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The High Cost of Letting Your Partner Pay Off Your Debt

Stress about money can tear couples apart, but when someone’s significant other offers to lift a large financial burden, that’s not always easy either

For Love & Money is our weekly series exploring how we navigate one of the most intimate and rarely talked about aspects of our relationships: our finances.

Loaning money to a loved one doesn’t always come with the expectation of being paid back, but it can come with other expectations around commitment. At the same time, lingering money problems aren’t great for relationships either; 54 percent of people believe that debt is a major reason for divorce. All of which factors into why discussions around personal debt between couples can be so sensitive — and tricky. 

Two years ago, when Matt’s wife received an inheritance following her parents’ death, she offered to help him pay off his student loans. He was initially hesitant about accepting the offer. “I’ve always been extremely independent, almost to the point of nuclear self-destruction before I’d ask for help,” he tells me. Even though he knew this was part of them building a life together, “it was a bit of a pill to swallow.”

Matt ultimately agreed to let her pay off his debt, and he admits that their relationship has since improved — he’s even been able to grow his business as a result of the financial help. But he also says he would have never accepted the money under less tragic circumstances — like if she just earned more than him. “I understand, I likely need counseling for this,” he says. “Unfortunately, I’m just not as comfortable as others might be in the modern era when it comes to my role as a financial provider for my family.”

Marriage and family therapist Heather Browne warns that when loved ones offer to help, there can still be an unspoken expectation. She recommends individuals in debt take time to consider an offer like this, and to ask questions to better understand their partner’s intent as well as to consider how allowing them to pay off your debt could alter the dynamic of the relationship. “Will this change the way you feel about them? Will you feel differently about yourself?” Browne asks. 

When Erin’s now-husband Greg offered to pay off roughly $15,000 of her student loans two years into dating, she was skeptical. “I definitely had reservations because of fear of him holding it over my head, and I also pride myself in my independence,” Erin tells me. But Greg had already worked as a financial analyst for over a decade by that point, and his big picture goal was to retire early. Though Greg didn’t phrase it as an ultimatum, falling in love with someone with a low credit score and lots of debt got in the way of his life plan. “He was stressed out over my poor credit score and debt,” Erin says. 

When she finally agreed to let him pay her debt, they did it on the Fourth of July to symbolize independence from interest payments. From there, Greg’s stress dissipated, and they got engaged shortly thereafter. “It brought us closer because I trusted him to do something that mattered to him.”

Now, six years of marriage and three kids later, Erin and Greg have realized their dream of early retirement at the ages 38 and 42 respectively, living off of income from rental homes as well as Erin’s lifestyle blog about living on a budget. Greg insists that none of that would have been possible if Erin hadn’t let him pay off her debt. His advice for other couples who are serious about building a life together is to let your ego go and take on debt as a team. “If you’re too proud to let your partner help you, then you need to let go,” Greg says. “Your finances may appear separate, but in reality, they’re not. The stresses, constraints and limitations of the debt is a burden on both of you.”