My boyfriend, whom we'll call Peach, exhaled slowly. I could feel the nervousness emanating from his body: His leg twitched and he drummed his fingers on the table. Our moment of truth had finally arrived. After several years of being together, it was time to get naked for the first time — financially.
Peach steadied himself, looked me square in the eye, and told me his number. It wasn't the number you're thinking of, though it did raise the specter of a kind of STD: sexually transmitted debt.
The majority of millennials carry some form of debt. Even those of us who were fortunate enough to escape the clutches of student loans will likely be yoked to them in marriage. I made my college decision based on the desire to graduate debt-free, but I’d fallen in love with someone without the privilege to do the same.
Peach and I casually chatted about money early on in our relationship, but it wasn’t until we realized marriage could be a possibility that I asked him to share his number. As a type-A personality, I wasn’t willing to discuss engagement or marriage without knowing the financial situation in which I’d find myself after an "I do."
Student-loan debt is not a deal-breaker to me, but credit-card debt is a red flag and major cause for concern. Fortunately, Peach never tussled with consumer debt but merely took out loans in order to finance his undergraduate education. He managed to pay for his graduate degree out of pocket by working full-time — a decision that kept us long-distance for nearly four of our five years together, but a sacrifice worth making to save him tens of thousands of dollars.
I believed it was unfair to ask Peach to strip down in front of me while I got to stay bundled up in the comfort of being debt-free. So after he disclosed his debt burden, I in turn shared my net worth — a number very few people know.
There are plenty of personal-finance enthusiasts who believe in complete transparency. Share your income, how much you pay for rent, what your investment portfolio looks like. We need to talk about money, after all. While I agree it’s imperative money becomes less taboo, I also don’t feel a need to shout my net worth from the digital rooftop. Because I’m not transparent about my net worth, sharing it with Peach was an intimate moment for the two of us that showed him how much I trust and love him. It also opened up the conversation about how each of us believes money should be handled in marriage.
Sharing our numbers didn’t mean we suddenly swapped ATM pins and ran to get a joint bank account. Instead, it provided a foundation for creating hypothetical scenarios about how to handle money if we decided to get married (important after five years of dating). Peach immediately became defensive, insisting that he would take care of his debt. I appreciated the gesture, but retorted that it wasn’t fair to keep a marital ledger. Why should he exclusively carry the burden of debt repayment, when our financial decisions before and after marriage would impact each other? We could combine forces and get rid of his debt in a relatively quick time.
I don’t believe all married couples should have joint banking accounts. There are arguments for and against — and each couple must figure out the best way to merge money. But handling debt should absolutely be a team effort. Otherwise, it can quickly become a breeding ground for resentment.
Our current hypothetical strategy would be for the two of us to live off my salary, while using Peach’s salary almost exclusively to pay down his debt (plus some contributions to an emergency fund and retirement account). This way, Peach retains ownership over his debt by making all the payments with money he earns, but I also feel like part of the team by financially supporting our day-to-day expenses. Plus, I’d prefer he not waste money on an engagement ring, which frees up a chunk to go toward debt repayment.
Our early debt conversation made it easy for the two of us to be transparent in other money conversations. It also helped us develop a team mind-set about finances before being legally tied to each other. We’re open about chatting money now, because we were willing to have uncomfortable conversations early.
These conversations can also help people determine if a partner is actually is a good fit. Finances are a leading cause of contention in relationships. So why enter a marriage if you can’t have honest discussions with your partner or see major red flags like credit-card abuse, routinely missing payments, or refusing to deal with existing debt? Love might make us blind, but that isn’t a passable excuse to lenders, bankers, and credit bureaus.
This post originally appeared on Broke Millennial.