Between financially helping his parents and losing income as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jeremy Mazza landed into serious credit card debt. Relief came from a source he wasn’t expecting: his partner, Ginna Lambert, who had come into a small inheritance. She suggested “investing” part of her bounty in their shared future by lending small amounts to Mazza that he could apply toward his debt.
It took a bit of convincing.
“To have to ask for money when I was the provider and had parents who themselves were asking for money, I didn’t want to follow in their footsteps and be taking,” Mazza says. “But that’s not what this was, this was a caring thing.”
Mazza and Lambert approached the situation with open communication and specific loan terms. And for them, it’s paying off: Mazza estimates his credit score went up by about 150 points. The couple, who live in Richmond, Virginia, are getting married this year, and they hope to buy a home soon as well.
“I had a very, very, very vested interest in making sure my partner’s credit score and finances were in as good of a shape as possible,” Lambert says.
While joint debt is a shared responsibility, individual debts you bring into a relationship are ultimately yours to tackle. Still, they can get in the way of making life plans as a couple, so it may make sense for your significant other to help you with your debt in some way. But don’t enter into an arrangement of this kind without a plan.
GET VULNERABLE WITH THE FULL FINANCIAL PICTURE
It’s essential to be open with each other about your individual financial situations, especially as your relationship gets more serious.
“If a couple is planning to get married, it’s a good idea to have a conversation before tying the knot,” says Trina Patel, a Los Angeles-based senior financial advice manager at Albert, a financial services company.
Schedule a few distraction-free money dates where you talk about what’s going on for each of you. Those conversations can help you establish shared goals and figure out what actions to take to meet them, like adjusting your budget or finding ways to increase income.
“Debt can often bring feelings of guilt, shame, and embarrassment leading spouses to not talk about the debts they have,” said Leanne Rahn, a financial advisor at Fiduciary Financial Advisors in Grand Rapids, Michigan, by email. “Vulnerability is hard but remember, you and your significant other are a team.”
CONSIDER NONMONETARY WAYS TO HELP
You may be unable, or unwilling, to pay off your partner’s debt. There are lots of other ways you can provide support, however. You can serve as an accountability buddy, help rethink your household budget if you live together or find ways to be more frugal in your shared spending.
Maybe you can take on some more chores at home to give your partner time to pick up additional hours at work, or you can help your partner edit their resume if they want to find a higher-paying job.
DISCUSS A FINANCIAL ARRANGEMENT
If you’re comfortable gifting or loaning your partner money to put toward their debts, iron out all the details. Specify dollar amounts and write it all down.
Lambert, for example, started by offering a six-month, interest-free $2,000 loan to Mazza. Over time, they both felt comfortable with additional, larger loans.
Working with an attorney on a contract can help both partners feel at ease.
“A legally binding agreement would definitely make the responsibilities of each spouse/significant other clear and straightforward with the law holding them accountable,” Rahn says.
KNOW WHEN TO SAY ‘NO’
It’s OK to not want to take on someone else’s financial burden, even if you care about them. If your relationship is relatively new or you’re unsure of how it might progress, you can still cheer on your partner as they pay down their debt.
And if your partner won’t take your “no” for an answer, consider it a money red flag and proceed with caution.
“I wouldn’t have offered this if we were still in our honeymoon phase,” Lambert says. “At that point, we had already moved in together. He had already proven, time and time again, that he was reliable.”
NerdWallet: Money red flags can make or break a couple
Sara Rathner is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @SaraKRathner.