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What this life coach learned by refusing to marry her husband until he paid off his $19,000 in credit card debt

Talking finances with your partner is essential before taking any big life steps. Here's how one expert handled her husband's debt before they got married.

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Photo courtesy of Kara Stevens, The Frugal Feminista
Select’s editorial team works independently to review financial products and write articles we think our readers will find useful. We may receive a commission when you click on links for products from our affiliate partners.

Most experts would agree that talking about your finances is something every couple should do, especially before getting married. This means your debt, too. 

Kara Stevens, founder of the personal finance and lifestyle blog The Frugal Feminista, knew it would be in her and her partner's best interest to discuss money early on. So when she learned that her husband-to-be had $19,000 in credit card debt, she asked him to pay it off before they ever got married.

Below, Stevens talks to CNBC Select about what she learned by knowing her partner's debt — and how this strategy can help you.

What Stevens learned by asking about her partner's debt

Stevens learned that her partner's $19,000 in credit card debt wasn't just frivolous spending. It included big life purchases, such as outstanding loan payments for a car, as well as medical bills and other general everyday expenses that added up over time. 

And she also got to witness first-hand how he managed money once she saw him pay it off. By the time they got married, nearly all of it was gone, says Stevens.

"He had a couple thousand hanging around," she admits, "but it was enough [to see] the actual process of eliminating it."

Being open about their financial situation allowed Stevens and her husband to see how they each handle money. But Stevens suggests it's more than just knowing the numbers.

How knowing your partner's debt can help you both

"I think knowing the story behind the numbers is equally important," Stevens says. Listening to her husband's story helped her to understand what his debt actually entailed and to be OK with where he was in his process of paying it off.

Different people have different levels of knowledge about how to use credit, Stevens explains. "But it doesn't mean that they're not in the process of improving it and doing what they have to do," she says. The debt says a lot; perhaps your partner had a job loss, no savings or was financially burdened taking care of a family member and relied on a credit card to get by.

"You have to be open to hearing the story behind the numbers," Stevens says.

What to do if your partner has a lot of debt or a bad credit score

Beyond just knowing the numbers and the story behind them, it helps when you know how to help your partner pay off their debt and improve their credit score. Lenders will take both of your credit histories into consideration if you ever plan on applying for a loan together in the future (like a mortgage on a new home) so it's better if you work together to improve the situation.

One suggestion is to have your partner with the lower credit score become an authorized user on one of your card accounts. This would help them benefit from your better credit score and boost their own. Just be aware that some cards charge a fee for authorized users. 

The Platinum Card® from American Express, for example, charges $175 annually for adding up to three Amex Platinum Card authorized users and $0 for adding American Express® Gold Card authorized users (See rates and fees). This would help the primary cardholder earn Membership Rewards for other peoples' spending, while also boosting the authorized user's credit score. (The authorized user would earn rewards at the Platinum Card rate but have adjusted benefits and perks.)

Credit cards that don't charge authorized user fees include: Chase Sapphire Preferred® CardCapital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card, Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card and the Citi® Double Cash Card.

And if you don't want to share a credit card with your partner, there are also a few cards that are marketed toward people who are building or repairing their credit histories specifically. Secured cards are typically the best choice for people with bad credit. These cards require a security deposit (often $200) that becomes your line of credit. When you use your secured card responsibly — paying your bill on time and in full each month — you can begin to improve your credit score.

The Discover it® Secured Credit Card is a well-rounded secured card that offers many of the benefits that are typically found with unsecured cards. Cardholders can earn cash back, receive a generous cashback match after their first year (for new card members in the first year only), use the card overseas without incurring added fees and more — all for no annual fee.

Whatever you and your partner's solution is, being financially compatible can only help strengthen your relationship in the long-term.

Information about the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card, Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card, and has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.

For rates and fees of the The Platinum Card® from American Express, click here.

For rates and fees of the Discover it® Secured Credit Card, click here.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.