Dear Penny: I’ll Never Marry My Boyfriend, So Can I Keep My Debt Secret?
My boyfriend and I are 71 and 72. He's been divorced three times, and I've been widowed twice. We both have our own homes and good incomes.
The problem is, I'm in debt due to my last husband. My boyfriend always talks about how he is debt-free except for his mortgage. We are in love and committed to each other.
Do I have to tell him about my debt when we have said we don't want to remarry? I am embarrassed about the debt.
You aren’t obligated to disclose every single aspect of your life and finances to your boyfriend. Of course you’d need to tell him you have debt if you were talking about marrying or moving in together. That’s not the case here.
As long as your debt isn’t impacting him, you shouldn’t feel guilty for not telling him. But I wonder if you’d feel better if you told him.
I’m going to paraphrase Dan Savage, the legendary love and sex advice columnist, and give you the advice he often repeats when someone is scared to reveal something about themselves to a partner: If you tell your boyfriend about your debt, you’ll be revealing one thing about yourself. His reaction will reveal everything about him.
What I’m hoping is that you’re underestimating your boyfriend. You say he “always” talks about being debt-free aside from his mortgage. It may be that he’s simply more open to discussing money than you, so it feels like he’s constantly talking about his lack of debt.
Context matters a lot here, too. Is he bringing it up because he’s proud of the accomplishment? Or because he’s excited about all the things he can do because his expenses are low? That’s a lot different than if he’s the type of person who thinks that just because he’s debt-free, anyone else who has debt is irresponsible.
Your boyfriend’s reaction isn’t the only thing to consider when you make this decision. Be honest with yourself: By keeping this secret, are you spending more money because you’re trying to pretend like you don’t have any obligations? When you’re not upfront about your financial situation, you often wind up with a lifestyle you can’t afford. You say yes to the vacations and restaurants that are out of your budget because you don’t want anyone to suspect that you’re struggling.
I have no idea if this is happening here. You don’t say how much debt you have or whether it’s manageable. But if this debt eats up a significant part of your income and you’re a couple who tends to split things relatively equally when you go out on dates or travel together, it’s something you need to seriously consider.
One benefit of telling your boyfriend is that opening up can be a relief. Keeping a bad situation secret only compounds the stress. When you look at something through the lens of shame, it often becomes so much worse than it actually is in your mind.
If you haven’t told anyone about this lingering debt, consider telling a trusted friend or family member first. Doing so could help you gauge your boyfriend’s reaction. You may also discover that talking about this isn’t as scary as you’ve imagined.
Regardless of how you proceed with your boyfriend, I hope you recognize that not talking about this debt isn’t going to make it disappear. You need a plan for how to conquer this debt, whether that involves paying it off as quickly as possible or keeping the monthly payments as manageable as possible. If you haven’t done so, consider making an appointment with a financial planner or counselor to make sure your plan is solid. You may feel better about telling your boyfriend you have debt if you can also talk with confidence about how you’re handling it.
Not to add to your pressure, but the longer you keep this a secret, the harder it will be should you eventually open up. Even the most sympathetic partner may be hurt to learn that you’ve been keeping debt a secret for years because you were afraid of their reaction. Conversely if he doesn’t react well, your pain will be exacerbated after investing many years together.
I won’t try to pretend that learning your debt is a deal-breaker for him wouldn’t be incredibly painful. I certainly understand why the easiest thing to do is not to talk about this when you’re happy and in love. Still, I think it’s important to know whether he cares more about you or your net worth.
Whatever you choose, I hope you can stop feeling embarrassed about your debt. It’s not a character flaw. Life can throw a lot of unexpected hurdles at you. Sometimes your battle wounds come in the form of debt. Hopefully after seven decades in the world, your boyfriend is wise enough to recognize that.
Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected].
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