When’s the Right Time to Tell the Person You’re Dating About Your Massive Debt?

August 20, 2015
You're in deep, and they need to know about it.

It’s an unfortunate fact of life: Debt happens.

While we all have some level of debt, there’s a huge difference between having a small balance on your credit card each month and being completely overwhelmed with bills. And experts say the latter can have a big impact on your love life.

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“Debt has become like the new STD disclosure,” says licensed clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, Ph.D. “In some cases, it's not going away any time soon.”

Of course, navigating the debt talk is a potential minefield. 'Fess up about a difficult financial situation too soon, and you risk scaring a potential partner away; wait too long, and things can get seriously messed up.

So when is a good time to tell someone you’re seeing that you’re in deep debt?
It varies by relationship and the rate at which it’s progressing, says Erika Martinez, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Miami. “Definitely not on the first few dates because this is private information."

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But if you’re seeing each other often and are becoming serious, it’s time to speak up. Martinez says it’s important to keep this in mind: If the roles were reversed, when would you have wanted to be told? When you hit that timeframe, it’s time to open up.

While that conversation may be awkward and nerve-wracking, licensed marriage and family therapist David Klow, owner of Skylight Counseling Center in Chicago, says honesty about your financial situation is crucial—especially if you’re thinking of building a life with someone.

“People never like surprises in relationships,” he says. “Pretending like your situation is one way and actually having it be another can cause way more harm than letting the other person know about your debt up front.”

Klow points out that you might even be surprised by how the news is received since there’s a chance your S.O. will be open and understanding about it.

Here’s How to Break the News
Durvasula suggests contextualizing it, like saying you lost a job at some point but still had bills to pay, explaining you were sick and didn’t have health insurance at the time, or letting him know you didn’t take your student loans seriously at first and racked up insane penalties.

“But just saying you are $50,000 in debt without context can feel confusing to the listener,” she says.

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Having a plan to pay off the debt—and sharing it—is also important, says Martinez, since it can help minimize worries your partner has about your joint financial future and your ability to be responsible with money.

If you’ve already moved in together or are talking about marriage, it could be a stickier situation, says Durvasula. But the longer you hide your debt, the worse the news may be taken because your partner may wonder about what else you’ve been hiding.

Once you’ve shared your big secret, it’s important to continue to be transparent, says Klow. Finances are “one of the main areas of tension and stress in a relationship,” regardless of how much a couple makes, he says. He’s seen that couples who communicate well about money and team up to tackle financial situations together do much better than those who don’t.

And yes, revealing that you’re not perfect is freaky and could even end the relationship. (If that happens, Martinez says you’re better off since someone who judges and breaks up with you over this probably has very different values surrounding money that would have caused issues for you anyway.)

But Durvasula points out that it’s better than starting a relationship on a dishonest note which can—and will—come back to bite you in the ass.

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