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How 6 Couples Are Dealing (Or Not Dealing) With ‘Inherited’ Relationship Debt

Sexually Transmitted Debt. It’s not the nicest term, however it does encapsulate the debt that can pop up after entering a relationship. The term describes the phenomenon where one person in a relationship takes on — or is impacted by — their partner’s debt. 
This can occur when one person is misled into financial situations by their partner or gives their signature to a joint credit card or loan. If the relationship breaks down and one person refuses to pay for their debts such as loans or credit cards, their partner may be the one to take it on. 
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Other more subtle ways that “inherited” relationship debt can impact a couple is when one person has an individual debt but their partner wants to help pay it off for whatever reason, be it not wanting the debt to earn interest or to clear it for future financial goals. This is a natural response when someone you care about is in strife, however the consequences and burden of sharing debt can be high — particularly for women who earn less than their male counterparts and suffer from a retirement savings gap of 23.4%.
According to Money Smart, the earlier you talk about your finances in your relationship the better and apps like Money By Afterpay can help to keep tabs on your money, so you know where it’s going each month and divide up any debt repayments that may exist.
From feelings of shame to not wanting to take on the burden, Refinery29 Australia spoke with six Australian couples to learn more about "inherited" relationship debt.
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"The full amount has never been disclosed to me, but I believe it to be over $10K."

Lee, she/her, 28 & Tim, he/him, 29, Vic

When did you learn that your partner had debt?

A couple of months into our relationship, while going to his house, I noticed he would get an obscene amount of mail. The full amount has never been disclosed to me, but I believe it to be over $10K.
He has been on — and defaulted — multiple payment plans to pay it off. It's a combination of credit card debt as well as debt from a failure to pay fines (parking and tollway mostly). He’s still paying part of it off to this day and we’re in the seventh year of our relationship.
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These bad money habits have been passed on to him by his parents who are the same. They act like debt will go away if you ignore it when it’s really in the background getting bigger and bigger.

Did you feel like you should help pay it off?

No, not my debt not my responsibility. I just asked that it be cleared as soon as possible.

Do you share money/ accounts or do you keep it separate?

We have one account shared for our rent and bills, however, the majority of our money is separate.

What has having “inherited” debt taught you about your relationship with each other and money?

That not everyone is taught good money habits growing up and learning them when you’re older is like rewiring your brain. You have to be patient because if one partner has had a head-start on saving, it’s near impossible for the other to catch up, especially if they are starting in the minus. Plus, expect things like bills to go under your name, because unfortunately they can’t if they have a bad credit score!

Do you think having “inherited” debt in a relationship has impacted future relationships?

If this relationship doesn't work, I would definitely steer clear of anyone with debt again. When I was younger I could afford to wait for my partner to catch up, however, those years are gone now and I would need to be with someone on a level playing field.
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"My debt is still the biggest secret I have and I feel like I can't talk about it to a single person."

Tegan, she/her, 31 & Richard he/him, 32 & Tegan's ex Dan, he/him, 33, Vic

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When did you learn that your partner had debt?

It wasn't so much that I learned he had debt, it was that he owned his own house (and had a big mortgage) and other investments. I was living in his house and he covered most of our bills and expenses. As a result, I put everything else (holidays and dinners etc) on my credit card — accumulating $45K of credit card debt. We broke up in 2019 and I was left with this huge credit card debt and nothing to show for it.

If you’re the one with debt, when did you tell your partner?

I never fully came clean to Dan, and I still haven't told my new partner Richard, because I'm so ashamed and have no idea how to get out of a mountain of debt. I also feel that it will impact Richard's life eventually when we go to buy a house or want to start a family.

Did you/they feel like you should help pay it off? If so, why?

I do feel like I wish I could turn back time and go 50/50 with my ex on everything, including where we lived. I didn't pay for anything like the mortgage or bills, so I felt like I didn't have a say on where we lived and paying for everything else on my credit card was just my end of the bargain. It was really disempowering.
It's too complicated to expect him to pay off my credit card debt now because I don't know how much money I saved by not paying much in rent, mortgage or bills. The lines are so blurred and our break-up was so bad that I don't feel he owes me anything.
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I definitely don't believe my current partner should help me pay off my debts at all. If I owned a property that he lived in, then sure, I would expect some kind of contribution. The shame I associate with my credit card debt means I don't even talk to my current partner about it let alone expect him to help me pay it off.

Do you share money/ accounts or do you keep it separate?

We have a joint credit card but I now go 50/50 with Richard, my current partner, on absolutely everything shared. We keep a detailed spreadsheet and go through it together every month with a fine-tooth comb and pay it off religiously. We only make purchasing decisions and living arrangements we can both afford. Everything is split down the middle and we contribute equally.

What has having “inherited” debt taught you about your relationship with each other and money?

When I was with Dan, I learned that no matter how good your intentions are, money is complicated and the only way to simplify finances is to not just go 50/50 on everything, but also communicate about decisions that affect financial wellbeing. This includes agreeing on where to live and how much to spend on rent, budgeting for special occasions and what to buy to furnish your place.
I truly feel like love in a relationship just isn't enough, you also need to have similar values and want similar things. In my last relationship, I also felt a great deal of shame because I wasn't as financially literate as he was. It ended up making me feel trapped in the relationship, and I also felt like I came across as selfish and entitled for wanting more.
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Do you think having “inherited” debt in a relationship has impacted future relationships?

Yes, I carry extreme anxiety about my existing debt with me. My debt is still the biggest secret I have and I feel like I can't talk about it to a single person (I haven't even told my therapist). I worry about it being a dealbreaker later on down the track with Richard and I'm extremely stressed about it.
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"I felt very ashamed of it because he had his life together and I felt like I didn't."

Frankie, she/her, 32 & Banjo, 34, he/him, NSW

If you’re the one with debt, when did you tell your partner?

I was the one with debt. It was only about $8K but I felt very ashamed of it because he had his life together and I felt like I didn't. I told him about eight to ten months into the relationship.

Did they feel like you should help pay it off?

I didn't feel like he should have helped me pay it off as it was a debt that I had accumulated prior to knowing him. I have always been very financially independent so it felt like it was my problem to solve, however, he was very emotionally supportive which was all I needed.

Do you share money/ accounts or do you keep it separate?

We don't have shared accounts and we've been together for six years now. I'm typically a spender and he is a saver so I've been putting off having a shared account because I don't want the judgement! We have had joint credit cards though for shared expenses and we pay it off together at the end of each month.
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What has having “inherited” debt taught you about your relationship with each other and money?

Our relationship has evolved over the past six years so I think if I was ever in financial hardship or debt now, we would approach it differently. That process made me realise how important it is to be honest and transparent with your partner and that it's okay to feel vulnerable. The right person will help support you and work through it with you — even if it is just by providing emotional support.

Do you think having “inherited” debt in a relationship has impacted future relationships?

Not for me personally but I can see why it would for someone else.
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"I don’t love knowing that the loan will be there earning interest so I’m happy to help."

Alex, she/her, 27 & Cody, he/him, 27, NSW

When did you learn that your partner had debt?

He bought a car before we moved in together and got a loan for $30K.

Do you have any debt?

I’ve got a HECS debt but that’s not going to be paid off any faster than the automatic wage payments, so it’s just him.

Did they feel like you should help pay it off?

I already have a car and we’ve moved into a place where we won’t need both, so I’ve promised to put whatever I get from selling my car into the loan to help him pay it off. I feel somewhat that I have to do this because I’ll be using this car now, too.

Do you share money/ accounts or do you keep it separate?

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We have one account for all bills and daily expenses, a shared savings account, and then our own spending and savings accounts.

What has having “inherited” debt taught you about your relationship with each other and money?

It’s made me less of a penny-pincher and more aware of how living with someone means sharing. I don’t love knowing that the loan will be there earning interest until it’s gone, so I’m happy to help.

Do you think having “inherited” debt in a relationship has impacted future relationships?

It hasn’t affected me greatly but it has made me more open to discussing money early into relationships.
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"With a shared life comes shared responsibilities."

Enid she/her, 28 & Sam, he/him, 28, Vic

When did you learn that your partner had debt?

I knew my partner had changed degrees a lot when he was in uni, but I didn't realise how much his debt had accumulated. He has about $150K in student debts, and two years on from graduating from a physiology degree, he's still only working casual jobs.
I've been working full-time since I was 19 and have even managed to pay off my own uni debts. Now that we're legally de facto, we have a shared account but he's just terrible with money.

Did you feel like you should help pay it off?

I do. It's not that he would ever ask or expect that of me, but with a shared life comes shared responsibilities.
I make a lot more than he does now so I cover quite a bit of our expenses, but one day he'll likely be out-earning me and he's always been generous with whatever he has. It's half the reason why he can't budget to save his life. I genuinely don't mind contributing to his studies though since I feel like they benefit me. Plus, he takes on the majority of the household chores.
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Do you share money/ accounts or do you keep it separate?

We have our separate accounts as well as a shared one that we regularly contribute to for outings, pet needs, and house stuff.

What has having “inherited” debt taught you about your relationship with each other and money?

I think it's made me realise what it really means to have balance in a relationship. It's not just a direct 50/50 split of everything because everyone brings something different to a partnership and I find his contributions to our household invaluable.
I know he would never expect me to help out with his debt, but I also know that if the roles are reversed, (which they will be when he starts practising in his field), he'll make up for everything I've provided. I'd rather just get the debt out of the way as soon as possible.

Do you think having “inherited” debt in a relationship has impacted future relationships?

Yes, but only for the better. I've dated some deadbeats and not really known how to distinguish between mutual generosity and just straight-up subsidising people's lives. I've never been treated better by someone, from a financial perspective, so even if we're not together forever, this relationship has set a new bar.
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"In the end I realised it was not my burden to bear."

Jocelyn, she/her, 32, NSW & Pete, he/him, 33, Vic

When did you learn that your partner had debt?

About seven months into our relationship.

Did you feel like you should help pay it off?

Part of me did out of wanting to support someone I care about, but in the end, I realised it was unreasonable and not my burden to bear.
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Do you share money/ accounts or do you keep it separate?

We keep our money completely separate. It's something my mum drilled into me.

What has having “inherited” debt taught you about your relationship with each other and money?

It's taught me the important of being transparent, and that mistakes you make can have an impact on the people around you because ultimately that pressure feels shared to a degree.

Do you think having “inherited” debt in a relationship has impacted future relationships?

Yes, not in a necessarily good or bad way, but it's felt like an elephant in the room when making the smallest of financial decisions.
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Please note that this information is general in nature and shouldn't be construed as financial advice.
Money by Afterpay is a product from Afterpay Australia Pty Ltd (ABN 15 169 342 947, AFSL 527911) with accounts and debit cards issued by Westpac Banking Corporation (ABN 33 007 457 141, AFSL 233714). T&Cs apply.
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