When “I Do” Becomes “We Owe”: How to Pay Off Your Debt as a Couple

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Marriage is about two becoming one.

And along with all the good qualities you both bring to your marriage, you might each be crossing the threshold with student loans, mortgages and credit card debt from your life before the wedding.

Although you may not legally be responsible for your spouse’s debt — that depends on your state’s rules — that whole for-better-or-worse thing probably means you want to help each other stress less about the money situation.

So why not make tackling your debt the first big success of your new life together? We’ve rounded up tips from other couples that you can apply to your own debt-free goals.

Strategies for Paying Off Marriage Debt as a Couple

Marriage is, by design, supposed to be a long-term commitment.

Although the discussion really should have happened earlier, talking about money now that you’re married is essential to tackling debt as well as planning for your future, according to Ariel Ward, Certified Financial Planner at Abacus Wealth Partners.

“First of all, come together as a couple and have an honest conversation with each other about what the current state of your finances [is], facing the debt,” she said. “And also with that, talk about once we have this debt paid off, what are going to be our long-term goals around money.”

Ready to stop stressing about finances and enjoy married life? Say “I do” to these savvy strategies.

Think of “My Debt” and “Your Debt” as “Our Debt”

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One of the most important things to remember when you’re starting your new life facing a pile of debt: You’re in this together.

“The couples that I see that have the most success have come to terms with what their financial situation is and they view each other as teammates,” said Ward, adding that they view themselves as co-owners of the debt, “even if one person brought more of it in.”

About a year and a half into their marriage, Pete and Maria Sbashnig had not yet combined the finances of their blended family (each has two kids from previous marriages), so he figured it was time to see where they stood.

Pro Tip

Unless there is an extenuating circumstance, sign up for a joint bank account and become authorized users on each other’s credit cards so you both know where your money is going each month.

Midway through listing their debts — which included two mortgages, a home equity line of credit, two car loans and over $60,000 in credit card debt — they realized their total debt was $332,000, putting their net worth at a negative $244,000.

But rather than focusing only on their own bank accounts, the two decided to team up to pay off the debt.

Pete brought in more income by taking side jobs umpiring baseball games, mowing lawns and helping his dad with his landscape business.

Maria cut the family’s expenses by clipping coupons, cooking meals at home and limiting school shopping.

Together they paid off $65,000 in 17 months while making less than $100,000 per year combined.

Budget for Two

When you’ve been budgeting for one (you have been budgeting, right?), you might be wondering how to turn that process into a debt paydown plan for two.

By creating a budget together, you’ll both understand why certain expenses need to be cut, according to Ward.

“It’s important to know where your money is going on a monthly or a weekly basis,” said Ward, who suggested using an app like Mint, which allows both of you to track expenses. “It is easy for couples to just assume the other is watching the budget … and maybe neither one of you is doing it.”

Pro Tip

When discussing your budget, set aside at least an hour when you know you can both offer your full attention. Make sure neither of you are tired or hungry — and turn off those cell phones!

The Penny Hoarder contributor Abbigail Kriebs said she and her husband weren’t getting anywhere with their financial goals until they signed up for a budgeting class that forced them to talk about their financial situations, including struggles and insecurities they felt about money.

They started setting aside time on Sunday afternoons to budget as a couple and discuss their living expenses, income and goals. By being honest about their spending and saving habits, they’ve been able to re-evaluate strategies to pay down their student debts.

Earn Extra Money as a Couple

Hustling is so romantic, right?

Alright, maybe it’s not about flowers and candlelight dinners, but there are ways the two of you can pay off debt by working as a team.

Finding a side gig that the two of you can do together allows you to find work you’ll both enjoy — or at least work you’ll enjoy doing because you’re together — according to Ward, who suggested dog walking as one option.

The couples that I see that have the most success have come to terms with what their financial situation is and they view each other as teammates.

“That could be kind of a fun date to go do together: You go pick up a dog to walk for 30 minutes, and you get paid for it,” she said. “And maybe not as fun, but… there are plenty of apps out there where you can put up an ad and offer to clean people’s houses, so that’s something you can do together as well.”

Another option is to tag team your work, like Sam and Susen Meteer splitting their schedules to drive for Lyft.

Sam is an elementary school teacher by day who gets behind the wheel on nights and weekends. On weekday mornings, Susen drops their kids at school and keeps on driving. Together, they can pull in $800 to $1,500 a week.

If your efforts to dig yourselves out of debt as couple still aren’t getting anywhere and it’s causing strife within your marriage, it may be time for outside help.

“Talk to a marriage counselor that can help you learn how to work as a team on not just the debt but other things, or looking for a financial planner,” Ward said. “Sometimes it’s a good idea to seek outside help when you can’t solve things on your own.”

Because getting out of debt together is a good way to start your happily ever after.

Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a staff writer/editor at The Penny Hoarder. Read her bio and other work here, then catch her on Twitter @TiffanyWendeln.