I’m Afraid to Tell My Partner About My Credit Card Debt!

by: Guli Fager

Q: I have more than $20,000 in credit card balances, leftover from a period of really rough unemployment a couple of years ago. It’s affected my credit score, but I’m working to pay it off. We are talking about moving in together, and while I make a good salary, my current apartment is pretty cheap. If my monthly living expenses go up, I won’t be able to pay as much each month toward my cards and I think my partner would be surprised to learn that I can’t afford as much as they can for a new place. What should I do?

A: Lots of people have credit card debt, and feeling shame about it is common. Good for you paying down your balances and devoting attention to your credit score. Figuring out how to combine finances, or not, is an important piece of relationship building. For some couples, combining finances is a seamless way to reduce duplication of efforts and create an easy system for paying joint expenses. For others, they would rather play strip poker with a group of total strangers than reveal their financial secrets to an intimate partner. Most couples fall somewhere between these two extremes; combining finances to some extent and feeling some anxiety about it.

Cohabitation offers an opportunity to build intimacy by sharing private aspects of our lives with our partners, including our financial information, but that sharing isn’t mandatory. It’s important to disclose information within your boundaries but not keep secrets. Some couples are happy to set up joint accounts and share passwords while others want to retain some element of privacy. Whichever approach you’re comfortable with, if debt is a deal breaker for your partner, it’s important that you not conceal it.

What matters in your case is that you have a clear sense of how much you need to pay each month to reduce your debt in a timeframe that’s acceptable to you, and you’ve balanced that with how much you’re able to pay in rent. As you approach moving in with your partner and this new level of intimacy, you don’t have to reveal—if you don’t want to—why you have credit card debt. An appropriate boundary you can set is that you are able to pay $X amount for housing. I suggest including all the expenses you currently pay for your own apartment, including utilities, internet, etc., since some of those costs will likely go down since you’ll only need one Netflix subscription, internet account, etc. But those amounts won’t be included in the rent when looking for apartments. When you consider all those other expenses, you might have a little bit more each month to work with than you pay now, and if you and your partner find an apartment that’s slightly more expensive for you, it might still be within reach if you find other ways to streamline financially.

The fact that you’ve organized your financial life around this obligation shows that you’re realistic about what you earn, and what you can afford—these are good characteristics of a partner! Below I have some suggestions for how you can set this boundary with your partner, each one including a little bit more information about the debt. You are free to disclose as much or as little about the debt as you feel comfortable. Let me know how it goes!

Suggested ways to start the conversation:
I’m so excited to move in together! I’ve done a lot of work on my budget over the last few years, and the most I can personally contribute to our apartment is $1200/month, including utilities.”

“I have a loan payment that takes up a big chunk of my income every month, so until that is paid off in 2025, I can only pay $1700 a month for our apartment.”

“I have credit card debt leftover from when I was unemployed during the pandemic, and I’m paying it off. It’s important to me that I keep chipping away at that, so I’m paying a lot each month. I can only afford $950 a month for rent and utilities.”

Need help navigating how to combine finances with a partner? Want to figure out how to pay down debt and save for the future? Financial planning can help. Schedule a free consultation with Guli here. https://go.oncehub.com/MeetWithGuli

Have a question for a future column? Email Guli at gulif@tolerfg.com