Financial Snooping

December 11th, 2008, by

Q: I know I shouldn’t have done it, but when home alone one night, I went through my fiancé’s financial papers. I was shocked to find out he’s carrying a lot more debt than he’s ever shared with me: around $5,000 in credit card debt, $9,000 in bank/car loans and $84,000 in student loans. I also found overdue cell phone statements and other monthly bills. His salary is around $70,000 a year, but with all the bills plus a condo mortgage, he’s barely breaking even each month.

My mind is blown! I was always taught the benefit of maintaining good credit, saving, making sound investments and not to use credit cards to pay for things I can’t afford. At age 29, I have an excellent credit rating, own my own home and investment commercial real estate, have $15,000 between my 401(k) and savings and no debt.

I’m so hurt that my fiancé has such great entrepreneurial aspirations but can’t seem to manage financial affairs. (He believes his financial situation is under control.)

Am I overreacting? Is his situation manageable? How do I approach talking with him about it? Having a husband who I can’t trust to be open and smart with money is, honestly, a deal-breaker.

A: So, were you also taught not to snoop in other people’s files?

The problem is you can’t take the moral high road when you violated your fiancé’s privacy. His financial situation was his to tell you. You are not his wife yet.

Now you need to come clean and apologize. And you don’t get to say you’re sorry and then immediately launch into what a financial mess he’s in. The financial conversation you definitely need to have is going to have to come much later, if he forgives you—which I do hope he does.

After he forgives you, arrange for another meeting to discuss both your finances. And I mean both your finances. Don’t play his mother, scolding him for overdue bills or his massive debt loan. To be sure, he’s got a lot of debt, and that isn’t good. However, together, you two will be earning a six-figure salary with enough to help pay down his debt and build a better financial life.

Oh and yes, you read right, if you decide to get married before he pays off all that debt, his debt and his income become all your debt and all your income. Legally, he’s responsible for the debt he’s brought into the marriage. However, I believe that when you get married, everything is shared—your love, your bed, your friends, family, food, space and, yes, debt and income.

Therefore, you are right to be concerned. Money issues are one of the top reasons couples fight. Although it’s not really the money that causes the fights, but the reason why people mismanage, hoard, overspend, etc. that results in conflict.

There are three things I would recommend.

First, do not get married without getting premarital counseling. Make sure you sign up for a program that includes a really good financial section. The better counseling programs have the couples share credit reports, credit scores and all financial information. In counseling, you can explore whether your fianc is financially reckless or just needs to learn to budget better. You should both learn some tools to help you manage your money together. It could be he’s just not a good money manager. It appears you are; so perhaps you should be the family treasurer once you get married.

I might also point out you are not debt free yourself. Unless you purchased your home and that commercial real estate property with cash, you are in debt too. If you lost your job, could you pay the mortgage note for both those properties from your savings? And if so, for how long?

Second, I would recommend you get my book, Your Money and Your Man: How You and Prince Charming Can Spend Well and Live Rich. In it, you will find several chapters on how to handle your money as a married couple. There’s a great chapter on setting up rules for how to manage your money together.

Finally, I would humbly approach your fiancé with what you did and your concerns. You talk about trust, but you broke his by breaking into his files. However, you are right that, ultimately, you both need to be open and honest about your finances before you get married.

As I write in my book Your Money and Your Man, money may not be able to buy you love, but conflicts about it can certainly bankrupt your relationship.

Last modified: April 18, 2011 at 2:50 pm