my two cents

How Can I Get My Boyfriend to Be Honest About His Debt?

Photo: Sherman/Getty Images

I’ve been seeing my boyfriend for a little over a year, and things are mostly going great. We’re talking about moving in together, but one issue that keeps coming up is money. We both make about the same amount, although he has some student loans and I am fortunate enough to be debt-free. My real concern is his attitude about our different financial backgrounds. I was raised pretty comfortably, and I’m aware that this has given me a lot of privileges that he never had. His mom struggled a lot to make ends meet. He lived with his grandmother for periods of time, and from what little he’s told me, it seems like basic necessities were tight. Up until now, this hasn’t been a major issue in our relationship, but I’ve noticed that he does have a chip on his shoulder about it. He makes jokes about how I grew up rich, and how horrified I’d be if I could see his grandmother’s house, and how I’ll probably dump him once he has to start supporting his mom. He’s secretive about his student loans and hasn’t introduced me to his family yet, I’m sure at least partly because he’s embarrassed. I feel bad about this, but also, it hurts my feelings — does he think I’m this spoiled brat? 

Whenever I bring any of this up, he just brushes it off with jokes. How can I get him to be less insecure, and to trust me? At what point does he owe me the truth about his finances? And also, what if his financial situation really IS terrible? I’m worried I might have a massive blind spot here, and I don’t want to be naive.

Of course you’re freaked out — you’ve conjured up a world of possibilities that your boyfriend might be hiding from you, and they could potentially all be real. But you’ve also made the assumption that his secrecy is partly your fault, due to something you’ve done wrong, and that if you just do the right thing then he’ll open up. I don’t want to say that you have no control here, but I’m willing to bet that his unease around this topic predates your relationship by, oh, maybe his entire life. His fear that you’ll run for the hills once you know the truth of his financial picture probably runs even deeper than you’ve imagined — and you’ve been imagining a lot.

So, you’re facing an uphill battle here: a boyfriend whose shame and anxiety around money sounds crippling, and whose financial situation might actually be pretty bad. And your fears are legitimate. It’s scary to pursue a future with a partner who may not be able to manage his debt or communicate about it. His jokes about having to support his mom probably aren’t just jokes. If you’re serious about this guy — which it sounds like you are, since you’re talking about moving in together — you’ll need to be prepared for his financial baggage, even if he insists on carrying it alone.

Or! Maybe his debt really isn’t so bad at all, and he’s just blowing things out of proportion because he worries you can’t relate to him. We have no idea. And for now, that’s actually okay. He doesn’t “owe you” a look at his entire balance sheet at this point in your relationship. But you should begin the process of talking about money, more generally.

“When I have a client who’s anxious about money and having trouble talking about it, I find it’s helpful to start with big-picture, positive stuff,” says Pari Hashemi Magura, a certified financial planner and investment adviser at Wells Fargo. “It’s more fun and less anxiety-producing to think about questions like, ‘What are your goals? What do you want to accomplish? What’s your ideal home, or how often do you want to travel?’” It’s okay if you and your boyfriend aren’t aligned here; maybe his goals are to be debt-free and able to support his mom — which are admirable! — while yours are to own a nice house with a pool and be able to pay for your kids to go to college. The most important thing is that you can start talking about them, and money is easier to discuss in the abstract.

It’s also worth mentioning that your situation is extremely common — more than 44 million Americans have outstanding student loan debt. (In the class of 2018, 69 percent of college students took out student loans, and graduated with an average debt of $29,800.) “So many people have a lot of student debt, but still feel like it’s taboo to bring up, especially with someone who has none,” says Magura.

I recently got some great marital advice that might also be helpful to you: When you’re approaching a fraught topic with your partner that makes both of you squeamish (or leads to fights), set aside 15 minutes once a week to just talk about what you’re both thinking. The most important thing about this 15 minutes is that there should be no expectation of resolution. You will not take any actions based on what’s discussed. You should also feel free to contradict yourself; maybe last week you were worried about spending too much money, and this week you want to buy a new car. You’re not trying to agree, or accomplish anything; you’re just sharing what’s been on your mind. Then you stop and move on. Ideally, this exercise will gradually destigmatize the topic. Then, when you do need to make decisions that involve talking about it, you’ll have better tools to do so.

Of course, you will eventually need to get into the weeds of his finances if you’re going to take bigger steps in your relationship. If you do move in together, Magura recommends opening a joint bank account that you both contribute to equally and that you both use for rent and shared expenses. “That will limit some of the liability of moving in with him if you’re unclear about his financial situation,” she says. Then you’ll each keep your own separate accounts for whatever else you want to put your money towards, so if he’s not comfortable being completely transparent, he won’t have to be. (Plenty of married couples do this too, Magura adds. Including, um, me.)

It occurred to me that your boyfriend might also be trying to protect you, albeit in a misguided way. Most of us learn how to manage money based on how we were raised, and a lot of parents don’t want their kids to know when resources are tight. If your boyfriend’s mom and grandmother were secretive about finances because they didn’t want him to worry, then he may have absorbed the habit of keeping his financial stress to himself, especially when he’s around people he loves.

Which is sweet, but also — you don’t want to get stuck holding the bag if he really is in a mess. I get tons of sad emails from women who loaned their boyfriends money and are now trying to get it back (they won’t). You want to move forward with your eyes wide open. Some things to consider: If you eventually buy property together, his debt may hurt your ability to get a good mortgage rate. If he has to support his mom, that might mean that he can’t contribute to your joint retirement savings or your kids’ college fund. Mind you, these are not necessarily bad — and certainly not his fault — but they are things to be aware of. (Alternatively, if he keeps stonewalling you no matter what, that’s a red flag you shouldn’t ignore.)

As someone who used to get sweaty and occasionally cry when talking about money with her partner, I can personally attest that it takes a lot of practice and patience. It also takes some cringe-y honesty. In your case: “I’m really nervous to talk about this, because I know it makes you uncomfortable, but I’m worried that you think I can’t relate to your problems because I grew up with more money than you, and that makes me feel like we can’t be honest with each other.” See? So awkward! But also doable.

Does My Boyfriend Owe Me the Truth About His Debt?