‘She’s anticipating a proposal’: My girlfriend has $12,000 in credit-card debt. Is this a bad omen for marriage?

I have a girlfriend and things are progressively getting more serious. We have been together for about three years although we had an eight-month breakup during that period. I am starting to feel that she’s anticipating a proposal, at least within the next year or two. 

I am not where I want to be in my career, but I am financially stable and that is supremely important to me. I am not a fan of debt, especially consumer debt, but unfortunately my air-conditioning unit broke down a year after moving into my house in 2022. I had to do an expensive upgrade so I took out a deferred-interest loan for the repairs. 

‘She lives well above her means and most of that is due to shopping, drinks, and eating out.’

I am currently paying that off and it has forced me to really budget for the first time. I have been only somewhat successful at budgeting in the past, even though I am conscious of my spending and my habits. I have racked up about $7,000 on my credit card. I am behind on it. I usually pay off my credit card in full most months. The bill is about $900 a month in order so it’s definitely stressing my funds. I also have a good amount of savings that could cover any unexpected debt unless something extreme happened medically.

This whole situation has made me leery of the proposition of marriage to my girlfriend. We have completely different perspectives on spending and budgeting. We both have decent jobs, but not great. I make about $40,000 a year, and she makes about $50,000. She has no fear of bad debt. She has student-loan debt, about $12,000 or more in credit-card debt, a car loan, and very little savings. 

‘Her father’s medical bills will be astronomical, if they go through with his liver transplant.’

She lives well above her means and most of that is due to shopping, drinks and eating out. To top it all off, her dad is on state assistance for medical care and, unfortunately, he is not doing well and needs a liver transplant. She is his oldest child, and I can tell she is thinking about helping him out with his care financially, which I certainly understand. Her father’s medical bills will be astronomical, if they go through with his liver transplant. I don’t think the weight of such debt even registers in her head as something to be significantly concerned about. 

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I obviously don’t want to break up with her over this particular situation, but I’m not sure how to have that money talk with her. It makes me uncomfortable thinking about absorbing all of her debts if we should get married one day. I also feel that the talk wouldn’t go well no matter how I approach the conversation. It really isn’t even my place to tell her how to feel about the financial weight of possibly extending her dad’s life. How do I bring up these topics and not make her feel bad? Should I just support her through this journey with her dad, and call it quits if I can’t come to grips with paying off someone else’s debts?

Worried About Marriage

Mother and Ex-Wife

Dear Worried,

Your final question sums up the overall approach to this relationship and your financial future: all or nothing. Do you support your girlfriend 100% and then dump her? That seems a noble and disastrous course of action, especially given that it’s an alternative to having a mature, adult conversation about your financial goals, your savings, debts and ability to plan a future together. 

You can, instead, support her while cautioning her against getting into more debt, and show her your plans for the future — in black and white. That way, you can get the ball rolling on a bigger conversation in six months or a year, and you will have planted the seeds of investment and, hopefully, saving. If you’re afraid to speak up now, it won’t bode well for your next relationship.

But first, I have a message for you: physician, heal thyself. Talk to your girlfriend about the importance of emergency savings and paying off your credit card every month. Show her the kind of interest you are paying on your card by not paying it off every month, and put a plan in place to get back in the black. Ask her if she needs help budgeting to pay off her credit card.

‘You could flip all of this and say that these events are testing you both — just as you are entering the next phase of your life.’

People are facing higher rent, the resumption of student-loan payments in October and higher prices in the grocery store. Credit-card debt in the U.S. just surpassed $1 trillion during the second quarter, up from $986 billion in the first quarter, according to the household debt report released Tuesday by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

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What’s more, almost half of people with credit cards (47%) say they are carrying a monthly balance, according to a recent report from Bankrate, the personal-finance site. That’s up from 46% who said the same in December 2022, and significantly higher than the 39% who said they were carrying a balance in December 2021. That’s bad news if that recession ever arrives.

You are both young, and you have credit-card debt and relatively carefree lifestyles (at least before your a/c disaster). That’s not unusual for people in their 20s and 30s, but I agree that it’s time to get real, and your girlfriend’s father’s illness may be what brings reality knocking on her door, just as the breakdown of your a/c made you realize that you need to stick to a budget.

You could flip all of this and say that these events are testing you both — just as you are entering the next phase of your life, when you will settle down, pay your mortgage, eat out less and start thinking about children — if that’s something that you both wish for yourselves. This will happen one way or another. Life has a way of waking us all up. 

“This whole situation has made me leery of the proposition of marriage to my girlfriend.”

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Readers write to me with all sorts of dilemmas. 

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The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.

More from Quentin Fottrell:

I had a date with a great guy. I didn’t drink, but his wine added $36 to our bill. We split the check evenly. Should I have spoken up?

‘I’m living paycheck to paycheck and I feel drained’: My fiancé said he would pay half of the mortgage. Guess what happened next?

‘We live in purgatory’: My wife has a multimillion-dollar trust fund, but my mother-in-law controls it. We earn $400,000 and spend beyond our means.

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