In the LearnVest Personal Stories series, everyday people share the details of their money lives, discussing the individual choices they’ve made and how it’s impacted their financial journey.
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.
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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 10 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.
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 fell 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.
Falling Hard for the First Time
I met my husband, James, a month after my 30th birthday in December 2009 outside a Duane Reade on 34th Street amid the hustling and bustling streets of New York City. There were so many things that I loved about him as we got to know each other. He was gentle, playful, laid-back, supportive and respectful ... in addition to having the nicest smile I have ever seen.
As we started dating, I became super attentive to how he handled money. He was neither extremely extravagant (which would worry me) nor was he an obsessive tightwad (which would reinforce my belief about scarcity and be a major turnoff.) In fact, he seemed responsible.
On most dates, he paid. When I paid, he would make sure to leave the tip. When he picked a place to go, it was neither over-the-top extravagant nor obviously chintzy. We found a way to enjoy what New York City had to offer without going broke. We went out to dinner, to plays, snowboarding—and focused more on getting to know, rather than impressing, each other.
On Valentine's Day of 2010, after three months of dating, James, who was then 33, asked me to date him exclusively. In our respective cultures, Ghanaian and Antiguan, a move like that implied marriage in the near future. I was really excited about the prospect of being his wife and building a life together.
On Valentine's Day of 2010, after three months of dating, James, who was then 33, asked me to date him exclusively.
Even though it seemed like a relatively short time, we had already gotten into such a groove. We spent hours on the phone talking about anything and everything. Our worldviews meshed; we could respectfully disagree; we laughed all the time; we just understood each other deeply. I trusted him with my feelings and my heart, which was something I hadn’t readily done with men I had dated or known longer. But I needed to be sure that we were fundamentally compatible.
Our First Money Conversation
One month later, James told me that he loved me on a park bench in front of his favorite lake. I told him I was in love with him too.
This was a new, unfamiliar feeling. And it was scary. I didn’t have any immediate relationship role models I could emulate. To be honest, I was experiencing a bit of cognitive dissonance.
On the one hand, here was this man I loved—who showed me that he was reliable, lovable and earnest. But then there was the illogical, consuming belief that you shouldn’t let men get close to you because they couldn't be trusted in general, and especially when it came to money. Since I wanted love and logic to prevail, I started to ask James more targeted questions to help drown out my doubt.
Student loans, I figured, were a safe starting point—everyone and their mama with a college degree has some type of student loan. So, over dinner one night, I was able to slide in, "So, do you have any student loans?" James told me he didn't—he had paid his way through college with two part-time jobs. Hearing that made me feel safe.
And I related to what he'd said: I told him I'd received loan forgiveness on my undergraduate debt and had received a partial scholarship to get my masters in bilingual childhood education. I, too, had worked two part-time jobs in order to begin a career as an elementary school teacher without the burden of student loan debt.
After that conversation, I thought we were on the right track.
100 Hard Questions
Six months later, James started to use the "m" word more openly. By this time, I was becoming more confident that I knew my soon-to-be husband holistically—culturally, politically and financially.
Also, around that time, we had started a tradition we called our "Relationship Review." We agreed that every six months we would get away to reconnect, reflect on our relationship and plan for the future.
Since we were openly talking about marriage, I thought we could use some of our time together to get to the nitty-gritty—to tackle all of those topics that people in love tend to avoid because they don’t want to come down off the “love high.” But James already knew that I wasn't that type of gal.
Maybe it was the teacher and writer in me, but I loved clarity; I loved to ask questions. I loved to know details. So it was no big surprise to James when I whipped out the book "The Hard Questions: 100 Questions to Ask Before You Say 'I Do', " as we lounged on the beautiful queen-sized bed in our Waldorf Astoria suite—which I'd nabbed at a deep discount on a Living Social deal.
When he saw the book, he grinned, propped himself up on a pillow and asked me to choose the first topic of discussion.
The book covers all aspects of marriage—sex, family life and housekeeping, But I turned directly to the section on finances for two reasons: First, I was confident that I would know all of the answers, and moreover, I thought it would be an easy win for us as we worked through more challenging topics like handling in-laws or deciding whether to have children.
I loved to ask questions. I loved to know details. So it was no big surprise to James when I whipped out the book "The Hard Questions: 100 Questions to Ask Before You Say 'I Do'"
And that night in the Waldorf Astoria is when I learned that James, my hardworking husband-to-be, had $19,000 worth of credit card debt for outstanding car payments, medical bills, back taxes to Uncle Sam, and what he categorized as “accumulated life expenses."
His Surprise Financial Twist
My mouth nearly hit the floor. I realized that in all of my student loan spelunking, I had never even touched on credit card debt. I had wrongly assumed that a lack of student loan debt equated to debt-free living.
To boot, my African prince had poor credit—a 550 credit score to be exact. All of my fears around men, family and money seemed to have manifested themselves in that moment. It didn't make sense that a man who had roommates, had been driving the same car for seven years, and refused to allow me to buy him any new clothes or shoes because he thought it was wasteful and unnecessary, did not have a sense of urgency when it came to being debt-free. He would get around to paying it, he explained, but he didn't want to cut into his savings to do so.
I told him that I loved him, but I would not marry him with all of that debt.
In that beautiful hotel room, I told him that I was not going to marry a man who would put me in the red. He had to clean up his credit and debt by the time that we said "I do." Before we left the hotel the next night, he promised he would work on his credit score and eliminate most of his debt by the time that we married. And since we'd started dating, he'd always been a man of his word, so I believed him.
Getting Down to Zero
A year later, in May 2011, James popped the question. He had gone out with his friends one night, but I stayed over at his place. When he got back, he woke me up and said, “Babes, promise me that you won’t cry,” and in his true-to-form, laid-back way, he pulled out the ring and asked me to marry him. It was simple, sweet, perfect.
We married in November 2012. It was an intimate, exquisite wedding of 25 close friends and family members that took place in my mother’s living room and which we both paid for in cash.
By the time we married, James was able to pay back $16,000 of the $19,000 he owed without much input from me. We'd moved in together eight months prior to getting married, and the few times I asked about his progress, he shared very little. This didn't necessarily bother me. James was about action, and I respected his request for space. I may have been the reason for his financial journey, but it was something he felt that he had to do alone.
Between the time of our heart-to-heart about money in the hotel, the proposal and the wedding, James kept his word. He improved his credit by applying for a secure credit card with a $500 limit. He went from a credit score of 550 to 715 by keeping his credit-to-debt ratio low. He cut down on the number of snowboarding trips he took, and his annual “Fellas Only” trip was local that year. He even dipped into his savings, something he had wanted to avoid, to reduce the amount of debt he had.
How We Fared in Our First Year
James and I have been happily married for a little over a year and are debt-free. Living this way gives us the freedom to plan for our future without the fear of not being able to fund it, and our money conversations are short and drama-free.
We don’t fight about spending, because we've established personal and household spending limits. We also created a household budget and divided up our roles. For example, I am in charge of making sure the rent is paid on time. He is in charge of car payments and utilities. Moreover, we decided to create joint savings and checking accounts, while still maintaining our respective, separate accounts.
What’s ironic yet refreshing about my arguably obsessive, unyielding expectations around men, money and financial responsibility is that that stance has now made money a non-issue in my marriage. What’s also pretty hilarious is that James now thinks he's better at handling the finances than I am. He cracks jokes about my accounting skills, claiming I can’t add or subtract. But it’s OK, because I know the number zero. And that is how much debt we have.
I think it is in every couple’s best interest to be proactive about discussing money. In hindsight, I believe that it saved our marriage even before we got to the altar.
Kara Stevens is the founder of the personal finance and lifestyle blog The Frugal Feminista.