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Newsflash: Weddings can get expensive. But even if you were able to pay for your big day in cash, there's a good chance one or both of you might still bring debt into your marriage. "Frankly, most people today have some form of debt," says Elle Kaplan, finance expert and author of Love the Hustle.
And not all debt, Kaplan says, is created equal. Each kind deserves a different action plan. "Working to pay off your long-term, low-interest student loan on time is one thing," she says. "Having five maxed-out credit cards is a very different story, and might signal other underlying financial issues that the other partner needs to be aware of."
So, before you walk the aisle, set time aside for full financial transparency. "It is a great sign for any marriage when a couple talks openly and honestly about their financial health," Kaplan says. "No, these conversations are not easy. Talking about money feels very personal, and it deals with a lot more than just money. Ease into this — I call it financial foreplay. It's essential for couples to be as comfortable and intimate financially as they are physically."
Once you're on the same page about each of your financial situations, it's time to come up with an action plan to pay down your debt and build good credit, together. After all, "when you are married, your credit is linked," Kaplan points out. "You no longer have an opinion on the matter of your partner's debt — you have a future that is tied to the outcome."
In general, it's smart to devise a payment plan that targets your highest-interest debt first. Paying off small debt in full, even if it's low-interest debt, also has its advantages; it gives you and your partner a sense of accomplishment, and eliminates one monthly bill. But sometimes, the action plan doesn't resemble a payment plan — it looks like diagnosing why you got into debt in the first place, and how you can prevent it in the future. "Paying down law school loans or a steep medical bill is very different than having a consistent overspending problem and racking up high-interest credit card debt," Kaplan says. "Something like a student loan will get paid down over time, but a chronic condition like living beyond your means or a love of gambling is not just going to go away. You need to separate out what is a one-time debt and what is an ongoing issue to get a handle on what you're walking into before you say 'I do.'"