arguments and divorce, says Karen Richel, a financial counselor and financial literacy educator for University of Idaho Extension who teaches classes throughout North Idaho.
Good communication that starts before marriage can prevent a lot of that trouble, Richel says, but it happens too rarely: "Many couples avoid talking about things like money, sex, politics, religion, and kids — only to find out these are the things marriage is all about."
Considering marriage? Richel suggests observing your beloved's financial habits, asking them how much money they owe and to whom, and talking together about your shared goals - so you can make good decisions later about whether to borrow more money to achieve them.
If you live in Idaho or Washington, it's also important to understand how "community property" laws affect the debts you each bring to the relationship. Spoiler alert: It depends a lot on whether you borrowed money before getting hitched or afterward.
“Many couples avoid talking about things like money, sex, politics, religion, and kids — only to find out these are the things marriage is all about.” Richel says.
Money savers tend to attract money spenders, and vice versa.
To a penny pincher who looks forward to cozy evenings spent reconciling his financial statements with his receipts, there's also something weirdly alluring about the date who covers a spontaneous trip to Reno with her credit card.
Actually, researchers say, the allure isn't that weird. Tightwads may reject spontaneous spending for themselves but find those with opposite tendencies more likeable.
But a credit card habit that's fun now might signal problems later. That's why it's important to look past love's blinders.
When you're dating someone, pay attention to whether they blow through money or pay their bills on time.
After deciding to marry, put off the wedding for at least four seasons, Richel advises. That gives you time to see their behavior in different situations that arise throughout a year. It lets you watch their spending patterns.
And have a heart to heart about how much you both owe, and to whom. "Your life partner is also your financial partner," Richel says.
For richer for poorer ... and poorer .. forever?
With partnership comes sharing. Lots of sharing. Does that include a sharing of debts?
In general, the debt your partner brings to the relationship — money they borrowed before you got married — is their debt to keep. When you marry someone, you don't automatically become responsible for half their pre-marriage credit card bills or student loans, even if you split up.
But in Washington and Idaho, that changes post-nuptials. In community property states, all debts incurred during a marriage belong to "the community" — that is, the married couple.
So if your husband or wife got a boat loan and failed to make the payments, creditors could go after you.
Even if your partner incurred all their debt before you tied the knot, however, it's likely to affect you.
The amount they owe to creditors and how consistently they pay it back will affect their credit score. Their credit score will affect your ability to jointly rent an apartment or buy a house, for example.
Also, your partner's debt will affect their ability to contribute toward your goals as a couple, such as having a baby or saving for college. A partner who's paying hefty credit card or medical bills every month has less money for child care or investing.
So, if your partner brings debt to the marriage, should you take on part of their burden by helping to pay it off?
Maybe, Richel says. You're a team now.
The sooner everyone's debt is paid off, the sooner you're both able to move forward — together.