We all know that debt can be very destructive to a marriage. But how often do we think about just how destructive it can actually be?
Hopefully, this post will get you thinking about the issue of debt in your marriage and get you to deal with it before it's too late.
Within the past six months, I've had a significant number of couples come to me for financial coaching who are literally on the verge of divorce.
In every case there have been money problems coupled with incredible levels of debt. As you can imagine, it's always deeply troubling and complicated to navigate for everyone involved.
Unfortunately, by the time a coach gets involved the marriage is on the precipice of complete destruction.
The brokenness, despair and sense of defeat are always visible and they present us with an additional obstacle to navigate.
By this time there is usually a severe lack of respect, a vacuum of trust and an almost total sense of disdain for each other.
It's heartbreaking every time I see it and really only buttresses my resolve to stay on this mission of imploring people to destroy their debt regardless of their situation.
I wrote this post because I want you to help make a dent in this phenomenon. How do we do that? We do it by being proactive about your own marital situation first.
So, I want to urge you as a new couple, a pre-marital couple or as a married couple to get help if you need it.
If you have money troubles, I'm imploring ruthless proactivity in facing them head on.
Having been a financial coach for over 10 years, I'm here to tell you that debt and money problems will literally tear your relationship apart.
I've seen it. I've sat kneecap to kneecap with couples who have been destroyed by it. It's not a joke. In fact, it's deadly serious.
The truth is that, debt and money problems are usually just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. That means that they're just the visible representation of much deeper issues in the relationship. This has been the case with every couple I've coached, bar none.
So, I wrote this post to urge you, to prod you and even to guilt you into reaching out for help without delay if money problems and debt are part of your story.
Okay, point made...
Now that we've addressed the "why" of the situation, I want to give you some practical steps to begin the process of actually tackling the problem.
Is it going to be easy? Of course not, but neither is divorce.
Having been through one myself over 20 years ago, I can tell you that it's a loathsome experience with very few redeeming qualities (outside of some particular types of circumstances like escaping abuse, of course).
So if you can save your marriage, do it. It's totally worth the fight and heck, you might just receive the ancillary benefit of eliminating your debt at the same time.
Just like every other negative issue in life, we can't begin to make any sort of progress it until we recognized and admit that there's actually a problem.
If you and your spouse fight about, cry about, avoid dealing with, blame each other or otherwise tear each other apart over debt and money, you have a problem.
Having more month left at the end of the money and continuing to go further into debt is definitely a problem that will require both serious and immediate intervention.
It's a curious reality that, until we sit down and do a budget during our first coaching session, most clients have little to no idea how much they're overspending every month.
Many times it's well over $1000 per month!
So, as painful as it is, I must implore you to please sit down an assess the damage. If you can't do it without killing each other, reach out for the help of a counselor or coach.
95% of our first financial coaching sessions involve writing out a budget so don't worry about people judging you harshly, it's totally normal.
None of us are born budgeters rather, it's a skill we have to learn.
By the way, if you’re looking for some resources to get started with budgeting, you can download our Free Budgeting Forms.
When you know there's a problem.
I recently worked with a couple who is sadly on the precipice of divorce.
They have been simultaneously stacking bad financial decisions and relational dysfunction for over 20 years.
I'm not going to tell you that our coaching session was the magic bullet that saved their marriage and got them completely out of debt in one sitting.
No, for them it's going to be a long, slow slog to crawl out of 20 years of very bad financial decisions that have been papered over by extreme marital dysfunction (i.e. getting so frustrated with each other, that they just don't deal with the financial problems).
Suffice it to say though, there is MUCH more hope in that house after our session than there was before.
And, while they might be past the point of no return (I don't think so), you don't have to be.
If you see any of this in your marriage, it's best to immediately hit "pause" and get some professional help, fast.
Recognize there's a problem and resolve to do something about it right now. Please don't wait.
If you're beginning the process of making any major life decisions like, buying a house, buying a car, choosing a school or possibly relocating, we always suggest that you press the pause button.
You should really look into getting help dealing with the underlying relational issues before following through.
Many times major decisions can be an attempt to "quick fix" the symptoms rather than deal with the real issues.
A new house with its custom cabinets and amazing floors, may "make her happy" in the short-term, but what is that larger mortgage going to do to your already explosive money fights?
Making major decisions are rarely a resolution to your relationship problems and many times can make them much worse in very short order.
So, we want to press pause and make sure that we're beginning to uncover and deal with the relationship issues.
Also, it's important to remember that hitting the pause button does not necessarily mean that you're also hitting the cancellation button.
It may be okay to move forward with the original intent after you've both begun to resolve some of the conflict in your marriage.
Pause is always okay, especially if the "big decision" has the potential to exacerbate the already toxic issues between you.
So, halt any major financial or life decisions (if possible) and seek the help of a professional before you move forward.
It might come as a surprise to hear a financial coach suggest that you get marital counseling first, but it shouldn't. While I definitely see financial coaching as an "arm" of marriage counseling, the two are definitely not one in the same.
"Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed." - Proverbs 15:22
A marriage counselor's mandate is to assess the situation relationally, listen to both perspectives and help the couple to find common ground on which to rebuild their marriage.
This may even involve going all the way back to childhood to deal with deeper personal, emotional and relational issues.
It's complicated and can take a lot of time and a lot of patience on everyone's part, but it's pivotally important. Remember, we're talking about your marriage here.
A financial coach, on the other hand, will tend to be more strategic and tactical in terms of helping the couple navigate their financial landscape together.
Sure, there is definitely an element of marital counseling involved inherently, but it's more ancillary to the process.
That's why we always recommend marriage counseling either first or directly in tandem with financial counseling.
Why do we recommend marital counseling first?
Financial problems are always the manifestation if deeper conflict in a relationship. Relational and personal issues like fidelity, trust, intentions and habits will be better addressed and more precisely managed with the help of a marriage counselor.
And again, financial coaching will give you strategy and tactics for the nuts and bolts of the financial part, but a solid marriage counselor will help you drill deep into the real issues and fast. So, we always suggest starting there.
Just like you need marriage counseling for the "deeper things" of your marriage, you will likely need a financial coach to help you navigate all the bad money habits and practices you've developed over the years.
The financial coping mechanisms you've used must be both unlearned and then retrained into more functional financial habits.
As this is all about recognition and behavior modification, it's important to understand that, just like marriage counseling, this can take some time as well.
Normally, the single most important first step we take with new clients is to help them write out their budget on paper.
Like I mentioned earlier, in over 75% of cases we see, the person or couple did not know how much they were actually spending every month until we sat down and did that first budget.
It's normally a very sobering moment.
Beyond developing that budgeting skill, a financial coach is going to ask a lot of questions and help you to look at your finances with fresh eyes.
If you're over budget, they're going to challenge you to learn how to say, "I can't afford it", at least for the short-term.
By the way, here's a post called When Is It Okay To Say, "I Can't Afford It?" if you need help learning to say "I can't afford it",
If debt is tearing your marriage apart, you need marriage counseling, financial coaching and a system to follow that will lead you out of debt.
The system we use is the 8 Steps To Erase Debt, but there are others as well, such as Dave Ramsey's 7 Baby Steps.
It doesn't matter which tool you use as much as it matters THAT you plug into a system that helps you to break the debt cycle once and for all.
And the reason you need to follow a system or a program is that it will help you to slow down and focus on one thing at a time. Focusing on one thing, one step at a time is pivotal for erasing your debt.
For example, if you're trying to build your $1000 emergency fund AND start paying down your first debt in your debt snowball, you're already diluting your efforts (unless you're making really good money and can knock those two out simultaneously).
In another example of diluting efforts, we see most couples still contributing to their retirement accounts even when they're tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt so that they can take advantage of their company's "match".
In the vast majority of cases we see, when you stop and actually do the math, any "profits" or benefits of a company match are being devoured by the debt.
These are the 8 steps I followed to eliminate $43,000 in debt in 2.5 years. Trust me, they work!
You just can't focus on building a retirement nest egg when you have outstanding debt that's eating you alive with interest, regardless of the match.
Having a system to help keep the two of you on track and accountable both internally (to each other) and externally (to your coach/accountability partner) will be pivotal to helping you get out of debt and to reaching your goals.
I've heard Dave Ramsey say, "you can wander into debt, but you can't wander out of it". I totally agree. That's why you need a framework to help you focus on one step at a time through the debt elimination process.
So if you don't have a foundation yet, go download 8 Steps To Erase Debt and use that as your system. Just as a quick encouragement, I used it more than 10 years ago to eliminate over $43,000 in debt in just 2.5 years.
Unity in truth is what we're pursuing. There can be no unity without truth, so let's get to the truth...
Finally, none of this counseling, coaching or system following will be able to work maximally unless you've committed to the outcome of a healed marriage and to eliminating your debt once and for all.
Commitment to each other and to the process are absolutely necessary.
Now, I understand that there may be certain circumstances, such as marital or financial infidelity, that can compromise your ability to make that commitment.
That's okay, keep working through that in your marital or individual counseling. Hopefully, there will be repentance and contrition from the offending person that allows some space for true healing and relationship repair.
0. Stop All Retirement Investing (Until Step 4)2. Starter Emergency Fund of $10003. Eliminate Debts Smallest To Largest (a.k.a The Debt Snowball)4. Full Emergency Fund of 3-6+ Months’ Expenses5. Invest A Minimum of 15% Income Into Retirement Accounts (and increase savings rate to 50%+ if possible)6. College Funding (if applicable)7. Pay Off The Home Mortgage8. Build Wealth, Serve, Be Ridiculously Generous And Go FI (Financial Independence)!