I Refused to Get Married—Until He Paid Off His Debt

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kara stevensIn our Money Mic series, we hand over the podium to people with controversial views about money. These are their views, not ours, but we welcome your responses.

Today, one woman shares how she laid down the financial law for her husband-to-be—by postponing their nuptials until he paid off his debt and rebuilt his credit. 

I Get It From My Mama

I grew up in a home with a lot of contradictory messages around money. My mother was the first of ten children; she was also the first to immigrate to the United States from Antigua. Because of her ambition and birth order, she became the unspoken matriarch and surrogate caretaker of her siblings, both as children and adults.

Growing up, I saw this burdensome role leave her emotionally and financially depleted. She grew resentful and sad when her siblings would borrow money and never repay it. I grew up thinking that family members were never to be trusted in money matters.

Simultaneously, though, she instilled in me the value of being financially self-sufficient and the importance of small-scale entrepreneurship. My mom, a registered nurse by trade, also ran Mary’s Place, a home-based boutique in our living room, after work and on the weekends.

She taught me to take pride in being able to buy things for myself and use my creativity to generate wealth and different streams of income. Before I could legally work, I was able to earn extra money babysitting and filing documents and typing in a neighbor’s home office.

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When it came to men and money, my mother’s views were not that positive. She supported my father through medical school by working two jobs while taking care of me and my brother. He later abandoned us and returned to Antigua, making her a single mother and sole breadwinner in one swoop. Her opinions weren’t wishy-washy either: When she spoke of men, she always warned me that they would strip me of all of my money because they were predators and financial scavengers.

All of these messages groomed me to be a hard-core saver with a latent phobia of poverty and a deep disdain for male moochers, family freeloaders and professional women who were financially reckless. In particular, I was wary of men who didn’t want to complete all of their education or establish themselves financially before marriage. In hindsight, I now realize that my need to proactively save and invest was rooted in a childhood scarcity belief about money.

My financial forecast almost always predicted that there would be rain.

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  • MsCricket

    Your approach is certainly not for everyone. I think that money is important, but not the most important thing in a relationship. What if he had not danced to your tune — you could have missed out on the most important relationship of your life..

    • flours

      I agree, I married my husband with $50k of student loans that had been in deferment because he was diagnosed with a bone disease and had not been able to work. I made it clear, however, that I would not be responsible for his debt…He had started working again when we met and has worked hard to start to pay back his loans and rebuild his credit…his attitude towards his financial responsibilities was the important thing for me. He doesn’t make a great salary, but he stays in school part-time to keep his payments lower until he can find something that pays better. But he owns his debt and is making strides to pay it off. And that was the critical piece for me.

      • GG

        While money is not THE most important thing in a relationship, it is high on the list. Money is how we pay for everything – food, clothes, transportation, shelter – all of the essential and non-essential things in life. Communication issues, money and infidelity are the top three reasons cited for divorce. While the author’s views on money may be more rigid than most, she was exactly right to discuss debt prior to marriage. You’d be surprised how many people don’t. She didn’t say she didn’t want to marry him at all, but she needed to know that he was actively working on reducing his debt. She has every right to because once married, that becomes her responsibility as well. You have to know that you’re on the same page with your partner financially. Otherwise, you’re doing your relationship and yourself a disservice by not discussing it at length.

    • Reese Rigby

      Everyone has different priorities. However, since money is the # 1 reason for marital issues and divorce (consistently edging out infidelity) it certainly bears thinking of.

      If he had not danced to her tune, as you put it, she likely would not have married him. It’s pretty clear from the article that she feels VERY strongly about financial matters.

  • Diana Mitchell

    Kara, this is undoubtedly the most inspiring story that I have read on Learnvest. I treasure how you have taken your negative messages about men and money and turned them into positives. I wish you and your husband continued success. Thanks for reminding me that we of what is possible.

  • Linda

    Smart lady! It’s so not about “dancing to your tune” as another poster suggested. It’s about knowing yourself, being honest about your priorities, and not minimizing what’s important to you (something that will cause resentment later on). A successful marriage is going to involve many compromises over the years, so it’s important to be in sync on the truly core issues right at the start so you have a strong foundation. Much happiness to you both!

  • Eastwestcoaster

    What about the new millennial generation with over 100k in student loan debt that are in 30 year loan payback status? Not to mention the interest on those. That would take forever to pay off unless they are forgiven and get married. This makes sense for some people, but definitely not in a lot of millennial generation people’s lives. You can only pay off so much. If there is a spending problem, that’s a different issue, but if it’s just debt from student loans, there is no point. Money isn’t everything either, it is about having a good relationship.

    • Sarah Jean Hansen

      Not all millennials made that decision :) Worked hard, got some scholarships, chose an employable major, and lived frugally for the first few years after college. Will be paying off the balance of my student loans next month.

      Oh, and did I mention that I live in the most expensive city in the US right now (SF) and still manage to save approx 40% of my take-home pay each month?

      It’s all about priorities… even for the millennials.

      - 2010 Grad

      • Sarah Jean Hansen

        PS – Kudos to the author for standing her ground. Finances have been the grounds for divorce in far too many marriages… good to approach the elephant in the room and make sure both parties are aligned prior to making the leap!

      • http://immigratingwithapurpose.com Immigrating With a Purpose

        As a 2008 grad who lived in an equally expensive city (NYC) I don’t think it’s as neat and easy as “work hard, get some scholarships, and choose an employable major.” I’ve been employed since graduating, have a great credit score and have money in savings, but I also have a ton of student-loan debt. Sometimes life doesn’t work out the way you planned, plain and simple. I’ll get it paid off eventually, but I think there is a broader conversation that needs to be had surrounding when “good debt” (as Alexa Von Tobel describes it as in Financially Fearless) becomes so much that it’s bad debt, just like credit card debt. That conversation is happening on a national scale as we type these comments. All of that being said, I do agree with the author’s choice. I wouldn’t marry me with all this debt right now!

        • Sarah Jean Hansen

          Absolutely agree – apologies if my post came off as a little harsh. I just see so many of my peers making poor decisions and yet at the end of the day we’re all thrown in the bucket of “millennials with money problems” and that has become an excuse for so many individuals our age to make poor decisions. Sometimes I seriously feel like I’m the only one who doesn’t live paycheck to paycheck – and I’m also the only one saying no to Tahoe trips! (And don’t even get me started on the “find your passion” thing… I can’t count the number of unemployed actress friends I have.)

          Congrats on keeping up your savings in a city like NYC – I know that must be difficult!

      • Eastwestcoaster

        2007 B.S. grad and 2011 Master’s grad here. I worked my butt off in college and in the summers when I could work because my major was so demanding, to get to where I am and I’m employed by a great place. I did landscaping, worked for a lumber company, and did several internships in my field during the summers and when I since my career involves being outside at times, I always tried to get experience with grad students because that went farther than working at night. I needed that night time for studying or I would’ve failed out of college. Plus, you need some down time in college or you get way too overstressed. Without my master’s I would be making far less money and wouldn’t get a chance to move up the ranks as quickly as I have right now. I knew that the student loan debt was terrible, but I thought it was worth it and so far it has been. There was no way I had any time to work my way through college. I got about 5 scholarships and they paid for my first semester pretty much. I also got one while in college, which paid 1/3 of my living expenses for the year. Bottom line is that in some people’s case’s this doesn’t work or apply. Student loan debt is good debt except for when you got to look for a house. My credit score is well above the guy in this story when they first started dating, too.
        - 2011 Master’s grad

        • Meeky

          Eastwestcoaster: It sounds like you are taking this post the wrong way. The story isn’t a personal attack on student loan debt, nor is it making the claim that people with debt are unworthy of marriage. The whole point of this post was to encourage having an open discussion before marriage and being honest about what matters to YOU regarding both your and your partner’s finances. As your life experiences are bound to be different from those of the author, your view of money and how you want to discuss it in your relationship will also be different… and that’s okay. Congratulations on your Master’s and moving up in your field and good luck with everything.

    • Meeky

      Just because you have a 30 year loan payback, doesn’t mean you have to take 30 years to pay it back. I think education is a smart investment and prioritizing paying off educational debt is also smart. How can you start a life with someone that may include kids, a home and retirement savings if you drag out paying your debts back? Life costs money and if you are more eager to borrow than you are to pay back, it will put strain on your “good relationship.” I’m 31 years old and recently finished paying off my student loans and the relief I feel is well worth it. I felt smothered and hopeless when I had all those loans (approx. 45K) and I think that feeling would have spilled over into my relationship making me not a good choice for a life partner. It wasn’t good for my emotional well-being so I couldn’t imagine it being good for my relationship.

      • Eastwestcoaster

        Considering that I’m about to get married and I know me and my fiancé are in a combined over 200K in debt because we worked out butts off to get master’s degrees in our field of study and are using our degrees currently. The interest alone is costing me about 1/4 to 1/3 of our paychecks. When we get raises, maybe this will change. Congrats for paying off your loans so quickly, but not all are so fortunate. We felt like it was worth it or else we’d never be able to move up in our field. Unfortunately, it comes at a price that hasn’t been regulated as this article states, to go to some of the best universities in your field, even with scholarships. We would have to wait 30 years at our current wage rate to get married depending on loan forgiveness. So, why would we do that? We are both in the same situation and knew that and it is something that will be there in the background and are okay living with together, but not something that we think about all the time.

  • MichaelP

    Amen!

  • lskn

    When we married, I had about $20K in student loan debt (and two master’s degrees and a PhD) and my husband had about $30K in credit card debt that he accrued when his industry went south in the recession and his sales commissions tanked. We were both in our 40s and committed to our faith and values about not sleeping together or living together before marriage.
    Some friends said I should make him pay off his debt before we got married. I didn’t, because I knew there was no way he could unless we were living together on my income. We got married, I refinanced his debt with a low-interest home equity loan, and within 18 months his debt was paid off. He stayed at a job he didn’t like all that time to make it possible to get rid of the debt. I don’t regret for a minute not marrying him when I did.

  • erica o

    Great story! I applaud you for requesting this from your partner, I too would do the same (maybe not request that he be debt free) I would have to see a change in his behaviour that shows he is committed to reducing his debt. I’m a big believer in actions and not lip service. Congrats on your 1 yr of marriage!

  • 2deuces

    This is an amazing story of strong beliefs and difficult decisions. Like all good stories there were many possible ending; most of them bad. I’m glad this ending was happy.

    Flours uses a term below that helps define the issues for me. She talks about her husband “owning” his debt. Many of us will are likely to get into unavoidable debt through college, housing, illnesses, etc. Sometimes it is not fair, but there it is. The important thing is not having debt but whether we take responsibility for that debt – or if we want someone else to take care of it for us.

  • bellona

    This is by far the best Money Mic story I’ve read to date. Please tell me that you decided to have children? You seem like you have an amazing healthy, communicative and mutually respectful relationship and as a women you possess many inspiring qualities that a daughter would be fortunate to learn from. Congrats to you on living a life well-reflected, learning from your past and shaping a future with purpose.

  • Redo Over

    I did now I wish I did not. Even I myself was in Debt I also make more money then he do and I was working on getting out of my Debt until I got married then everything just went wrong where the money was concern. His mind thought was you make more money then I so you need to make sure things are handle and I will take care of what I can which most of the time was very little. Being married I know that his problems are mine Now on top of all that he has been diagnosed with diabetes now that leaves less money the every. Please think, ask questions, reevaluate, have a plan in place so the both of you can meet your goals.

  • pacman

    mortgage and car payments do not amount to zero debt, you really cant do math

  • veiland

    First, I want to applaud the author for doing the right thing and sticking to her guns. I’m thrilled she’s enjoying her ‘Happily Ever After’ with her African prince and that they’re making the compromises necessary to make it to happily ever after.

    I’ve read the comments on this story and I believe that so many of the posters are getting caught up in the ‘Love conquers all’ mentality of relationships and forgetting the hard work necessary to make LIFE work. That’s a mistake. If you marry someone with a significant amount of debt, that debt will not simply disappear. There’s a difference between marrying someone with student loans (which I see as an investment in self, as long as they aren’t unreasonable. $100K is unreasonable, especially if it was for undergrad.) versus credit card debt. CC Debt is irresponsible spending, robbing Peter to pay Paul, instead of paying for what you need when you have the money. That’s what she objected to and she was right to do so.

    This author was VERY clear about the fact that her childhood experiences, and the experiences of her mother, shaped her financial views. She learned to work hard, save, and to look for a partner who shared her values about hard work, thrift, and security in addition to the romantic ideals we all want. She did the RIGHT thing by not ignoring the fact that money is the root cause behind so many divorces. Also, as an African American woman, I particularly understand her struggle because, right or not, we are seen as taking care of everyone else, to our detriment. That is exactly what happened to her mother and she learned from that example. She waited for a man who could take care of himself.

    Learning that her prince had empty pockets shocked her, but what she did NOT do is tell him ‘I’m leaving.’ Nope, she made it very clear that she would join her life with his when he had his financial life on track. If he had objected, that would have caused her to look deeper at James and determine if she really wanted to share her life with him and I’m guessing the answer would have been no and, again, I don’t blame her. Thankfully, her man was a stand up guy who realized that if he wanted to share his life with THAT woman, he needed to get his life on track. He paid his debt by making the hard decisions we all have to (no weekends with the boys, dipping into savings, less money for leisure activities) and showed the woman he loved that he loved HER enough to sacrifice.

    That’s the real message of this story: be honest, learn from the history and mistakes of others, and determine what’s important to YOU in a relationship. If the author had compromised on that issue, she would not have been happy. Instead, she would have been nervous and fearful, always waiting for the day when the debt became too overwhelming for her. They will make it because they’re both strong individuals who love each other enough to make the sacrifices necessary to make the other happy and comfortable in that relationship. I think we can ALL take a lesson from this story. I certainly have.

    • Meeky

      Your comment is very well written and I thank you for making the difference between fairy tale love and reality. For a relationship to work, both partners must be willing to compromise for each other. After reading the comments I felt an overwhelming bias as if everyone expected her to compromise for her fiance even though, from the story, he seemed to think her request reasonable. I’m not sure if this is due to the social view of women and their expected roles or if there are just an overwhelming number of people who actually live in fairyland. But I love this story and I really appreciate the author sharing it with us. The ending is win-win. Her partner is financially healthy and she is feeling emotionally secure with her relationship despite the views she developed growing up. Bravo!

  • http://bethannesbest.com/ Beth Anne

    I have seen similar articles about people who won’t marry people with debt and there is even a dating site for people with good credit. The problem with some of these tactics is 9/10 you don’t know about the debt until you have already fallen in love, are engaged, and sometimes worse married. I would hate for someone not to marry me due to the amount of debt I have but I’m sure it happens. I do have s strict don’t let family borrow money policy.

  • LeeLee

    I loved this article! When my husband and I got married, we had our mortgage as our main source of debt. Both of us had paid off our car loans I had a few thousand left in student loans that I worked to pay off by the time we got married, because I wanted us to both start the marriage on equal footing without bringing in any unnecessary baggage. We discussed debt before our marriage, and we’re aggressively paying down our mortgage so that we will be debt free ASAP.

  • http://Www.debtfreeindubai.com desertscrooge

    The story has similarities except the other way round. My SO doesn’t have any debt. I, on the other hand, had about $35,000 in debt and decided I didn’t want to start married life in debt so I imposed paying it off on myself. 2 months and $2, 500 to go!!! :)

  • Minnie

    Money can make or break a relationship and I think it has merit.
    People are different in all aspects and how they handle/spend/save money is clearly an important issue.
    However, I think this is something that people SHOULD pay attention to and discuss before getting married.
    I was single for a very long time and I saved a lot of my money. I drove a 10 year old car to avoid payments, and to be able to take one vacation a year. I save and I don’t self indulge vey often.
    My husband; I did talk about money before I got married, and soon after, I found out the man was a sack with a huge hole in it, self indulgent, greedy, and drowning in debt. He brought my credit score down over 100 points.
    He is NEVER to blame! He thinks he is a financial genius and everybody else made mistakes. He has disillusioned me and I
    I thought I knew what he was about. I thought I made myself clear. Turns out he lied through his teeth. I resent him and wish I could afford a divorce.