From a recent Savage Love column:
Last night I found out that she has $90k more debt than I thought —$170k total. I found out this information from the bank’s loan application, not from her. I asked her countless times to sort out all of her debt and to figure out who she owes and how much so we can make a plan for a future. Wedding, children, schools, house, etc.. So, I developed a ten year plan to pay off our loans, buy a house, save for children’s future. Now with this new debt, we can’t pay her stuff off for twenty years.
Her lack of knowledge about her finances comes from laziness and apathy, not malice. She didn’t lie on purpose. She simply never bothered to do what she needed to do to make a plan. I’m pissed. I don’t know if I want to commit another ten years of my life to paying off her education, especially when now we can’t afford a house. I want vacations. I want a car. I want furniture. I want to go out to dinner sometimes. I want a wedding. I want college funds for my children. I don’t see any of this happening now. What should I do? — Fiancé Finance Fiasco
I thought Dan Savage’s quickie response to this letter was pretty dismissive and that the situation isn’t as black-and-white as his reply would indicate. Of course, if the LW thinks about it and decides that obtaining a certain lifestyle — a nice house, furnishings, a car, kids, vacations, etc., — as quickly as possible is more important than whom he shares those things with, then he should probably MOA. But maybe, just maybe, this letter, written one day after the LW discovered from the bank that his girlfriend of six years had 90K more debt than he knew of reflected a moment of panic and utter disappointment and not the entirety of his feelings for his girlfriend. Maybe the disappointment — and sheer shock — the LW feels isn’t so much over the sudden change in his plans for the future and the “game-of-life crap,” as Dan Savage calls a house and kids and cars and vacations, but in discovering that the woman he hoped to enjoy those things with in the near future is, at best, far more financially irresponsible than he imagined and, at worse, potentially dishonest. These are all big blows to deal with and it’s understandable that, on day two of processing them, the LW may not be singing the praises of his girlfriend and swearing to stand by her side no matter what.
LW, if you’re reading this, I suggest you put the house-buying on hold and instead make an appointment for you and your girlfriend with a financial advisor. With the help of a professional, you may learn that what you believe is now a 20-year plan to pay off your girlfriend’s debt can be reduced considerably, maybe even without sacrificing too much of the game-of-life stuff you’re dreaming of. Once you have your financial ducks more in a row, you can do some soul-searching about what is most important to you.
Dan Savage is right that if a timetable for obtaining stuff matters more to you than whom you share those things with, then the answer about what to do is obvious. Unlike Dan, I suspect, though, that despite writing in for advice — again, one day after getting the blow that your girlfriend, with whom you were about to buy a house, has 170K of debt — you have not settled on the answer and that such an answer doesn’t seem as easy as deciding what’s important to you. And that’s because you are now in the unenviable position of trying to figure out if your girlfriend is who you thought she was. You have to decide, with this new information, not whether you love her or she means a lot to you, but whether she’s lifelong-partner material. You thought she was. Does 90k change that? Does knowing that she has a history of financial irresponsibility change that? You know that what the future you dreamed of with her looks a little different now. Can you still envision a happy future with her? If not, then you know your answer.
What might be a trickier question is whether you can envision a happy future with someone else. Are you willing to leave your girlfriend, whose flaws you know, for the chance to build a different future with someone else, whose flaws you don’t yet know? We all have our debt, metaphorically speaking. The key is to find someone whose debt we can can deal with and who can deal with the debt we carry. Maybe it IS pretty black-and-white, after all.
In his column, Dan Savage posed a question to his readers and I’ll ask you all the same: Would you rather find out that your partner cheated on you or that he or she was 170k in debt?
Related column: “Should I Tell My Boyfriend About My Debt?”
If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at firstname.lastname@example.org.