In Other Words: “My Girlfriend Is $170k In Debt And Didn’t Even Know”

From a recent Savage Love column:

Love or money

I’m a 27-year-old male engaged to a 26-year-old female. We have been together 6 years. We met at college. We’ve lived together for almost three years. We have been saving to buy a house together. Well, I have been. She makes less than me and has a lot more debt than me. We got pre approved. We found a house, loved it, got the offer in. Offer accepted. Home inspection went well. Now we are at the stage where the bank needs us to sign 60 documents in order to actually get the house.

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?”


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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy@dearwendy.com.


  1. Same answer I gave on the original – cheating for sure! That level of non-mortgage debt – especially like this where it’s either due to financial irresponsibility or lying – is a deal breaker.

  2. ETA: I should say, a marriage deal breaker, though not necessarily a dating-but-not-looking-for-marriage deal breaker.

  3. wobster109 says:

    I’d prefer the cheating, if it’s a one-time thing! I’d get over a one-time affair faster than paying off 170k. But a string of continual, habitual cheatings may be worse than the debt. Hate to give a cop-out response, but it depends. I’d rather find out my partner had a drunken fling that they deeply regret than find out they were hiding 170k of debt right as we were buying a house. But I’d also rather find out about 170k debt in the early stages of dating than find out about a string of affairs years into a marriage.

  4. I would much rather be cheated on. They’re both breaches of trust but that money takes a lot more to pay off. I agreed with Dan’s advice when I saw it, but I also agree with Wendy. It’s easy for me to say I wouldn’t marry someone with that amount of debt going in, but if it’s something you find out much later…well it’s a different story. I would certainly need more time to decide on marriage let alone buying a home. if this woman really didn’t know she had that much more debt, that irresponsibility doesn’t bode well. And if we can’t have transparency with finances, I would question the honesty elsewhere in the relationship. And to me, 170k of debt versus 80k doesn’t seem like q huge difference actually. I think 80k of debt would absolutely be a deal breaker to me.

  5. I also thought his answer was pretty dismissive because, in my opinion, the problem isn’t just the amount of her debt, but her ignorance of the total and laziness about making a plan for how to deal with it. It isn’t just that the LW wants to be able to buy a house, a car, go on vacation, etc., I think it’s that he had wanted to do those things with her and probably thought they were on the same page and actively trying to make that happen, while she was just floating along without being totally honest with him (or herself!). It wouldn’t necessarily be a dealbreaker for me that someone owed that much, but not being aware of your financial situation and not being an adult about it would be.

  6. I disagree with his insinuation that the LW is petty for reconsidering a relationship where he found out his fiancee has been lying to him and is putting both their financial futures at risk. Sure it’s easy from the outside to say only love matters, but that’s bullshit. Money is a necessity in this world because it buys all those other necessities and it’s not overly materialistic to want someone on the same page as you in terms of how to spend money– this isn’t just the case of a rich dude and a poor lady and him looking down on her for being poor, but rather a lady who is not responsible with her money or living a lifestyle commensurate to her income. And also if your life plan involves kids, she is seriously jeopardizing their ability to provide for the kids which I think is not a small, inconsequential thing.
    And aside from all that, she has been lying about it even though it can affect him. This is a betrayal. The cheating parallel is well made, here. Essentially this girl has an ongoing affair with her credit cards, racking up debt and hiding it. This is not a one-time affair like a single huge impulse purchase, but a pattern of irresponsible and secretive behavior.
    As for whether I’d rather my husband be cheating on me or running up debt (assuming same caliber– long term debt vs long term affair), I think I’d prefer the debt by a very small margin, because of the intimacy involved in an affair, and also because it exposes me to STDs.

    1. RedRoverRedRover says:

      I agree with you, he was dismissive. I’ve seen first-hand what it’s like to be married to someone without responsibility for money – my mom married to my dad. She had a hell of a life due to his relationship with money. And now she has an insecure retirement (ie. the rest of her life) due to it. This is not a small thing. Love is great, but does it make up for a lifetime of stress and worrying? I don’t think so, personally.
      As to his question, I’d also rather find out about debt than cheating. For me, finding out about cheating means the marriage is over, I think. I don’t think I’m the kind of person who could get over that. The debt, we could work on. I would be disappointed but if I was already married I would get debt counseling, and maybe couples therapy, to get through it. And I’m pretty good at money so even if it got to the point where I handled it all and he just had a cash allowance, I would do it to keep the marriage if that was the only issue.
      If I were the LW, I don’t know what I’d do. This might be enough for me to break it off, honestly. We don’t have those levels of student loan debt here though, so I think it’s less acceptable for me. Like, 170k in debt here would mean almost all of it was consumer debt, which is absolutely ridiculous. I don’t think I’m willing to give up the life (and security!) I worked hard for to pay off someone else’s credit cards. That kind of debt is at the level of giving up on owning a home, or having one less kid than you wanted, or working 5 years longer than you planned (or all of those). It’s a huge, huge deal. The “game of life” comment was out of line, in my opinion.

      1. I agree with you, cheating… I do not think I would be able to stay married if I found that out. But on the other hand, if he managed to spend years racking up debt and not telling me about it… I’m not sure I would be able to stay married after that either. Even if debt you can pay down, broken trust is not so easily rebuilt.

        And yeah, I think in the LW’s shoes I think he should break it off. He states that he doesn’t want to take on all that debt, and I think that’s reasonable. Lucky he found out now and not years down the road after house and kids.

      2. RedRoverRedRover says:

        I think about the debt, it completely depends on whether he did it during the marriage or before. If he was just in denial about money, and it was his own money, and he wasn’t aware of how much it had added up – it’s frustrating, but I can see how it happens. People aren’t educated about debt, they’re scared of it, they don’t see how little things add up, they could have something big happen that takes a chunk of money and kind of “give up”, etc.
        Inside the marriage it would be a different story, because I’m aware of where all the money is, and he’d have to deliberately be hiding it from me. Plus he’d know that it’s affecting me too, that it’s not just his money but also mine. So that, I would consider a betrayal.
        Basically the cheating vs debt question is useless because it’s too broad. 🙂 Although any amount of cheating is a dealbreaker for me, while the debt depends on how/when it happened.

  7. Anonymousse says:

    I really don’t know if I’d prefer cheating over this. Yes, that’s a lot of debt. A lot. A scary amount, but it least it’s concrete and you could possibly settle for less.
    I’ve had shitty relationships with lots of cheating, and dated people who had their own issues and would accuse me of cheating. I can’t really imagine being able to completely regain trust, after cheating. In your mind, wouldn’t you always wonder? If my husband cheated on me, I’d hope we could get over it, but I don’t know if that really, truly happens. I think I’d always view him differently. It would ruin my perception of his integrity.

  8. artsygirl says:

    Arguments over money are the number one cause of divorce so Savage dismissing the LW’s worries is short sighted IMHO. The LW sounds very focused and Type A (has a ten year plan, budget, etc) while his GF sounds a lot more chaotic – and while this might work in their personal lives, it can be a big problem in financial lives. The fact that she did not know how much debt she had is very worrying. Of course, if it is all school debt (which he states) that is a lot less problematic than credit card. I completely agree with Wendy that seeking out the advice of a financial adviser would be ideal. There might be ways to consolidate her debt or shift it in a way that would drastically reduce the interest and make it more manageable. For example, if she works in the US for a not for profit, all federal school debt is forgiven after 10 years and a certain amount of payments.

    1. I would say school debt is much more problematic than credit. School debt does not go away. Is not a debt you can discharge in bankruptcy. And the interest alone can bury someone. You can’t wait a statutory 7 years of no contact/no payment and hope the debt goes away (as with credit cards).

      1. I think this is a value judgement not a financial one: Taking out student loans to get an education to increase your earning potential is “good” while maxing out credit cards to live above your means in designer clothes is “bad.”
        Of course, it’s possible to rack up credit card debt due to falling on bad times and it’s possible to pile on student loans changing your major a bunch of times or flunking classes and needed to retake them. Overall, I don’t think it’s worthwhile to put debt into value judgement categories like that. No matter how it was generated, 170k in debt and with no clue how much you owe and no plan to pay it back is irresponsible.

      2. Very true. Additionally, with that debt, it will lead to credit debt as well, with needing to buy necessities like groceries and hygiene products using credit because you’ll be paying your student loans from your checking account.

      3. artsygirl says:

        Yes, student debt does not disappear with bankruptcy but it is also a lot more flexible. I mentioned working at a not for profit but there are a lot of other examples such as loan debt is suspended if the holder returns to school full time. School loans can be consolidated fairly easily and there are a number of ways to pay them off (income adjusted, accelerated, etc.). I have a graduate degree which was paid for through loans. I have a degree in the humanities (and while my debt is a fraction of the LW’s GF, it is still high for my income). Because it is considered good debt – my credit score is high while if it was held at credit cards I would have a much harder time opening lines of credit.

  9. I would leave my partner for both cheating, and springing $170k of debt last minute. Both are serious breaches of trust and responsibility for me. It’s completely irresponsible of her to let it get so bad, to not follow up with it, to not even care that much about it. Just like cheaters don’t think of the effects their actions have on others, LW’s gf didn’t think of the consequences of her debt on her bf and their future together. Her debt will forever affect her credit report, their loan applications, mortgage rates, car payments, credit APRs, etc. She will also be unable to save for retirement, especially if collection agencies garnish her wages. It will fall 100% on the LW to completely take care of him, her, their kids, all the bills and payments, etc.

    I hate to say it, but he’s too old for this sh..stuff. He’s 3 years away from 30, it’s at this time you have to start thinking about your retirement, 401ks, roths, etc. Her debt will essentially cripple their family for a very, very long time. It will affect how the kids treat them too. Hypothetically, if they have kids now, and in 18 years they will go to college there will be no college fund for them. If you earn a good amount, their financial aid will be based on your combined salaries, and they’ll get less financial aid even though most of your salary will go to the debt and bills.

    Seriously, her debt is like Herpes. It will likely not go away, and will affect your life for ever (retirement savings? what savings? you’ll be working till you’re 80 or dead, whichever comes sooner.) Also consider that her debt will be increasing every year due to horrific interest rates. And if her balance keeps going up, interest rates will kill you. If you think that the 170k you have to pay will take 20 years, add on another 10 years to account for the interest, late fees, missed payments, etc.

  10. Yeah, I think a lot of us have known people like the LW’s girlfriend. I knew a couple that lost the house that the husband built – the home they raised their children in – because of the debt the wife was hiding from the husband. He thought they were ok, had no idea that she had this enormous pile of debt, until he saw the foreclosure notice that she was also trying to hide from him.

    I also knew a married couple with a husband who was hopelessly irresponsible with money. Like the LW’s girlfriend, no malice, just laziness. Didn’t bother to pay bills, file necessary forms at work, or do any of the other things you need to do to maintain a basic grown-up life. The wife ended up taking over all finances and paperwork, but it essentially broke their marriage.

    LW, if you love her, then stay together. But I wouldn’t marry or mingle your finances in any way.

    1. Jessibel5 says:

      Yeah, my uncle is in that situation. His wife grew up solidly upper middle class, maybe bordering on wealthy, and has absolutely no concept of debt and finances. It causes so many problems, because while they make a comfortable living, she’ll think nothing of spending 10k on something she wants and he can’t say boo about it, or telling him she wants something that’s 100k, and when he’s like “but we can’t afford that” she’s like “it’ll be fine, we’ll figure out a way to pay for it.” Then she gets pissed at him because she’s not getting what she wants and he feels like the bad guy because he has to say no. It’s like she thinks money just…appears. She’s a really sweet lady but just has a really weird relationship with money.

      1. RedRoverRedRover says:

        My BIL’s ex-wife was like that. She basically spent everything, with no awareness of where that money came from. It was one of the main reasons they broke up.

  11. I’m a financial planner. $170k in debt is not necessarily a deal-breaker. Some people would be able to manage that. What I think is absolutely a deal-breaker is being so shockingly irresponsible about money not to even realize you have $170k in debt.
    LW, this is a forest of red flags. Someone who, as an adult over 25, would take such a head-in-the-sand attitude towards a massive financial issue is virtually certain to put her head in the sand about other financial issues going forward. I wouldn’t be worried about how long it would take to pay off this debt. I’d be worried about all the arguments about money that are in your future if you marry someone who so flatly refuses to face reality around money. If you marry someone like that, you’re signing up for a lifetime of financial trouble and bad surprises.
    Please don’t focus on the debt. Focus on the attitude that you’ve just discovered. That, I think, is much more problematic than the actual debt. The debt can be dealt with. The attitude is likely to be a problem for the rest of your lives. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen become incapable of paying their bills and dependent on their children in their old age because one of the partners had this attitude about money.
    Unless your fiancé takes this as a huge wake-up call on her own, without your imposing financial discipline on her, I think you’re in for a world of hurt. Please think several times before you sign up for till death do us part.

  12. How on Earth could a person have that much debt and not have collection agencies calling/mailing constantly? How did she ever get pre-approved for a mortgage? I would imagine that her credit is awful. If she didn’t even know about the debt, then it’s not a stretch to imagine that she wasn’t making the payments. I think it’s possible to still live a good life with vacations and restaurants AND paying down debt, but being saddled with someone so irresponsible and blasé about it would really scare me.

  13. Avatar photo SavannahAnna says:

    The LW said ” I found out this information from the bank’s loan application, not from her.” So how was this even laziness or supposedly not knowing? The bank doesn’t fill out your application for you, and he didn’t say it came up on a credit check or something like that. So yeah, she just sprang it on him without even having the grace to talk it out with him. Doesn’t sound adult enough to have a serious relationship with.

    1. When I read that I was actually thinking maybe it was listed on the credit report? Since that would be part of the total loan application package? I mean not that it makes it better, just a different potential way it might have shown up….

    2. dinoceros says:

      I think you’d have to try really hard to not know what your total debt was.

      1. RedRoverRedRover says:

        I don’t know if that’s true. There’s a show on here in Canada called “Till Debt Do Us Part”, and it’s extremely common for one or both of the couple to have no idea how much debt they have. Or to be off by 30-40% or more. It’s crazy to me, but apparently a lot of people just stick their head in the sand and don’t add up all the debts from all the different sources. It seems to be a fairly common problem, and is how people get into such crazy debt in the first place. If you were keeping track, you wouldn’t get yourself even deeper by buying stupid crap. And I think that’s another reason why people don’t keep track – they don’t want to have to be accountable. So they just ignore it and keep going. It’s sad, really. But not unusual for humans, apparently.

  14. girltuesday says:

    Wait, maybe I missed it – is she NOT making payments on this debt? If so – yeeeeeessshhh. Collections is a scary scary place to be.

  15. TheOtherOther Me says:

    I don’t know what kind of debt this guy’s girlfriend has, but it’s a bit unfair to say she’s irresponsible. For all we know she could have spent 4 years as a undergrad and 3 years in law school at very expensive institutions and has a huge student debt load. Which is totally different from reckless spending on luxuries like cars, clothes and vacations. But either way, it’s not right that she either kept it from him, or didn’t know how much debt she was in. When you take out huge loans, it’s your responsibility to 1) know what you’re getting yourself into, 2) pay them back, and 3) tell your significant other that they come as a package with you. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and I bet this girl was simply scared of telling her b.f. for fear of losing him. Which now many happen anyway.

    1. She may have…and then not told him about it. He knew of only 80k. Which means she thought she only took out 80k and then failed to pay and it spiraled out to 170k (interest, fees, etc.) due to her lack of follow up/payment, or she knew her full debt amount and refused to tell him the complete amount. Either way, regardless of what she spent it on, it’s still 170k of debt, and a good chunk of that will not be discharged via bankruptcy.

    2. She didn’t take on any of those responsibilities, though. Ergo, she is irresponsible.

    3. The irresponsibility is in her either a) not knowing she had the debt, or b) hiding it from her partner. What she spent the money on really doesn’t matter.

      I find it kind of hard to believe that she was unaware of that much additional debt, though I guess it’s possible. I’m leaning towards thinking that she was afraid to admit that she had that much debt, as you said, for fear her boyfriend would leave her.

      Either possibility is, as Anon said, a forest of red flags. If she’s afraid to be honest with her partner about debt, what else is she going to hide from him out of fear? What other surprises will he have in store?

      Even worse is the thought that she can’t deal with big scary grown-up stuff, so she ignores it. “Oh, all that financial stuff is such a downer, I won’t think about it.”

  16. dinoceros says:

    I think the LW is rationalizing A LOT to convince himself that he shouldn’t be upset. A person doesn’t have to do something maliciously for it to still be actively their fault. I don’t even really understand. Is he claiming that the $90,000 is from interest or something? Because how could you not know. To me, it’s not apathy and laziness but willfully choosing to make poor decisions. And making up a number to tell your partner instead of actually looking it up.
    Personally, I could handle someone in a lot of debt if it was from law school or med school. If it were from bad choices in picking a college, I could handle it, but wouldn’t be interested in getting tied down financially with them until they got a grip on it. If it were from being bad with money, I’m not sure I could really deal with it, mostly because I’m a very practical person and people who aren’t are really unappealing to me. In this case, if she doesn’t care about her debt enough to even know the total, I’d have a hard time respecting her as a partner.

  17. I would not prefer either cheating or financial irresponsibility in a partner.

    If the debt is incurred for a lucrative career like medicine or engineering or mba, may be it makes sense. And could be paid back in time. But if she is earning less than the LW (and I don’t know the income of the LW) then she likely does not have a well paid job. It is telling that the fiancée does not have a handle on her debt. So, LW must think very carefully before taking on a debt ridden partner with this kind of idiocy.

  18. Avatar photo Skyblossom says:

    The choice between a partner who has $170K debt and a cheater is a false choice. It is valid and legitimate and healthy to choose a partner that neither cheats nor has a huge debt, especially a huge hidden debt. There is also no guarantee that she won’t cheat on him just because she has a huge debt. He could marry her and take on her debt and have her cheat. I’m guessing that the person who refuses to keep track of their debt and so have what they want in the moment without regard to the future is more likely to cheat because they don’t care to think about serious negative consequences caused by what they are doing. The same for the person who would be deceptive enough to hide this much debt. At the very lease, if he does stay with her, he shouldn’t marry her. He shouldn’t take on her debt. They would need at least one of them who was able to buy a house and save for retirement. If they marry neither can do that. Let her debt remain hers and he can buy a house in his name only. He can invest in his own name and if the relationship fails, which seems likely, he will walk about with his investments but not her debt.

    1. Anonymousse says:

      I think your point about never marrying to seperate finances is really smart.

  19. bananagram says:

    Here’s the follow up from the LW in the comments over on slog (comment 202 on the original thread).


    Hey all. I’m the letter writer. Here are a few clarifications:

    Dan changed our ages, as he typically does to protect identities. I am actually 28 and she is 25. We are both engineers. I have a bachelor’s and she has a master’s. All $170k of her debts are student loans. All $25k of my debts are student loans. The extra $90k came up because she failed to gather information about her private loans. She had her public loans covered and planned for.

    Commenter 175 probably does the best job explaining my concerns. It wasn’t about the money. It was about her maturity (is it a mistake to stay with someone that can’t handle this information?) and my goals in a relationship (I want to retire while I am young enough to enjoy it).

    I know that money, sex, and children are the three things that kill relationships. I asked Dan about this because I wanted his advice. I wanted to tap into his experience on the subject, as my big fear is whether or not I will resent her after 20 years of paying $1200/month. I did NOT want confirmation to dump my wonderful fiancé.

    Anyway, we spoke about all this. It was unpleasant. Towards the end of the conversation, she said something to me that made it all crystal clear:

    “If I had to live in a car with you, I would.”

    Knowing how her childhood was, I believe her. So, we made a new plan. We are going to do a smaller house (we had a back up in mind), we are going to live a little more frugally (we can both live within a budget), and we are going to stay together.

    1. bittergaymark says:

      At the rate she’s going — of course she’s willing to live in a car with you as that’s about what it’s going to come down to… Can’t wait for the update in five years about how you are both divorced and broke.

    2. She is an engineer but did no know about her 90 k debt until it was found by the bank!. Fishy I say.

  20. bittergaymark says:

    Cheating would be infinitely preferable. But then I am infinitely more secure about sex than almost everybody on the planet — much less this website. 😉 At any rate, if I was “in love” with somebody and found out they were carrying… say… $170,000 in debt, that love would fade FAST. Talk about being better off alone…

  21. Interesting dilemma. I say postpone buying a house and getting married for at least 2 yrs to see if your gf will take more responsibility with her finances. Example get a higher paying job or a second job to work on her debt. Money fights are one of the top reasons marriages don’t make it. Also do NOT TAKE on her debt in any form. People need to live in reality -money makes the world go round and the lack of it makes your head go round and round until you are sick.

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