By Joyce Oglesby

Q: “When you get married, does your husband’s past debt become your debt? We’ve been married for three years, and a sizable student loan suddenly appeared. This was something I knew nothing about until now, and he expects me to help pay this down with my savings. We’ve had a great relationship, but this has already brought tension. I don’t want a divorce, but now what?”

Joyce: Once we begin to categorize — his, hers, yours, mine — it takes the “ours” out of the time we have together.

These are areas in relationships that should always be discussed prior to marriage. If it was between the two of you and he was less than honest, at the risk of sounding pessimistic, you could be headed for more troubles in the future. Whereas it’s never a pleasant thing to come clean, all “historical dirt” should be swept out from under the rug when considering a life-long commitment. Many times these sorts of revelations don’t bother us initially. However, once we become comfortable in marriage, we become less tolerant of all baggage, whether past, present, or pending. The rules for marriage have certainly changed throughout the decades, but I personally believe it works best when two become one flesh. Now that you’ve had a bit of a surprise (and shock might be an even better word in your instance), let’s get a plan to keep you happily married while protecting your best interests.

1. Take a survey. Your tenor connotes no reason for concern until now, but assess his integrity to date. No one wants to pay off someone’s debts and/or education only to find the person enjoying its liberating benefits with someone else. If he’s given you no reason to question his integrity thus far, you have less reason for concern.
2. Assess your status — yours and his. It’s one debt for one marriage. If your desire is to relieve this tension and get back to the place you were, wrap your mind around a partnership. Everything successful in your marriage depends on it, from parenting to career success to retirement.
3. Put yourself on a budget. If you don’t have one, it’s high time you did. If you do, it is obviously going to have to be adjusted. Whether you use Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University plan or devise your own, these elements must be incorporated:

  • Cut out unnecessary expenditures. These might include frequent avenues of entertainment, such as movies or eating out, luxury grocery items, cable TV, sodas, pricey coffee, cigarettes, or drinking. Lose the habits that suck the life out of your money. You’ll be surprised how much fluff you can shear away.
  • Pay off small debts first as you continue to pay on this “surprise” one. As you pay off a smaller encumbrance, roll that money over to the next smaller, and so on. Eventually, you will have paid off several small debts and you’ll find several hundred more dollars being available to be applied to this larger school loan.
  • Do not forget to court your intimacy. Cutting out entertainment should never entail cutting out time together. It’s essential. In my book Economic Romance: 30 Ways for Loving on a Shoestring Budget, I write about the creative ways my husband and I, in our leaner years, found to keep romance alive. Without intimacy in place, you could find yourself misjudging the reason for the demise of your marriage.

4. Stay the course. Reducing and finally eliminating this debt will seem difficult and even burdensome at times. When it does, don’t lose sight of its temporary nature. As monstrous as it might appear, it will only become a beast if it steals your joy and/or destroys your marriage.
5. If he balks, beware. You and/or your children should not be the only ones sacrificing in this plan. Reward yourselves occasionally, but discipline is going to be critical. It will call for great sacrifice for the entire family, but, again, it’s a temporary offering.
6. You don’t necessarily have to empty your savings. Seek advice from a trusted financial adviser to ascertain the best strategy. Should you exhaust your savings or get a payment plan? Whether a lump-sum or staggered payment, either avenue will find you needing to recover from this large expenditure.
7. Look forward to the future. His education is helping to provide for your family. If he’s half the man you think you married, he’ll honor his marriage so that the two of you can live happily ever after.

If you truly are one, his debt is yours. Likewise, yours is his. In sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, till death do us part…true love never fails. For your protection, don’t ignore red flags. They send us warnings about truth.

Struggling with a relationship issue? Write Joyce Oglesby at You can also watch the Just Ask Joyce Show on a local television station near you or view it here.