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Dear Penny: My boyfriend is deep in debt. He thinks it’s a joke

Being in a relationship with someone who manages money poorly is exhausting, the advice columnist writes.
[Getty Images]
[Getty Images] [ Getty Images ]
Published Mar. 15
Updated Mar. 15

Dear Penny,

My boyfriend of two-ish years lives with me in my apartment. We cohabitate very well, but we’re looking to move out of state together at some point.

The problem is, he has debt from credit cards from many years ago and owes the IRS taxes. He always brushes it off like it’s a joke when I ask him about it.

I want to build a future with him, but I’m afraid his poor financial decisions will catch up to him. How do I get him to take this seriously?

-Lost

Dear Lost,

Cohabitating well together isn’t just about splitting the chores and agreeing on what to watch on Netflix. Money is a huge part of the equation. But it’s easy to ignore just how important it is when you’re in the early stages of living together.

If you were sharing your apartment with a roommate, you probably wouldn’t care much about their finances. Your mutual financial goals would be limited to paying rent and the electric bill on time. I’m guessing you wouldn’t care if they were deep in debt or owed back taxes as long as they kept shouldering their share of expenses.

Robin Hartill
Robin Hartill [ The Penny Hoarder ]

But it’s different when you move in with a romantic partner. You’re not just sharing a living space. You’re sharing your lives. One person’s poor decisions with money become more and more of a problem for the other person, particularly when the goals become bigger than paying next month’s rent. Yet early on, it’s easy to treat this as a roommate situation and pretend their financial disaster is a non-issue as long as they pay their portion of the bills.

The truth is, being in a relationship with someone whose finances are a disaster is exhausting. Your money has to do twice the work when only one of you is concerned about money. Every raise you get feels like half a raise. You can reach a savings goal, yet you’ll feel like you only made it halfway.

The issue isn’t so much about who contributes what. There are plenty of couples who are equal partners, even though one person makes much less or has major debt. But the problem here is that you’re taking on the weight of worrying about money for two people.

Unfortunately, I don’t know of any surefire way to get your boyfriend to start taking his debt seriously. But what you can do is show him that you’re taking it seriously. Tell him what you told me — that you want to build a future with him, but you’re afraid his finances will make that difficult for both of you.

I’d be careful not to frame this in terms of his “poor financial decisions,” though. I don’t know how your boyfriend wound up in this mess. Certainly, there are plenty of reasons a person could wind up with debt not because of their own misjudgments, but because life pulled a whammy on them. Really, the reasons for your boyfriend’s debt don’t matter, though.

His past poor decisions aren’t what will spell doom for your relationship. The real problem is that he’s continuing to make poor decisions. Building a future together will be impossible as long as he treats his debt like a joke.

Do you think your boyfriend knows what he needs to do and is simply putting it off? Or do you think he has no clue what to do? If he’s been avoiding this for a long time, it could be that joking is his way of masking the fact that he’s petrified of dealing with debt collectors and the IRS.

The other thing I want you to think about is whether your boyfriend is generally a responsible person. If he isn’t great with money but in general has things together, that’s much different than if his whole life is a mess.

If your boyfriend is open to working on his finances once he sees how important this is to you, you could give him a couple of pointers. Sometimes when someone has lots of debt, they have no clue how much they owe and who they owe it to. Pulling your free credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.com can be a good starting point. Most people can get approved for an IRS payment plan within a few minutes without talking to a human and spread the bill over 72 months in many cases.

These are his problems, though. You can offer to help him get on the right track. But he needs to be the one to fix them.

If he’s willing to start addressing his debt, that’s a good sign that he’s serious about your future together. But until he’s willing to take action, please don’t take this relationship any further by moving to another state together. Building a future with someone isn’t worth it if the weight of it rests entirely on your shoulders.

Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to AskPenny@thepennyhoarder.com.