QUESTION: Bethany in Detroit and her boyfriend went through Financial Peace University together once and are about to again. They have no plans to combine finances before marriage. At what point should they sit down together and do a budget but keep their finances separate?
ANSWER: That's usually a really good thing as you go through your pre-marriage time if you're engaged. A lot of counselors that do pre-marriage counseling will have a couple do a pretend budget. If we were married, what would it look like today? In your case, you've both been through Financial Peace University, so you could say, "How would we apply what we learned if we were married today? How would it look? What would we spend our money on? We'd have this income combined, and we'd have these bills combined. What would be our pretend budget?" What that does is it takes you through the exercise of learning to give and take between each other and learning to communicate and learning to cooperate. It also makes you really test out what you believe about what you've learned. But I don't think that's necessary until you're engaged.
Knowing what each other's income is before you're engaged is not a problem. If you've been dating for two years, you can start to tell each other everything about your finances. I don't mind one of you knowing what's going on with the other. I think probably before someone gets engaged, they know where the other one stands financially in most discussions. What I suggest is the closer you're getting, the more you reveal about a lot of things in your life. That's called getting close. You start to know more about your beliefs about religion, dreams for the future, regarding kids, even about problems in each other's families, and you start to kind of unveil the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I think you would normally know what someone's income is and what all their bills are prior to engagement. It'd be kind of weird to have the conversation on the first date. As you get closer... There are all these weird stories about people checking credit scores or something before they go on a date. That's stupid. We're not talking about stuff like that, but it is also common sense on the other end to say, "Hey, I can't really know that I want to marry you until I know if you have $300,000 in student loan debt. That might enter into the equation."
I don't think it's a bad decision to be with someone with that much debt either. I don't tell people to rule somebody out based on debt, but what would scare me more—let's say, for instance, you two were talking and you found out that he had $100,000 worth of debt. That just freaks you out, right? That doesn't scare me as much. For instance, if my son was dating someone and we found out she had some debt or something, that would not scare me. What would scare me more would be that she thinks it's great. That would scare the crap out of me. But if you say I made some mistakes, I've got a stupid car here I've got to get sold, I've got student loan debt—it's going to take me a while to work through it. I didn't know any better. I got in this mess, but I'm going to work really hard to get out. I don't think that's a deal breaker at all.
If there's too much debt and it just freaks you out, it also does not make you bad to not want to go into that.