Paying off joint debt brought into a marriage

When both partners bring debt, it takes a joint effort to pay it off

To Her Credit columnist Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for, and also wrote for MSN Money, and, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Question for the expert

Dear To Her Credit,
My husband and I married last year. We each brought around $11,000 in credit card debt to the marriage. Although we were paying zero percent interest every month, we did that by transferring or a fee. We finally transferred it all to a Discover personal loan at 16 percent, which comes to about the same when you add all the transfer fees for the life of the loan. Although it is not a good option, it took away the stress of having to watch for the transfer promo expiration and doing the actual transfer.

We would like to know what other options there are for us. We are currently renting. My husband is employed, and I am self-employed half-time. We have two daughters in college, which makes it a challenge to keep up with everything. One daughter will finish in two years. The other one has three more years to go.

Please help us know what we can do to bring down the credit card loan. Thanks! -- Leslie

Answer for the expert

Dear Leslie,
There's only one good way to get rid of your credit card debt: Pay it off as quickly as possible.

Juggling zero interest accounts couldn't last forever. And, as you discovered the hard way, you're not really paying zero percent interest if you have to pay over and over to keep transferring the money. Banks can't afford to lend money for free (and take the risk of not getting paid back), so they will get paid one way or another -- through transfer fees, interest charges after the introductory period and on new purchases, annual fees or all of the above.

When borrowers are determined to use the introductory period as a chance to apply all their efforts to paying off their balance before it ends, zero interest cards can be a good solution. Otherwise, they only delay the inevitable.

Paying off that balance is the only good way to get rid of it. If it's about $22,000 now, that's far too small an amount to file bankruptcy over. If you were elderly or disabled, you might have to negotiate down a debt that size down (and sustain considerable damage to your credit score for doing so). But two people in their prime earning years should be able pay $22,000 off rather quickly, even with two daughters in college.

It can be done. Many people in worse financial situations than yours pay off their debts once and for all every year.

Your biggest asset right now is you and your husband's ability to work. The first thing you should do is make sure you are maximizing your earning potential for the next year or two, at least until you can pay off the credit card debt and build a safety reserve (so the debt doesn't reappear next time you have an emergency).

As a self-employed person working part time, you're not making enough money to cover your expenses and debt obligations. You may need to work more hours or find part-time work as an employee. You may need to put aside your self-employed work and look for a full-time job. It's not unusual for both parents to need to work when the kids are in college, even without pre-existing debt. It doesn't have to be forever.

If making more money is not an option, you can sell something, cut expenses or both. The quickest way to drastically cut expenses is to sell a car and either replace it with a much less expensive one, saving on both car payments and insurance, or to just live without a second car. Look through your budget and find other ways you can save money; for example, by eating out half as often or doing without the deluxe cable package.

You're fortunate you don't have your debt spread out over a dozen cards and accounts. Your debt reduction plan of attack is simple: Apply all the additional income from working more and the money you save from cutting expenses to your credit balance. You should be able to make a dramatic difference on your credit card balance in a short period of time.

As newlyweds, you and your husband can take this opportunity to get the financial side of your marriage partnership off to a good start. Good luck, and take care of your credit!

See related: 5 new rules in the credit card balance transfer game, Script to negotiate a better credit card deal, Over your head in debt? 5 extreme budgeting ideas

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Updated: 01-22-2018