I have been with my boyfriend for six years and we’re now seriously talking about marriage. I’m mostly excited, but I have one concern. He declared bankruptcy long before we met, but I don’t think he’s learned from his experience. He owes a lot of money to other people and if we ever fight, it is always about money. What should I know before I walk down the aisle?
Marriage is for better or for worse. And unfortunately there is no way to find out for sure what that means until you are both wearing rings. But since you already have a strong suspicion that money issues will be something you’ll have to deal with, you have to ask yourself, ‘Is it a deal breaker?’
If you were earlier in your dating life and wondering how to manage the money issue, I would have different advice. In fact, I have written extensively on how to build financial intimacy with your partner. But you now you have a bigger decision to make—to marry him or not. Here are three things to consider.
Assume nothing will change: Many people enter into a marriage hoping they’ll be able to change certain things about their spouse—a nip here or a tuck there, a few little things to improve the package. Given your boyfriend’s longstanding money issues, and the fact that the behavior hasn’t changed in your six years together, you need to assume nothing will ever change. In fact, it may get worse.
If he continues to behave this way from now until the day you part ways at the cemetery, are you okay with that? You might be. I know people who have chosen to marry despite issues like mental illness, physical disability and family background. It is your call to make. Your friends and family might think you’re nuts, but you might say his virtues outweigh his vices. Just be sure to make that call with your eyes wide open.
Understand what’s yours and what’s his: It is difficult to marry someone in a financial mess without getting the mess on you. Ensure that you understand on how deep the hole of debt actually is. If you haven’t done so already, have an open discussion about who he owes and how much.
You should also understand if any of his money problems you could be on the hook for down the line. As Elena Jara, director of education at Credit Canada, explain if the debt is joint or co-signed then you are both responsible for paying it back. “A prenuptial agreement will not guard you from joint or co-signed debt,” she says. “If the debt is not under your name then you are not responsible, although there are some exceptions.”
What this means is that as soon as you buy a house together, you are responsible. If he can’t pay his part of the mortgage, the burden will fall to you. If you have children and he can’t support them financially, the burden will fall to you. Sure, you can take measures to protect yourself, such as choosing not to take on joint debt and keeping your money in separate bank accounts, but what do you do if he files for bankruptcy again?
Check in with a health professional: My final thought is to get the perspective of a paid, third-party professional such as a psychologist or marriage counselor. They will be able to identify personality issues that you might not be aware of, like whether you have a “saviour complex” or low self-esteem. And if you choose to marry this guy, you will also be setting yourself up with a resource to help you deal with this issue on an ongoing basis, support that may come in handy if and when the bank comes to repossess his car.