How to Talk to Your Spouse About High Credit Card Debt

Quick Answer

If you have high credit card debt, you should approach your spouse sooner rather than later. It’s key to own up to your debt and make a plan to pay off your debt.

Focused young couple manage finances paying bills online

It's always ideal to discuss your finances and debt situation with your spouse before tying the knot. If you didn't do this, it's important to have a postnuptial conversation about money matters, especially if you've been secretly struggling with high credit card debt. Whether you entered the marriage with debt or quietly accrued it after marrying, it's critical to talk to your spouse as soon as possible, as it impacts both of your lives and finances.

It's not exactly a fun or romantic topic, and you may feel some guilt and shame. But communicating the situation to your spouse and making a plan together to pay down the debt is crucial for both your financial and relationship health. Follow these steps to start this difficult conversation, get on the same page and plan for a brighter future together.

1. Own Up to It

Keeping secrets can spell doom for a relationship. So-called "financial infidelity" means keeping financial information from your partner, such as hiding purchases or having secret debt and accounts—and surveys show many people find it just as hurtful as romantic or physical cheating.

Whether you accumulated the debt before moving in together or getting married and didn't share it, or you accumulated it after and kept it secret, it's time for a mea culpa and perhaps an apology. Find a time when you and your spouse can quietly sit down together without other distractions. Avoid times when the kids are running around or you're stressed after a long workday. Take a deep breath and candidly share your situation with your spouse.

It can help if you go into the talk prepared. One way is to bring your credit card bills to the sit-down so you can look at the numbers together and have an honest conversation. You may also need to steel yourself emotionally since your spouse could have a strong reaction as you own up to the high credit card debt. They may need some time to process the news before they're ready to help you take action.

2. Make a Plan

Once your spouse has digested the information you've shared, ask for their help in making a plan together as a unified team to tackle the debt. If your partner is hesitant, you could be proactive and put together several options and present them to your spouse, and then have them help you narrow down your starting point.

Some possible strategies in your plan could include:

Bear in mind that you don't have to pick just one strategy; they can work together synergistically. For example, creating a budget and consolidating debt can make it easier to succeed with a debt payoff plan for your credit card balances.

Also, don't forget that creating a plan together doesn't have to be negative and only about getting out of debt. You can use this as an opportunity to work together on creating positive future goals, such as planning for retirement, saving for exciting vacations, discussing how to get ready for having kids or saving for college.

3. Ask for Outside Help

While you and your spouse may feel equipped to make a plan and handle your hefty credit card debt together, there's nothing wrong with seeking help from outside your union. Sometimes a third-party expert or support system can offer nonjudgmental guidance and make it easier to succeed.

Here are some of the types of help you could seek out as you and your spouse work to get your debt under control:

  • Financial planner or counselor: If your spouse wants to tackle debt with you, but neither of you feel savvy with money or aren't sure where to start, consider hiring a financial planner or financial counselor. They can assess your situation and help you develop a plan to meet your goals, while offering accountability and support along the way.
  • Credit counselor: If your debt feels truly out of control or the situation is urgent, it may be worth meeting with a certified credit counselor. They can provide free support and help with budgeting and other financial basics. In situations where the debt level is beyond your ability to repay or you're facing bankruptcy, credit counselors can also help you get set up on a debt management plan. These plans aren't right for everyone, and there are fees involved, but they allow a credit counselor to negotiate with your creditors to reduce how much you owe and make your payments more manageable.
  • Mental health or marriage counseling: If your debt could be the result of mental health or emotional issues that lead to unchecked spending, try making an appointment with a licensed professional counselor such as a financial therapist. These compassionate professionals can help you get to the root of your behavior and offer support and advice in making positive changes. If your debt is creating a rift in your marriage, a marriage counselor could assist you two in communicating openly and honestly, and repairing broken trust. You could also look for a support group if you want to be able to commiserate with others in a similar situation.
  • Family or friend: If you're not ready to enlist professional support or can't afford it, another option is to confide in a trusted friend or relative. Beyond helping you feel less alone, they can also provide accountability and encouragement as you stick to your budget and pay down your debt.

Track Your Credit Along Your Journey

Carrying large amounts of credit card debt doesn't just put a strain on relationships and budgets; it can also damage your credit. High debt balances can worsen your credit utilization ratio and put you at risk of late or missed payments—all of which can tank your credit score. And having a low credit score makes you less likely to get approved for future loans (especially ones with low interest rates), among other pitfalls.

As you begin your mission to lower your debt, check your credit for free with Experian to see where things stand now. Then, as you make progress in lowering your credit card balances and eventually paying off debts, you can watch your score improve over time and celebrate your progress.