My Partner Has Been Hiding a Huge Amount of Debt from Me: Now What?

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January 5, 2017
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January 5, 2017


woman with her head in her hands

Q: Before we got married, my now-husband and I talked about our finances (responsible adults for the win!). We both had some student loan debt (mine slightly higher), some car debt (again, mine slightly higher, as I’d purchased my car more recently), and he had some credit card debt (in the $5,000 range). We both agreed that he would stop using his credit cards altogether while working to pay them down, while I would start making higher payments on my car to get that down. I also opened a new (my first ever) credit card a couple months into wedding planning, as my savings were draining due to wedding expenses, and we both wanted the security of a “just in case” credit card.

Over the course of our year and a half wedding planning, my husband finished paying off his car (yay!), and told me that he’d paid off one of his credit cards (double yay). The “just in case” emergency we’d considered ended up happening and I ended up having to put a $1,800 purchase on my credit to get a tent for our outdoor wedding (thanks a lot, last minute rain). Still, I figured this wasn’t so bad, as we were actively working toward paying off our debt, and my husband had gotten down to about $3,000 on his credit cards.

Cut to this week. Our dog got sick, meaning an emergency vet trip, meaning a $1,400 bill. I’ve managed to build up some savings again since our wedding five months ago, but not enough to cover the full cost of the vet. I asked my husband to help me (we keep separate accounts entirely and usually split pretty much everything fifty-fifty), and long story short, I learned that all of his credit cards are once again maxed out. I was completely shocked, having thought this whole time that he wasn’t using them at all and was trying to pay them off. I feel betrayed, not so much by the spending itself but by the fact that he kept it hidden from me. And now, I’m not sure what to do to build that trust back. I can take control of the finances entirely, but I’m worried that will push him into being more secretive in the future if he feels like he has no control over his own money. I’ve tried getting him on board with a combined budget before, but he’s terrible at sticking to it. On top of everything else, I’m definitely the “planner” in our relationship, and I hate the idea of having one more thing to be in charge of because he can’t just get it together and stop spending. Please help!

—Wedded and Indebted

A: Dear WI,

WHAT. If we’re being honest, I’m so curious what he’s spending this cash on! What is it! Some elaborate and expensive hobby? Fancy meals just for him? I want to know specifics, and I bet you do too.

And do you know how you would know all that info and not be blindsided by this news? If you had a joint bank accounts. I know, hindsight is 20/20 and all that, but as you start to clean up this mess, I suspect you’re going to start to see the wisdom of joint accounts very quickly.

Because TL;DR: Unless you have an ironclad prenup, you’re both responsible for whatever financial mess one or both of you get into, regardless of whose account it is. This is your debt, too. You’re not avoiding being on the hook by separating the finances; you’re just removing your ability to know what’s happening.

You mention “taking control” of the finances, and you don’t have to do that necessarily (though it for sure sounds like you should be the lead on this). Instead of setting demands, ask him: What’s going to help him stop spending? Figure out what he’s using these credit cards for, and how you can set some reasonable boundaries for those expenses. If all that money is going to midweek lunch at work, knee-jerk would be, “Pack your lunch everyday!!” But it’s probably not a realistic expectation. If there’s room in the budget, leave a line item for a certain, specific amount for work lunches (or whatever it is he’s spending on). If he uses it all up on Monday, tough breaks, it’s PB&J for the rest of the week. This way he’s got a reasonable level of control over how he uses his money, but a limited amount to use. Like everyone does. This is just how adult finances work.

In order to have that “how do we fix this” conversation, you’ll have to set aside the guilt and shame of spending money unwisely. It wasn’t smart. It’s not doing either of you any favors. But it’s not a moral failing.

That might seem like a semantic issue, but it’s a whole mindset thing. If his spending is “bad” and makes him a bad person, all the more reason to be ashamed and hide it from you. You’re concerned about building trust, so you’ll want to do it by being someone he can confide in when he’s screwed up. If he’s able to be open and honest about this junk, you’ll gradually have less secrecy to worry about.

You might’ve heard similar about eating healthily. Cheese fries aren’t “bad” (um, to the contrary), they’re just not always a great choice. You can totally have them if you want; it doesn’t make you a bad person. But maybe you shouldn’t do it all the time.

And I say this knowing that this is gonna take some real effort. I know I’d personally be frigging pissed if I was scraping all of my extra pennies together to chip away at debt, only to find out my partner’s been throwing money out the window. That’s infuriating. But we’re not talking about who’s right (you are), we’re talking about setting the stage for lasting change, regardless of who’s right (it’s you, you’re the right one).

This situation is hugely dishonest, a betrayal, a bit of a “wtf?” but it also is sort of… normal. Not every partner racks up a bunch of debt in casino losses (eh?), but every partner does have their flaws. And some dishonesty, some selfishness, can be the growing pains of getting used to being in a marriage, where our flaws deeply affect the person we care about most. The money is a bad habit that he can unlearn, you know? The trust thing, oof. That’s bigger. Rebuilding trust takes time; there’s no way to speed through it. A therapist might help, but with or without a pro, there are a lot of conversations to be had, and a lot of expenditures to be added up. Monthly.

He was dishonest with you, you’ve got reason to feel betrayed, and that feeling is only going to go away as he demonstrates more honesty. Give him the room to do that.

And, hey. Check your bank balances and credit card statements. Every. Damn. Month. Maybe there will be a day in the future where you can take your eye off the ball a little bit, but that day probably isn’t coming real soon.

IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO ASK APW A QUESTIONPLEASE DON’T BE SHY! IF YOU WOULD PREFER NOT TO BE NAMED, ANONYMOUS QUESTIONS ARE ALSO ACCEPTED. (THOUGH IT REALLY MAKES OUR DAY WHEN YOU COME UP WITH A CLEVER SIGN-OFF!)

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