Delay Marriage Until You’re Debt-Free?

A few weeks ago I was listening to a podcast (I LOVE podcasts.  If you know of some good ones, please add them to the comments.) featuring an interview with Andy Stanley.  For those of you unfamiliar with Stanley, he is a well-known pastor/preacher and author.  The interview discussed Stanley’s recent sermon series titled “The New Rules for Love, Sex, and Dating” and at the very end the host asked Stanley for non-negotiables concerning readiness for marriage.  His immediate answer was that both parties should be “completely out of debt.”  He reasoned that delaying marriage to pay off debt is a great motivator to get it done quickly and that starting a marriage with debt means that it will be very difficult to get out of debt.  “You carry your same bad financial habits into marriage that you had when you were single.”  He cited personal observations that the people who delay marriage to get out of debt develop financial discipline that strengthens their marriage.


I was rather surprised to hear this advice unqualified the way it was.  The only way I can really understand it is by assuming that Stanley was referring to “bad debt” only.  In some sense all debt is bad as you are beholden to another party.  But I rather doubt Stanley would expect a homeowner to pay off a mortgage or sell the property to get married.  Being responsible for a house in my mind is indicative of increased readiness for marriage.


I suspect Stanley really only meant consumer debt – credit cards, loans, cars – because of his later reference to bad financial habits.  Having a mortgage or student loan debt is not usually indicative of bad financial habits if those were really solid investments (certainly I can imagine scenarios where they would not have been).  If this is really what he meant, I agree that having consumer debt is a red flag that should be examined while an engagement is under discussion.


However, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that debt must be paid off before marriage or that marriage makes paying off debt more difficult.  I definitely think that any bad financial habits that the debt resulted from should be addressed and hopefully corrected or minimized.  (But we also have to keep in mind that we will never marry a perfect person!  And that even our definition of perfection is flawed i.e. my way is not always the right way.)  However, if the indebted party has been paying off the debt aggressively as a single person I think that it’s not necessary to be finished with that process before marriage.


I see Stanley’s point that holding out marriage as a carrot at the end of the debt repayment process could motivate faster debt reduction, but it could also delay marriage unduly.  If the fiance(e) of the debtor is willing to enter a debt-repaying lifestyle upon marriage, why delay?  That second income, particularly if coupled with a larger income-to-expenses ratio, would actually enable faster debt repayment.  In fact, having a partner with whom to work on debt repayment could be very motivating and satisfying and actually enhance the bond within the couple.  I think this decision calls for very honest self-evaluation, and either decision – marrying to work together to pay off the debt or delaying to use marriage as a motivator – could work best for different couples.


As I’ve mentioned before, I had student loan debt when Kyle and I got married.  I had no intention or plan to pay it off before I graduated (several years down the road), although I would have started saving to pay off the debt around the time we married even if we hadn’t.  However, Kyle knew that this debt was not the result of “bad financial habits” and in fact I had a lot of good habits I was bringing to the marriage.  We addressed the issue even before we got engaged – upon marriage, we planned to use his savings to pay off my debt, and move forward from there as a debt-free couple.  While that’s not exactly how it worked out, the decision-making process that followed unequivocally enhanced our sense of being a team and built our skills in managing finances together.


I don’t think that I should have set the goal to be debt-free before we married.  Looking back, I think it would have taken me years – maybe all through grad school and into my first real-paying job – to pay off that debt, even after cutting my lifestyle to the bone.  Meanwhile, Kyle would have been living in relative luxury with a huge stash of savings.  What sense does that make?  Delaying marriage would have only hurt both of us and waiting another four years could possibly have cost us our relationship.  We had already been together for four years and we had always planned on a short engagement.  (It took us a long time to reach the decision to get married, but once the decision had been made we wanted to implement it as quickly as possible.)


I think that Stanley’s perspective is a great one to listen to and I agree with him to some extent.  I think the most important thing is to be honest with your future partner about your financial status and habits and to work to get out of debt/improve your situation.  If you are comfortable with working together toward that goal, then I don’t think it’s necessary to delay marriage.


What do you think of the rule/suggestion to get out of (bad) debt before marrying?  Did you start your marriage with debt, and did it bring you closer or drive a wedge between you?  What financial or other habits did you consciously change to prepare for marriage?


photo from Aizlyne


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Filed under: debt, marriage

23 Responses to "Delay Marriage Until You’re Debt-Free?"

  1. I totally agree with you! If we had waited to be debt-free, we still wouldn’t be married.

    To me, it’s more important to have had talks about your life, money, career, and family goals before marriage. There are going to be times when you need to support each other financially. My husband supported me during my Ph.D. and I supported him through unemployment. It all works out in the end!

    1. Emily says:

      Thanks for your comment and perspective! It’s true that one party working hard to become debt-free before marriage doesn’t necessarily mean the couple will be set for the rest of their marriage if they haven’t had all those important discussions. Being debt-free is a great goal but situations change (like employment!) and it’s great to have that practice in working together to accomplish something.

  2. […] from Evolving Personal Finance presents Delay Marriage Until You’re Debt-Free?, and says, “Emily during EvolvingPF examines a recommendation that everybody should be totally […]

  3. jlcollinsnh says:

    Seems money is the biggest source of friction in marriage.

    my wife and I were both debt free and share similar financial attitudes. But we just got lucky. somehow, in the heat of the moment, we never discussed this stuff before the wedding. Yikes.

    1. Emily says:

      Good thing you won that gamble! My husband and I transitioned from being dependent on our parents to being financially independent during the course of our dating relationship, so we actually were able to influence one another’s financial attitudes so we’ve “turned out” to be quite similar.

  4. I agree. Waiting until student loans are paid off, or other debt, almost cheapens marriage and actually gives the debt more power than it should have.

    I think people should get married and attack the debt together.

    Just as you wouldn’t marry someone for their money, I don’t think it’s right to NOT marry someone because of money.

    1. Emily says:

      While I don’t think that you should marry someone for her high net worth or not marry someone because of her negative net worth, I think it’s very fair to factor in what a person’s financial status says about her personality and character. If he has a high net worth, that probably means he is ambitious and disciplined. If he is in lots of consumer debt, that may speak to poor self-control or bad big-ticket decisions. But I definitely respect someone in debt who has turned the situation around and has a plan to become debt-free. That trajectory tells a more complete story than the balance.

      “Gives the debt more power than it should” – right on!

  5. Renee says:

    In general, I really dislike it when pastors go beyond their biblical authority by drawing lines for what we should and shouldn’t do – whether it’s based on their experience or otherwise. Bank statements aside, I think the “red line” for marriage is whether the person is prayerfully seeking God’s will or not. After all, I know far too many successful and happy marriages that occurred outside of the cookie cutter churchy process.

    So I guess I worry about the “tone” of this, although I haven’t listened to the podcast, so it’s hard to judge. Otherwise, I think it’s an interesting *suggestion*, and the principles it highlights are thought-worthy.

    Of course, I think you did an awesome job of picking out the nuggets of wisdom in his intention, and your summary about “honesty” is important. I also like the word “trajectory” – a key indicator for determining if your partner is truly approaching their issues prayerfully.

    1. Emily says:

      Thanks, Renee! As I said, I was surprised. Stanley definitely wasn’t speaking from Biblical authority except insofar as the Bible discourages debt – I think he was just drawing from his role as a marriage counselor. Practically, I think his perspective is valuable, but as I said above I think he should have qualified a few things. I am interested in listening to his sermon series at some point.

  6. Renee says:

    haha – I think I’m just a little sensitive to this – being from Seattle where a certain, rather notorious pastor (yet incredibly popular) has usurped authority in this way (in my opinion). 🙂

    Ok… signing off the nets now. See? This is why I ban myself during the daytime!!

    1. Emily says:

      hmmm I see… I haven’t listened to that pastor or read his new book but I might get around to that eventually too. Already being married I guess all these opinions can’t hurt me!

  7. Emily too says:

    Absolutely agree! I’m in a similar situation (husband has college debt similar to yours, I have none), and talking about what to do about that debt was part of the marriage planning conversation, but once I heard that they were not sky-high and not in repayment because he’s also a PhD student, it’s not like that was a deal-breaker. I think money should serve your life, not the other way around, and putting off your marriage for the sake of principle when both parties are responsible really seems like your life is serving your money.

    (Like your husband, I also offered to put my savings toward his loans, but my husband wasn’t comfortable with that because he accrued the debt before we met, so he actually started making monthly payments on them out of his stipend before our wedding. That shows me he’s even more responsible, and gives us my savings as an emergency fund. We’re only 50% financially combined 6 weeks after our wedding, but so far so good….)

    1. Emily says:

      I’m glad the decision about your husband’s debt seems to be working out. I think it’s really smart to start saving up for or paying off student loan debt while they are in deferment (as long as it doesn’t unduly hinder other goals – maybe that’s something to consider). And of course having an emergency fund is vital – great that you didn’t compromise that.

  8. […] Delay Marriage Until You’re Debt-Free? was featured in The Carnival of Personal Finance #347! […]

  9. […] areas you still struggle with and where you will need his/her help.  I don’t believe that you must be out of debt in order to marry, but you should have addressed and corrected on your own the causes for you (particularly consumer) […]

  10. […] a crazy saver before we got married and built up quite a nice nest egg.  We agreed that we would use the savings he brought into our marriage to pay off the debt I brought in.  His savings were a few hundred dollars short of my balance, so we saved for a few months until […]

  11. […] I don’t think that marriage should be delayed just for financial reasons like not being able to afford a big wedding or a house.  (I do think it should be delayed/called off if the couple is not on the same page about how to handle their money together.)  And it’s the same for children.  Some things in life are too important to be determined by money, and family is one of those.  I suppose there is a baseline somewhere – I think that people should be self-supporting (at least by grad school loans) before getting married, for instance, and I certainly don’t think that you should jump into parenthood if you can’t afford to feed yourself. […]

  12. SarahN says:

    Another incredibly interesting post (thanks for linking from your children post).

    I just chatted to my BF about this when he came to see what I was doing. I think I take a high level of personal responsibility for my debt – which is only a mortgage, but even if I had ‘bad’ debt, I tend to think it’s mine to handle. Even if marriage legally combined our assets and liabilities, I don’t feel the BF is responsible for paying or helping with my mortgage in a property I own solely, and we don’t live in together.

    That being said, I know couples who have been together and shared the repayment journey. Whilst I think it’s admirable, I also know after a long relationship, things have ended, and I wonder if the one in the better financial position throughout, is at all resentful of paying off consumer debt from before their relationship began, only to also be hurt by the relationship being ended by the one in debt.

    Anyhow, I suppose I was definitely impressed to find out my BF’s rather impressive car was bought without a loan/debt when I first met him – it helped me see our financial perspective was rather similar. That being said, as we just discussed, some car loans are a function of a level of necessity (ie some sorts of sales roles) and that doesn’t make them as bad a debt, as without them they may struggle with work. I have to agree to some extent with that logic – it isn’t 100% black and white.

    So in summary, I think it’s most important people know and understand their partner’s money habits and values before marriage. They can be the same (like me and the BF) or like my parents (polar opposites) but so long as they are understood and work together, things can turn out just fine 🙂
    SarahN recently posted..Book Review: The Street Sweeper – Elliot Perlman

    1. Emily says:

      Thanks! I like this post a lot but oldies don’t get much attention.

      I agree with your conclusion that people should prepare for marriage by understanding on another to the best of their abilities, and finances are one of the most important areas to explore. I think the key in what you said is working together. It’s hard for me to understand how a married couple with separate or partially pooled finances is really working together. Having joint finances (and assets) doesn’t mean everything will be smooth sailing, but it at least forces you to contend with your differences.

      1. SarahN says:

        That’s an interesting point, I had lunch with a married colleague, an engaged colleague, and myself (live in BF with semi shared finances) and it is interesting that all couples have some separate money! I think in most cases the women (and I’d include myself) want some liberty to buy what they want without the concern of their partner. I think this is particularly true whilst women are still working and earning, but may change with maternity leave etc.

        I often wonder if BF and I will every fully share our finances (which is what my parents do, so I see it as the ‘normal’). I’m less sure we will. Not that we don’t trust each other, but … well I don’t know. Very good point.
        SarahN recently posted..Book Review: The Street Sweeper – Elliot Perlman

  13. […] my husband’s salary and Kyle is of course not holding it against me in any way – just like when we used his savings to pay my student loans.  We are equals partners in our marriage, differentiated in these cases by circumstance rather […]

  14. Sam says:

    Great take Emily,

    I know this post is dated but it sure speaks to me. I’m newly married – GF got pregnant last year so we had to speed up the marriage process.

    We didn’t get to have this money talks, but both of us are debt-free, college graduate though, she’s yet to start working.

    I’ve been having running battles in my head about all the things we didn’t talk about before getting married.

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