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Forget the Flowers: Use Valentine's Day to Talk About Debt

02/10/2014 05:12 EST | Updated 04/12/2014 05:59 EDT

Four in ten Canadian marriages begin in debt, according to our recent Hoyes Michalos/Harris/Decima study about marriage & debt. Traditionally we think of the start of marriage or a common-law relationship as a new beginning, not just emotionally but financially as well. We assume that marital debts grow as a result of building our lives together, as we use debt to finance the cost to buy and furnish a home or purchase a family-sized car.

Apparently not. It now seems we begin our lives together in debt, and it becomes a challenge to ever become debt free.

It turns out that the average couple starts off their marriage with $21,500 in debt, so they are starting their life together with the ever-present pressure of debt.

Not surprisingly, current students brought in an average of just over $35,000 into the relationship. The high cost of higher education is a financial burden impacting our lives well beyond our student years. But it's not just students. Almost half of younger respondents (25-34) said they brought in debt. Even 14 per cent of seniors bring debt into a new relationship.

But the amount of debt is not the most worrisome statistic. This is:

More than 1 in 3 people (36%) said they did not discuss their debt with their spouse prior to getting married. If you are starting a new life together would it not be a good idea to at least start a conversation about the debt burden that will impact you and your spouse's ability to buy a home and borrow for other purchases?

The news is not all bad. Sixty-one per cent of people have now paid off their original debt in full, so that's good news. If you work together, it is possible to deal with your debt.

However, almost half (46 per cent) of Canadians said they have added new debt (not including their mortgage) since being married. Those who did not discuss their debts prior to getting married were more likely to have only added to their debts.

I understand that if you want to get a good education and you don't have rich parents, you may have no choice but to get student loans, and if you graduate and get married, you are starting your marriage with debt. It seems we all accept this as the norm as more than 6 in 10 of the survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed that having debt is just part of life.

Debt may be part of our modern world, but that does not mean we are destined to be slaves to our debt, never able to escape. Fifty-eight per cent of people have cut back on their spending because of their debt, and that's a great start. But 38 per cent say debt is a major source of stress and 20 per cent feel ashamed to talk about their debt with family or friends.

My advice? Talk. Talk. Talk.

Talk about your debts before you get married and make a plan so that you can both work together to conquer the debt beast. Communicate with your partner during your marriage about any new debt you agree to take on. If debt is a source of stress, talk to a professional.

By all means have a glass of wine and some chocolate with your loved one this Valentine's Day, but if debt is a dowry you are bringing into the relationship, my advice is to use this time to open up a conversation about what you are going to do about it, together.

Which Canadians Say They'll Never Be Debt Free