Here’s What Really Happens to Your Credit and Debt When You Get Married

Two women stand side to side, almost holding hands on the waterfront.
Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

You hear those words “to have and to hold, for better or for worse” and pause.

You know he likes the toilet paper roll to go over the top; you prefer underneath. OK, you’ll hash that out.

What about his (or her) debt?

When it comes to getting married, you’re bonding your life to another human’s, and that’s pretty cool. It’s also pretty scary. If you’ve worked hard to minimize your debt and build your credit score, are you putting all of that at risk by marrying someone who brings a fair amount of financial baggage into the union?

The honest answer is yes… and no. There are many misconceptions out there about debt and marriage. Before you say “I do,” it’s smart to know what you’re getting into.

6 Myths (and Truths) About Marriage, Debt and Credit

When it comes to marriage, debt and your credit score, you may think you know what’s in store, but wading through the misconceptions can be difficult. Here are some of the most common myths about marriage and finances and the valid truths that bust them.

Myth #1: The Two Become One, and Their Debt is Your Debt

Not exactly. If you are not a co-signer on any loans or credit cards with your betrothed, you are not responsible for your spouse’s pre-existing debt. However, it is a good idea to work together to improve that situation, if possible.

Mental health counselor and CPA Denise Kautzer, who helps couples struggling with financial issues, said: “If somebody has a lot of credit card debt, typically what they are doing is financing a lifestyle they cannot afford. If someone came to me and said I have a little credit card debt, but my fiance has a lot, I’d try to get them to stop and figure out how they want to move forward. Get their expenditures in line with their income.”

Myth #2: You Should Help the Person You’re Marrying Pay Off That Debt ASAP

It may sound pessimistic, but you might want to think twice before you start putting money toward your true love’s debt before you get married. Since you’re not legally bound while engaged, the money you put toward their debt is a risk. It’s a personal choice, but you definitely want to consider all the pros and cons before paying off your partner’s debt.

A safer bet might be to encourage your fiance to display their love by paying down that debt on their own before the big day. What a wedding gift!

Myth #3: Your Credit Scores Combine Once You’re Married

Not at all. Your credit scores are connected to your Social Security numbers, therefore, remain tied only to the individual.

That said, it’s still possible for one spouse to hurt the other’s credit score. If your spouse continues with the same bad habits after you open a joint account, they could drag you down, too. On the flip side, if you can keep that joint account in good standing, it could be the first step in rebuilding your spouse’s credit score.

Myth #4: If I Change My Last Name, My Credit History Starts Over

While you may be starting a new life with your sweetheart, your credit history remains unchanged. As mentioned above, your credit is tied to your Social Security number, not your name. Your credit history remains yours and is not affected by the marriage itself (unless you charged the horse-drawn carriage, 101 white doves and 33 flavors of cupcakes to your credit card).

Myth #5: You Must Apply for Loans Together

Though you’re married, you can still apply for a loan or credit card on your own. If you’re looking to buy a big-ticket item, like a house or a car, you need to consider how much your spouse’s poor credit could hurt your chances of getting a loan or a good interest rate.

If you don’t live in one of the nine community property states — those that consider your spouse’s debts your debts too — you can leave your spouse off the application and bypass their credit issues. But if you do this, you can’t use their income to qualify for the loan, so you may need to lower your purchase price.

One spouse’s terrible credit doesn’t rule out buying a house or a car, but it can make these purchases a bit more difficult.

Myth #6: Debt Is a Marriage Killer

It can be, but that’s up to the couple. What we can say is that it shouldn’t be a marriage killer. If you talk things through before saying your vows and develop a plan to work together, you may discover just what a good team you make. It may be wise for the person with the stronger financial track record to take the lead on financial matters, but it’s essential for that person to remain supportive of his or her spouse, not judgmental.

“Money is a resource to help you do what you want,” says Kautzer. “Is that a vacation? A new home? A lake home? Retiring at a young age? Figure that out so you’re both on the same page.”

Love happens, and that’s great. Debt happens, too. As long as you address the issue, know what you’re getting into and develop an appropriate plan, you can start building a marriage that heads toward your debt-free goals. If you find yourself struggling, seek the advice of a marriage counselor or financial planner who can help you get your plan in place. The key is open communication.

The toilet paper debate isn’t quite as easy. Good luck with that.

Tyler Omoth is a former senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.