Come clean about debts before they damage your relationship

Opening Credits columnist Eric Sandberg
Erica Sandberg is a prominent personal finance authority and author of "Expecting Money: The Essential Financial Plan for New and Growing Families." She writes "Opening Credits," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues for people who are new to credit, for

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Question for the expert

Dear Opening Credits,
My credit is really bad. It's my fault, basically, because I'm young (I am 23) and tried to run from my credit card banks. I owe a lot of money, and people are calling me all the time. I want to make it better, though. It's a new year, and I have a girlfriend, and we are going to get married. I don't want to tell her about what I've done, but I don't want her to be affected by all my mistakes either. What can I do fast to make a big difference right now? -- Thomas

Answer for the expert

Dear Thomas,
It's common for people of all ages to try to outrun their financial troubles. As you're well aware, however, escaping creditors by foot is no easy task. Sure, you can hide for a little while, but eventually, you hit a wall, and they catch up. This is where you are today, which is really not a bad place, since you are essentially forced to deal with your problems.

I understand the desire to make it all better in the blink of an eye, but that's not going to happen. Reconciling the past will take effort and time. But what really concerns me is that you are even considering keeping your money problems a secret from your betrothed. You are not a child anymore, and -- pssst -- you haven't been one for at least five years. Before marrying anyone, you first have to enter adulthood and behave like a full-grown, financially responsible man. Here's how:

  • Be honest. You must let your fiancee know what your real financial situation is so she can make an informed decision about you and her future. This is her right, as nobody should marry under false pretenses. Host a talk with her as soon as possible, and come clean with what you owe. Even better, obtain a copy of your credit report and show it to her. She may be shocked or even appalled, but believe me, such openness goes a long way toward establishing trust. It's the only way to start and have a mature relationship.
  • Understand your problem. Did you charge what you wanted when you wanted without paying too much mind to how you were really going to pay for it all? Or did you ignore your bills because they were too bothersome or boring? Whatever it was, you must identify the root issues and really think about why you did what you did. After all, if you don't face the past, you're bound to repeat it, as the saying goes. Once you know where you went wrong, you can make a commitment to changing the way you handle credit and cash. 
  • Work hard. Turning a bad credit history into a good one won't be instantaneous, but if you do the right things, it won't take that long. What you need to do depends on the problems. If your issue has been late or sporadic payments, get on track immediately. From now on, always pay before the due date. In 12 short months, you can make a significant improvement to your credit score. And if the trouble is debt overload, get a second (or third) job and do everything in your power to pay it down before the wedding. Yes, it will be hard work, but it'll be worth it, as it will allow you to enter in this new chapter of your life in the black and with a clean credit report.
  • Do the maintenance. Money and credit management success is not a one-time event but rather an ongoing process. You need to set up a system that will make your financial life easier. You can do this by having and using only a couple of credit cards, checking your credit reports annually, charging only what you will repay within a month or two, reading your statements regularly and enrolling in online bill pay. These are habits to consciously adopt -- they don't come naturally.

So how can your earlier financial foibles affect your future wife? Well, she won't be legally responsible to pay your debt (since it occurred before the marriage), but if you don't deal with it, your liabilities and poor credit report will certainly impact your combined goals and dreams.

By facing your problems and doing the right thing with your money and credit now, you'll emerge a stronger, more confident man. More, you will gain the respect of the most important person in your life: your soon-to-be wife.

See related: Help for bad credit, 8 legitimate ways to improve your credit score, 10 things you must know about your credit score and reports, Credit reports: How to get the ones that are actually free, Can one spouse's bankruptcy destroy the other's credit?

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Updated: 11-24-2017