How I Slayed My Secret Money Shame and Rescued Myself from Debt

Money managing tips for free spirits who hate spreadsheets

by Manya Dotson, Contributor

Last week I went to my bank’s web page, braced myself, and logged in. When the website had finished identifying and verifying me, I went to my account summary, covered my eyes, peeked through my fingertips, and saw it: My credit card balance was $0.

A Debt Number That Makes You Feel Sick

Zeroing out the MasterCard really should be a monthly occurrence, but for me, it was something I feared I might never see. The dollar value of the debt I had accumulated is between me and my bank. What you need to know was that it was enough that I felt it was out of control. So insert whatever number would make you feel sick when you open your bank account, and assume that’s what was facing me. I am tempted to fill up a whole page with blustery excuses about how I got myself into a situation where credit card debt was something I had to dig out of. I will resist that shame-soaked urge and just say: It was not bottle service in Vegas, or designer handbags; though I will confess I like nice things (I’m a Libra with Scorpio rising). It was stuff like: quitting my job and starting consulting and having to buy health insurance and pay school fees for my family, grad school bills hitting every three months, stocking up on stuff when I came back to the U.S. for a visit, and having a wedding. I have a low interest rate, have always paid way more than my minimum balance due, and have never missed a payment. But the fact was, it was there for far too long, it wasn’t shrinking, and it made me feel like crap.

When Your Partner’s Financial Ducks March In Lockstep

To make matters worse, my husband is really, really good with the money. Like, obnoxiously good.

The guy has an Excel file with twenty-three tabs tracking everything from cash flow to family gifts to frequent flyer miles. There are sub-dashboards and a master dashboard that helps him visually track progress against savings and investment goals. His ducks aren’t just in a row—they are marching lockstep and doing complicated military parade maneuvers. It’s deeply intimidating—especially since it is so important to me that Brian sees me as a capable and competent adult.

When we got engaged, I screwed up my courage and told Brian about the debt. I did not want a marriage with any secrets or hidden pockets of shame. I was truly afraid he would leave me. But instead, he offered to help me create a spreadsheet dashboard of my own. We were fine working together setting up a beautiful cash flow template for me on Excel. But when it was time to go to the bank website and plug in my opening balances. I had a panic attack and proceeded to cry for at least an hour. It felt like a profound violation of privacy, and we aborted the mission. I filled it in later, alone, after Brian had held me close and reassured me that this was something I could get on top of and that this evidence that I am human—and not perfect—did not shake his profound respect for me or belief in my competency. He encouraged me to find a way to get the emotion out of the equation, see my credit card as one arrow in a quiver of useful financial instruments. He urged me to set a reasonable long-term goal that I could steadily work toward, without going into a starvation mode that would inevitably lead to binging (Wait. We’re still talking about money, right?) Years later, with my fortieth birthday just around the corner, it was time to dig deep and get it gone.


Goal Digging

I have always taken New Year’s resolutions pretty seriously. I also have a project at work which is all about helping adolescents create life plans that address relationships, health, career, and finance, and that has led me into all sorts of cool research about goal setting and goal sticking. So, for the last year or so, I have been hyper-aware of not just the resolutions themselves, but how to manage the effort of achieving goals more deliberately. For example, figuring out what your governing values are and how your goals relate to those values gives them deeper meaning. Identifying the supportive factors you have (both internal and external) that could help you reach your goals makes you more likely to benefit from the support. Writing down five bold (but simple) steps you will take TODAY to start down the path is much more likely to kickstart action. I applied what I learned.

finally getting to $0

  • I made straightforward goals that articulated as an affirmation of an already accomplished reality. “On my fortieth birthday I will have no credit card debt and at least six months of emergency cash saved up. I will be maxing out my retirement contribution and I will have a mutual fund that I contribute to every month.” I linked it to my governing value of family, i.e., having my financial house in order is an expression of love of my family. I also spent some time articulating how I will feel when I get there, and writing that down: “I will be able to take a trip without worrying or feeling guilty; I will feel powerful and relieved and maybe even a little smug.”
  • I really worked hard to let go of the shame around the debt. Shame is a crippling emotion, not a galvanizing one. It makes me hide and drives me to compulsive behavior—which is exactly what a person trying to methodically eliminate debt does not need. The research tells us that we experience an inner critic the same way as a physical attack: it makes cortisol and adrenaline pump through the body. So every time I feel myself beginning a new onslaught of “What is wrong with you, you extravagant, stupid woman? You are an irresponsible disaster…” I practice replacing the harangue with words of self-compassion. The messages to myself are carefully crafted to 1.) acknowledge the feelings involved without hyperbolizing or minimizing them, 2.) remind me that I am not alone in struggle, and 3.) tell myself truthful words an infinitely kind and wise friend would say. Here is an example: “Manya, this is hard and I know you feel ashamed. You are not the only person in the world to deal with credit card debt—after all, debt just about took down America. You have achieved amazing things through steady hard work and commitment—this will be no different.” At first it felt silly and disingenuous. I have been shit-talking myself for decades and the grooves in this record are carved deep. I am literally trying to reprogram my brain. But the more I do it, the more it becomes habit.*
  • I made contingency plans. What I learned while working on the life-planning kit is that lots of people set goals, but we don’t think through how we will get back on track WHEN—not IF—we (inevitably) fall off the wagon. Having plans in place, in advance, for the derailings makes long-term commitment more consistent. So I mapped out all of the different ways that I would be likely to get derailed and then thought about what to do about them. For example, I live in Kenya where the retail scene is pretty paltry. I know that trips back to the States with my scarcity complex are dangerous for my goal, so I budget and pre-shop my favorite stores online (within a strict budget), save money in advance for “impulse purchases,” and avoid Anthropologie like the plague.
  • I made it automatic. One of the college students I work with shared this amazing tip with me: It is easier to spend what is left over after saving than it is to save what is left over after spending. So, I set up automatic transfers and payments (just like this couple) that hit the day my salary hits. The money is gone before I even know it is there and I am free to go crazy with whatever is left. Also, all windfalls (such as a juicy tax return) were immediately forwarded to MasterCard.
  • I identified the support factors I had in my life around this issue, both internal and external. I have sticking power: I don’t give up on tasks just because they get hard. I am courageous: I confront very difficult things head on. I have a great job with good benefits.  And I have a truly supportive life partner.


I’m not going to lie. In spite of having an awesome relationship, for a long time it was really, really hard for Brian and me to talk about money. Both Brian and I were married before, and we both have baggage about joint finances. The fact that we each have children that we brought into our marriage makes it even more complicated. We have always kept our money pretty separate (we each have individual accounts that we are paid into, and then we contribute proportionately to our income to a joint household budget and talk through joint purchases like vacations, cars, etc., as they happen). We know that “his’n’ hers” is a false concept legally, and that it might not be entirely sensible, but we are also self-aware enough to know that it is absolutely necessary for the health of our relationship.

During our first conversation about how to finance our wedding, I wanted to die. The fact that I carried debt made me feel like I didn’t have a right to discuss money at all, and I was afraid to propose anything “extravagant” because I had such a negative inner monologue playing in the background. Planning that wedding wasn’t easy, but it helped us understand some fundamental reflexes and stylistic differences in the way we handle money. Brian is the COO and I am the Editor-in-Chief/Creative Director. He handles infrastructure and I drive content. He is deliberate, reserved, and focused on security, while I take a broader brushstrokes approach, value beauty, and invest in experiences. We absolutely need each other to build the secure, interesting, and beautiful life we both enjoy. As the years go by, and we get more and more practice managing the LLC that is our life, we are getting much more skilled at it. We joke about my discomfort and his twenty-three tabs. We hold occasional financial summits to hash out something big, or deal with specific issues or concerns. And as we grow more comfortable in our stylistic differences, we find ourselves merging more and more moneywise.

In a very literal way, what we choose do with our money is an expression of what we value. For me, finance was the final frontier of vulnerability and trust. Finally opening up to Brian about my debt allowed us to be a team rallying to overcome it. Brian did not rescue me from the debt, but he has been incredibly supportive, both emotionally and practically. He compassionately let me cry about my shame, and helped me to let go of it. He fronted certain expenses that required a cash outlay (like a recent move) while I slowly paid down my contribution in a steady way that allowed me to keep my goals on track. He never guilted me about spending. Rather he expressed constant trust in my decision making, which made me feel confident and empowered.

Today my credit card balance is $0. And even though Brian didn’t write any checks, we absolutely accomplished that goal together.

*Dr. Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion has literally changed my life, as did Brene Brown’s work on shame. The Franklin Covey mission statement builder provides a great tool to understand your governing values.

Manya Dotson

Since leaving NYC’s glossy magazine editorial world in 1999, Manya has been living in Sub-Saharan Africa trying to be useful raising money for, designing, and managing public health projects. Manya (who is an American) currently lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya with her beloved husband, Brian, and two daughters, aged 14 and 9.

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  • Jen

    This was a wonderful story full of inspiration. Thank you for sharing!

  • KM

    Congratulations! I hope you celebrated :)

  • Fiona

    The lesson I’m taking from this is that I absolutely need to make better use of my “windfalls.” I don’t have any debt, but I could do a much better job saving.

    • Gina

      This was a hard lesson for me to learn too! Now, every time my husband and I receive a monetary gift, a tax return, or some other unexpected bonus, it goes straight to savings. We never even entertain the option of using it for some big purchase. If we want to make a big purchase out of our savings, that’s a different discussion, and it isn’t tied to some windfall.

    • M.

      Yes I wanted to draw attention to this too! Manya’s points of 1) saving before spending and 2) using windfalls wisely are the two main principals that really have allowed my husband to make big financial strides, and they work in tandem.

      A bonus of his a few years ago paid off my remaining consumer debt (yay!), the most pressing burden we had. Last year all our wedding gift cash went on our student loans (we pay his with windfalls b/c the interest rates are higher than mine), and his promotion bonus just also went on student loans. Payroll automatically puts a portion of our biweekly checks into savings (we have several accounts for diff purposes, incl. travel and other “wants”), so we can use the windfalls in big chunks without feeling like we are neglecting other areas of saving.

      • Lisa

        This is what we’re doing right now, too. We used our wedding money mostly towards the honeymoon with the rest going into savings, but when we got his maternal grandmother’s Christmas check (and when we get our tax refund), we decided to use it to pay off my husband’s Sallie Mae loan. No more Sallie Mae for us! His loans are all deferred right now because he’s pursuing a doctorate, which is giving us time to chip away at the principal without interest accruing.

  • Shortnsweet

    Can we get Brian to share how to make this magic spreadsheet? Excel is mystifying to me!

    • Erin B.

      I love for exactly this reason – you link your financial accounts once, and then you can see all kinds of cool graphs and trends automatically, no Excel needed. Highly recommend.

    • Eenie has completely changed my life. A fellow APWer recommended it. I like it more than mint. My bank has fancy spreadsheets that do what mint does, but YNAB really forces you to become aware of where all your money is going. I’ve steadily decreased my spending without any amount of unhappiness. And I spend money with way less guilt. I know EXACTLY what I can afford.

      • sara g

        I love this program. At first it irritated me that it wouldn’t auto-import all my transactions by syncing with the bank, but now I appreciate that I have to think about every transaction since I have to manually enter it into the budget. Our average monthly spending has dropped consistently since we started using YNAB last year.

    • Pamela Tyll

      Heck, I want Brian to write a post! C’mon Brian!!!!

  • financially anon

    I don’t fully understand the shame in carrying a balance. Beating an overwhelming debt is absolutely an accomplishment, but use of credit is a big factor in determining your fico score. Did bringing the balance down to zero lower your total score?

    • Amy March

      I’ve always understood that what they are looking at is a record of timely payments and your use of available credit. So closing a card sometimes lowers your score because you have less credit available to you, but not carrying a balance doesn’t hurt you at all.

      Which is not to suggest carrying a balance is shameful, but I don’t think FICO scoring is a good reason to do it.

      • Laura C

        Not shameful, but expensive at credit card interest rates.

      • emmers

        Yes, I actually just learned something about this from the bank! It’s apparently your total amount of available credit per card that impacts you score. So, if you have a card with a $500 limit, and you’ve used $450 in credit, this is worse for your score than if you have a $2000 card, and have used $450 in credit.

    • lady brett

      having credit that you have paid on is a (fairly) major part of a fico score (although you can get a pretty similar effect by paying on a loan rather than credit card), but carrying a continuing balance is absolutely not necessary for a high credit score.

      • Kara E

        And carrying a continuing balance is terrible for you from a financial point of view. Terrible.

    • pajamafishadventures

      I manage to maintain an excellent credit score despite having quite a hefty balance. And I am truly appreciative of that because it makes my life a lot easier overall. Still, nothing beats the peace of mind that comes from knowing that balance isn’t following me around, that it’s not accruing interest, and that I don’t have to budget money to put towards it that could otherwise go elsewhere.

    • lady brett

      as for shame, there is a lot of shame in our society around the idea of carrying debt – i think a lot of that stems from the idea of self-sufficiency and that you should “work for what you have” (i’m not saying this is completely accurate, but i think it is part of the shame around finances). also, things people don’t learn a lot about (so, sex and money, mostly) are loaded with shame anyway, because feeling like you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing/supposed to do, and it’s not okay to ask, is stressful.

      • Amy March

        I think the other piece is that it is actually not a good thing to do. People are ashamed of carrying around debt in part the way some people are ashamed of smoking, or their drinking, or eating 5 boxes of Girl Scout cookies last week (they tasted so good but I am not proud).

        I don’t think that makes shame terribly useful or to be encouraged, but it’s fairly common to be ashamed when you’re doing something that you know is bad for you, even when you also know you’re doing the best you can.

      • Sarah E

        Agreed. I meet my expenses every month and I do my best to save, but I feel like I’ve got the kindergarten-level financial info, and I should really be in 12th grade by now. So no matter what our bank account looks like, I am worried about it. Not having all the information you need is rough, and makes you feel dumb (even when you aren’t)

    • Gina

      My understanding is that “credit usage” is a factor in your FICO score–i.e., whether you have been using the cards–but it’s actually more beneficial for your FICO score to pay off your CCs every month because your debt-to-available-credit ratio goes down.

      • M.

        Want to point out here that I think it is important to use your cards a bit, even if you don’t strictly need to and will pay it off right away. I left a card open for years with no balance to keep my available credit as high as possible, but Citi eventually closed it with no notice due to no activity. Won’t make that mistake again!

        • Libby

          I feel like we are little credit twins here with our credit karma usage and now this. The EXACT same thing happened to me and it was ALSO with Citi. Learned about that mistake from CreditKarma and it had a huge impact on how long my accounts have been open since it was my first card (by about 4 years!)

          • M.

            Super twins, mine was also 3-4 years older! But luckily had a much lower limit than my current one. I didn’t know my score then so I don’t know the impact, but I couldn’t believe they didn’t even send me a letter to warn me. Live and learn I guess! :)

    • Meg Keene

      Yeah, to echo everyone else you DO NOT have to carry a balance to keep a great credit score. You need to have a history of paying DOWN debt. AKA, you can charge a bill every month and pay it off every month, and that’s great. Having charged a large amount and paid it off also would be a good use of credit. In fact, when we used to pull credit scores in real estate, one of the factors looked at was the ratio of credit had to credit available. You wanted as much available as possible. IE, if I collectively have $100K limits between all my cards, they’d like it if I only was using $100 of that credit, not $40K. That’s not make or break of course, you can have great credit and a big balance (not great for you personally often, but fine for your credit), but having a high ratio of available credit is also looked at as a very good thing. (It’s all a little opaque, TBH, different firms and people pulling scores look at different things.)

      • Manya

        I have a very respectable credit score.

    • M.

      Bringing it down to zero shouldn’t hurt your score at all. As others have said, in addition to the ability to make payments on time (which you can do with a huge balance or not), your ratio of credit to debt and the LENGTH of your credit history are much more crucial. So if you pay off the card (HOORAY MANYA!!! Been there and its an awesome feeling), by all means leave the account open and use it from time to time for things you can pay off right away. Having that long through line of credit (from when the acct was opened until the present) is golden!

  • AP

    I love, love, love your relationship-as-a-company metaphor! It gives me a lot to think about in my own life. Fiance and I have vastly different skill sets and approaches to problem-solving, and it’s interesting to frame it in terms of what our “company role” is in the relationship.

    This is a very timely post for me. Anxiety has been a part of my life for several years, but I (naively) thought that a few major life changes had nipped it in the bud. Over the past few weeks I’ve been coming to terms with the fact that it’s creeping back into my life and has been for some time. This is a part of me that Fiance has never experienced, and it was so, so hard to admit to him what I’ve been feeling. Like you, I’m terrified that it makes me seem less stable and less together, or that it somehow reflects on our relationship.

    But I am so glad I did tell him. His support was immediate and has been wonderful so far. He can’t fix it for me, but he’s there to take things off my plate when I feel overwhelmed, protects my space when I need time for quiet or exercise, and listens when I speak up about what’s going on with me. It feels so good to know that even though the tough work is mine, we’re facing it as a team.

    • MC

      My husband & I always say that I am the CFO of our relationship, and he is the Chief Investments Officer :) Definitely helps us remember that we have different strengths in terms of money/household management!

      • Laura

        Ha, I was just responding to say the same thing. My husband actually calls me “Madam CFO” in our money talks. I handle all of the long-term stuff (investments, retirement, etc.) as well as the day-to-day nitty gritty stuff. My husband helpfully encourages me to loosen my Scrooge-like fingers when I’m getting a little too worked up about spending money to purchase something I *want* but don’t necessarily *need*. Otherwise, I rationalize myself out of pretty much any purchase that doesn’t fall under the “bare necessities” category.

        • AP

          I do the same thing! I’m learning to loosen up a bit and reclassify my wants vs. needs as well. Because while, no, a person doesn’t *need* a purse to survive, I do *need* a new purse because my old one is frayed and stained. Plus Fiance is big on paying more for quality, while I tend to buy the cheapest thing that gets the job done. A year later, which do you think is broken or needs to be replaced? So I’m also learning to spend money for quality to save in the long run.

          • MC

            Yep, same dynamics exist in my relationship – AND I do need a new purse soon, but looking at quality leather purses I definitely had some sticker shock… but I also know a quality purse that lasts more than 2 years would make me so happy. These are hard habits to break!

  • Maruatto

    I swear to god Manya you are my spirit animal. My debt is the big dark secret that no one would ever guess about me because I seem, I mean, AM, so competent overall. Peace Corps, grad school, starting a consulting business – it happens but it feels SOOOO shameful.
    OK, I had to write that, now I have to go back and finish the article. Thank you SO MUCH!!

  • Lauren from NH

    I love, love, love the section on shame. That is some powerful stuff! The idea of counseling yourself like you would counsel a friend, with compassion is transformative and applicable to almost any issue. I think this is a stumbling block for so many people who have dug themselves into a hole.

    When life gets a little less cray I am definitely checking out those authors you mentioned.

  • lady brett

    congratulations – in part on the zero balance, but more so on learning how to communicate about money with brian in a good and functional way!

    that is something i desperately need to be able to do with my honey, but can’t figure out. shockingly, not discussing it hasn’t worked particularly well (but discussing it has generally been worse).

  • anonforthis

    Thanks so so much for this – it’s exactly what I need right now. After 5+ years with my boyfriend, my finances are the reason we are not yet engaged. It’s not just about total balance, it’s also about unlearning a lifetime of unhealthy financial habits. When you’re trying to change habits AND pay down balances, the financial results are slow to build compared to attitude change, and it’s so frustrating to feel like you’re not making any progress. I completely understand the shame aspect too – even my close friends who I’ve shared with unwittingly say things that feel like slamming a door in my face. My boyfriend has been unbelievably supportive, encouraging and patient, and if there is any silver lining it’s that this experience has given us an opportunity to learn how to a) talk about money and b) talk about really difficult things. Thanks to APW for featuring this and to the writer for sharing – inspiration and solidarity make it a lot easier to stay on track.

  • In love with a non-saver

    Any tips on how to do this with combined finances? Specifically with a partner who is more uncomfortable talking money than you are and gets depressed when we can’t eat out?

    • Laura

      If reading a book helps you get on the same page, I highly recommend David Bach’s “Smart Couples Finish Rich.” It can help the two of you clarify your life values and how your financial decisions do/do not fit with your values (what Manya alluded to in this essay). It’s fine if your values don’t precisely align — what’s important is understanding what motivates your partner. It sounds like he might value occasional indulgence or the fun/excitement of going to new restaurants. Once you figure out what you value, you can set financial goals (for both saving and spending) to ensure that your cash flow aligns with your values.

      In my own life, I’ve found that talking about values is a great place to start. And it might be less threatening to your partner. The nitty gritty dollars and cents part can come later.

      • MC

        Oooh I like this. Because there can be so many great things about eating out – the atmosphere! the excitement of being out! the food! And once you know which ones of those are important you can find ways to cut back & replicate them for less money. My husband & I recently realized that we need to just invite friends over to our house for dinner rather than suggest that we go out to eat when we want to hang out with someone. And doing happy hour dates (drinks & apps) instead of full on dinner dates (which usually involve apps, drinks, dinner, desert) helps us feel like we’re investing in the fun part of our relationship.

        • Sarah E

          That’s so important. It’s tough the first few times, but being able to suggest happy hour, or have in mind an activity/drink/dining choice that costs less is really helpful.

          I do well when I tell my partner specifically on our way to the bar “I’d really like a martini, but I’m definitely just having one.” Then I’m accountable and fee both smart AND fun sipping my water after that great first drink.

          What also helps is putting yourself in the atmosphere to really savor what you have in front of you. I noticed this so strongly after my partner and I went to a local beer and cheese pairing. It was such a fun outing, and the whole focus was tasting these delicious pairings. When replicating the pairings at home in front of the TV, it certainly lost something to have a show on and our attention elsewhere. I learned if I’m going to spend money on it, I really want to savor the hell out of what I have. It makes the small luxuries (no matter their actual cost) really feel valuable.

    • M.

      I am not in your situation, though we have 100% merged finances, but only in that we both are comfortable talking about it and do so A LOT. Probably almost every day, with monthly meetings the set the next budget (Something I recommend, and possibly make it a “date” night with advanced notice, so you can both be in the right mindset and prepared? We have budget dates).

      But, I do have a harder time than my husband not going out to dinner, and we have found that even though it’s not quite as virtuous, we have increased our restaurant budget and decreased groceries. It’s a quality of life issue for us, and putting a little more money there makes us happier overall. Everyone’s situation is different, but if it is doable for you to have some budget for restaurants, presenting it as things you are ABLE to do instead of CAN’T do can go a long way.

      • kcaudad

        everything you said is great, and so similar to what we do! we had ‘bi-monthly budget meetings’, because we got paid every-other week. We usually had these meeting after a meal and with a few beers, too! they were so helpful in making us talk about money in a logical and non-emotional way over time. we recently stopped doing these as often, since our budget is pretty standard from month-to-month now. We have tried using the ‘envelope’ system to keep on budget, and that helped a lot, too. we don’t follow the budget quite so strictly now, but do watch the online bank account apps like crazy people!
        my other recommendation would be to give yourselves some ‘miscellaneous’ or ‘fun’ money (going out to eat once a week, hanging out with friends, buying a random pair of shoes, etc.) we started out with 20 each a paycheck for misc. money. and also added a small amount into the budget for eating out/going to bars each month (50-100 depending on the other expenses that month.) it majorly helped us keep sane while on a more strict budget! yes, you could take that money and put it towards debt, but we figured that it would take us 7+ years of super strict budgeting to pay everything off. So, we decided to add some ‘fun’ money to the budget so we don’t go insane by not spending any extra money for 7+ years! Also, I’m ok with it taking a little longer to pay things off if it means I can go out or buy a random item every so often!

    • jashshea

      Disqus just ate my long drawn out response! UGH.

      DINK Disclaimer: We’re in our mid30s and have 2 good jobs. Wanted to share my perspective (because it’s working for us), but I understand that my perspective isn’t from a place of scarcity.

      Anyway. Neither of us are super frugal, but I do better at saving than spending. We fell into a situation where my husband pays our mortgage, utilities, and car/condo insurance from his paycheck. My paycheck mostly gets divided into various savings/investment accounts. Windfalls go to savings. If he has money “leftover,” I don’t stress about what he’s using it for. Conversely, he knows that we’re covered for medium sized emergencies.

      All money is “ours” but we’re both playing to our strengths. Works for now, won’t work forever.

      • emmers

        This is more or less what we do too, right now! One partner being the primary saver, one being the primary pay-er.

    • Amy March

      Saving is really about delayed gratification. Not going out to eat now, so that someday you can buy a house, or pay for your kids to go to college, or afford food when you’re 90. Can you broaden the focus to how your partner is generally about delaying gratification? Might give you clues on the monetary side to look bigger picture.

    • BSM

      Patience, kindness, and reassurance worked best for me. I felt like the WORST PERSON EVER when my partner and I began talking about combining finances, and I had about $7500 in CC debt. We took it slowly, and, like Manya’s husband, he reminded me often that he still loved me and thought of me as an intelligent, responsible, competent person. After we both had the full view of each of our individual financial pictures, we made a plan together to pay off my debt and save for the future. The plan was aimed at improving our finances *as a couple* (vs. paying off *my debt*) which I think helped us both feel like we were really invested in our success.

      Also, personally, it really helps me be more financially solvent if I have something at least kind of specific in mind that I’m saving for (a new laptop, a vacation, kitchen reno, etc.). Even if I won’t spend all of (or even a lot of) what I’m saving on the item, it helps to have some kind of goal.

      • M.

        I second the idea of specific goals. We have a very granular budget and online savings accounts (travel, holiday gifts, dining table, future kids’ college fund, new suit for husband, class tuition for me). It does help us to be specific, and the feeling of reaching the goal, like the table for example, FEELS AMAZING and makes the delay worth it. I love this table so much more than if we’d charged it and gone into debt. Took us 5 months, but here it is and I’m so proud of it!

        • kcaudad

          I really like the idea of ‘naming’ your saving and giving yourself something to work towards when saving. we have an online savings account that allows your to create ‘sub accounts’ that you can name whatever you want. so, we have a ‘car fund’, ‘home renovation fund’, ‘vacation fund’, etc, etc, for our ‘long-term’ savings. it’s hard for me to save just for the sake of saving. but, if I can save for a car, I’m on board! It also helps me to not spend that money on any small ’emergency’ that seems to come up (nope, can’t buy X item, that savings money is for a car!)

          • In love with a non-saver

            Out of curiosity, where do you bank that allows you to do this? I’m all about sub-folders at work, so the idea sub-folders at the bank is kind of giving me a lady boner.

          • M.

            We do the same thing — ours are CapitalOne360 accounts. We are joint owners on the account and you can make more or less as many sub accounts as you want, all through your online account. I think we have 8? A portion of each paycheck goes into our main account and then we apportion it as we see fit each month (which expenditure is highest priority at that time).

          • Not Sarah

            I did this for years with Capital One 360 and then with Ally Bank. I can also open additional savings accounts with my credit unions (First Tech Federal in the US and Coast Capital Savings in Canada) online and it’s super easy. Highly recommended!

          • BSM

            I use Ally, which I wholeheartedly recommend. They offer completely free interest checking accounts, so we have like… 8? You can open them while sitting on your couch! One for bills, one for life (eating out, movies, etc.), one for the wedding, one for emergencies… A lot. And you can label them accordingly so you don’t have to remember account numbers when transferring between them. It’s like the tried-and-true envelope method minus actually having to get cash and split it into envelopes.

            We used to have a mix of Ally and CapitalOne360, but we ended up moving away from the latter a bit because they don’t offer wire transfers! Not that we’re doing those all the time, but usually when we were, it was a fairly urgent necessity (like, uhh, when we needed cough up our down payment on our house). Also, I prefer Ally’s Popmoney to CO360’s version because you can set up automatic recurring payments with it.

          • Ashley

            I second the recommendation for Ally. Right now their Online Savings accounts have a .99% interest rate, which, while still not a ton on small balances, is way better than the .10-.15% offered by my credit union. Those particular accounts don’t have checks or debit cards, but it’s easy to transfer money to your main bank account for spending. (Besides, making it harder to spend your savings isn’t such a bad thing!)

    • emmers

      We are paying off debt and saving, but we also still eat out. We basically try for balance. Yea, if we never ate out and never spent money, we’d pay things off much more quickly, but it would also be a big cut to quality of life.

      So we don’t eat out much, but we do still occasionally.

  • Money shame is so, so real, and SO hard to talk about with a partner or even friends. My breakthrough in dealing with my feelings about it was when I started thinking of it the way that I do body shaming, food issues, and insecurity about weight. (Both are seen as moral issues/a lack of self control.) When I framed it like that to Eric — who has always had money and been good with money — I felt like it was easier for him to understand why I behave the way I do and why it’s not just an easy/overnight thing for me to fix.

  • M.

    Re: the conversations about credit scores — I love CreditKarma because 1) it’s free, and 2) it does a great job of laying out with helpful charts and layman’s terms how they got your score, how you can improve, and how your score has changed. It’s really need to see the ranges they use for credit-to-debt ratio, etc. It’s a nice overview of the different parts of a credit score and how they work together.

    • Libby

      Second this! CreditKarma helped me so much to get a handle on things and understand what actually impacts my credit score.

    • Lauren from NH

      No catch?

      • M.

        Nope! You don’t give them billing info or anything (though you do give them SSN). It’s a well-established, respected site as far as I know, and a really valuable tool.

      • Libby

        I was so skeptical, but I read a lot about it to figure out what the catch was, I knew they had to make money somehow. Turns out, the way they make money is by making recommendations to you – so, sort of like having advertising here. They will make a credit card recommendation to you based on your info (and I’ve found their recommendations to not be too far off base after then researching cards). But you don’t have to follow their recommendations and it is not at ALL intrusive or crazy spammy emails or anything. The couple recommendations you come across are far outweighed by the benefit of feeling informed and in control of what is impacting your credit score and how to improve it if need be – at least for me!

        • M.

          Yep, basically just advertising on the page that I barely notice, since it’s below the most crucial info. And I have never had an email ad from them ever, just reminders every month or so to check my score, and those you can unsubscribe from.

          • You check check every month?

          • M.

            You can check whenever! Checking your own credit score doesn’t ding you, only when others pull your score.

    • emmers

      I will say that having just used them & also having gotten my credit run when applying for a loan, they seem to be a bit off. For us, CreditKarma said we had a fairly lower, I think it was 50 – 100 points each lower, scores than we actually had. So, just something to keep in mind.

      They do seem to adjust scores when you do things like pay off debt, it’s just that the resulting score may not be actually accurate (in our case, that was a good thing!).

      • M.

        That’s really interesting! I wonder which company your lender pulled from (there are 3 I think?). I have never seen such a stark difference between the credit rating agencies, though as of today two of mine (Equifax and Transunion) as pulled by CreditKarma are 6 pts apart. 100pts *does* seem to be a lot to just be an issue of the agency, but again I guess we don’t know their formulas. How amazing to find out your credit is so much higher than you thought!!! Nice surprise :)

        • emmers

          Yea, it was odd! It was the same for my husband, but it worked for us. :) It seemed like they were more or less accurate as far as my score vs his was, but just a bunch of points off.

      • Erin B.

        CreditSesame is similar to CreditKarma, except they pull from a different credit source. I find that my real credit score seems to be lower than CreditSesame and higher than CreditKarma – I can get a pretty good guess by checking them both.

    • Ashley

      Yep, CreditKarma is awesome! Especially now that they provide your ACTUAL TransUnion and Equifax scores instead of their own estimated score. And it’s nice that you can keep an eye out for identity fraud more often than a once-a-year credit report. Love it.

  • Julia

    The feeling of wanting to die during a conversation about money?? So spot on — until recently, almost every single conversation I had about money with my partner ended in tears (me) and confusion (him: “why are you crying??”). And the “words of compassion to yourself” tactic is really critical. It’s kind of amazing that when we talk to ourselves as we would a friend (aka, nicely but firmly), we get closer to better solutions and new habits. Major kudos to you for digging yourself out of the shame hole and working with your partner to find strategies to help you confront the debt. Not an easy feat! Thanks for sharing your story.

  • Jessica

    Money is a cold hard thing fraught with emotions.

    Congratulations on paying down your debt and being able to talk with your husband about it!

    My husband and I have been married for a year and a half and have only scratched the surface on money talk. We’re both good with money–he is better than I am because he actually has some. I, on the other hand, have a bunch of student debt and had to figure out how to control my credit card debt coming out of college. I keep saying we need to meet with a financial advisor, because we do better at controlling ourselves (language/emotion) when we have an audience for the the Big Discussions.

  • pajamafishadventures

    My goal for 2015 is to get all my credit card debt paid off so that I can begin working on savings. I had it down once before after a rough financial period made it our only way to buy food, but then we had to move across country and everything snowballed from there. Both of us have debt (mine credit card, his credit card and student loans), and the windfall from our tax return was helpful money not already budgeted for that allowed us to put some dents in things.

    Our problem with discussing this seems to come down to out-debting the other. When I say “I want to work really hard to pay off my credit card!” what I mean is “I want to be personally debt free and pay off my credit card!” and what he hears is “LOL I have so much less debt than you!” Which is true, we could buy several nice houses with his student loan debt, and it’s a big reason of why we’re keeping our finances separate. For two people who are very aligned on the majority of issues, finding common ground in how to talk about and manage our finances has been incredibly difficult.

    • kcaudad

      “we could buy several nice houses with his student loan debt, and it’s a big reason of why we’re keeping our finances separate.” check your state laws on this – in our state (WI) – debts become ‘marital property’ once you are married, and thus could be split equally between both parties in a divorce situation. Therefore, my husband’s student loans are actually ‘our’ debt now that we are married. Also, they will most likely look at both of your credit histories, credit scores, debts, income, assets, etc, when determining if you can get a mortgage for a house. Unless, the home is going to be solely in one person’s name and/or you are not married (again, check the laws in your state).However, my husband (or both of us, now) has student loans that are equivalent to 3/4 of our home mortgage. And, they let us get a mortgage! Check with local banks or credit unions to see if you would qualify jointly or separately. moral of the story – the debts might truly be shared, and you don’t ‘need’ to pay off everything for one person when you want to buy a house.

      • pajamafishadventures

        I should mention that we aren’t married yet and while we have a lot of reasons to put it off right at this moment, our gross financial instability is one of them, though we’re certainly not waiting until his loan’s are 100% paid off to take the plunge.

        • kcaudad

          totally understand that – I just assumed you were engaged or would be married soon. we also kept our finances as separate as possible until we were married. but, it was a challenge to ‘actually’ keep things separated when living together before being married.

      • MC

        Actually, student loans don’t get transferred to a spouse (unless, I think, the spouse cosigns a loan consolidation or something like that) and they don’t get passed down to dependents either – they die with whoever took them out.

        My student loan provider sends me e-mails every year to wish me a happy birthday (that is weird, right??) and I always think to myself, “Yeah, you DO want me to stay alive, don’t you, so I can keep paying you!”

        • Margret

          Check your state. In the event of a divorce, especially in community property states, the court can make the other spouse responsible for paying back a portion of the student loans if the other spouse benefited from the education they provided, and/or based on what income was used to pay the loan back. The “never get transferred to a spouse” people hear about is really only hard-and-fast in the event of death (and even then, you’d better hope you didn’t consolidate together, sign a guarantee, and that they’re government loans).

        • EF

          also depends on the student loan type. federal and private loans are completely different beasts.

  • My fiancé is 10 years older than me, and HELLA more established in his career. I’ve just graduated as a teacher and moved back to the UK, on top of which I haven’t been able to work while some immigration papers come through.

    From my point of view, it’s been really hard to reconcile the fact that I am young and childless, but still not contributing financially to the household. I can rationalise it all the way, and I totally know that I would be working if I could, but for some reason I still feel like crap when I want to buy something for myself, not for the both of us. J has a totally different approach to money than me to: he’s very generous, but he doesn’t really like to know where the money has gone. I’m the opposite, and want to budget everything to the last penny. We’re still working our way through this stuff.

    My only comfort is that he will probably retire before me, so I can be the financier then!

    • Not being able to work during immigration was really hard for me for several reasons, but one of them was having zero financial independance. Just wanted to say that it can be a hard phase for sure… But it helped me grow in relationship ito my then-husband (including regarding finances), so there were some benefits that came along with the challenges (besides, you know, the actual immigration process).

  • Emily

    I really appreciated this entire essay, especially the thoughts on shame and goal building. My absolute favorite part is this sentence, which is brilliant!

    “His ducks aren’t just in a row—they are marching lockstep and doing complicated military parade maneuvers.”

    • Kayla

      Best mental image of all time.

  • emmers

    We’re currently moving money around to try to buy a house. We have joint finances in some ways, but we don’t yet have joint credit cards.

    One thing that recently was helpful in improving credit scores for us, and also saving interest, was shifting debt. One of us has a fair bit of credit card in their name. The other of us does not, and both a) has better credit card interest rates, and b) was getting promotional offers from the bank on good rates if we transferred a balance.

    We ended up transferring a lot of balances from one person to the other, to take advantage of better interest rates, which will save us hundreds of dollars this year. It also bumped up the lower person’s credit score, because we were using less of their available credit.

    It lowered the higher partner’s credit score, but we overall won, because if you’re doing a joint mortgage, apparently the rate you get is based off of the lowest credit score of the couple. Just something that worked for us!

    • I’ve been told it is good to keep a separate/personal card (even if you also have some joint cards), so that you have and maintain a individual credit history as well.

  • Ella

    As always, a wonderful piece from Manya. This is one of the reasons I keep reading APW even though I’ve been married over a year now….these great, honest, life pieces that talk about real things we deal with in marriage. Thank you again, Manya, for sharing with us and congratulations on paying down your debt!! :) :)

  • MC

    I love this piece and I love these discussions around finances on APW!!! I’m 2-4 months out from paying off my student loans thanks in large part to my husband’s encouragement and support. I thought I wanted to be solely financially responsible for paying them off, but having the two of us prioritize larger payments has been a HUGE help – we can pay them off this year instead of 2-3 years later. I actually daydream about the day when I log in to my student loan provider and see a zero balance, and I love reading stories about others tackling their debt. Congrats Manya!

  • HannahESmith

    I love this post. I think honest real discussions about money are so important, especially when you’re building your life with another person. And congrats on getting to zero! That is a huge accomplishment.

    While not directly related, I’ve been reading Pound Foolish recently. I highly recommend it. Most of the time Americans don’t get into debt because their irresponsible or living large. It’s often because of unfortunate events, like a medical emergency. The whole culture of making people feel bad about themselves for debt helps advance the personal finance industry. And the majority of the industry is not very honest. (There are honest people out there with a real responsibility to help you, but they are not anywhere near the majority.) I’ve actually been thinking about a career in the fiduciary side of the financial planning industry because I really want to help people.

    • “Most of the time Americans don’t get into debt because they’re irresponsible or living large. It’s often because of unfortunate events, like a medical emergency.”

      Can I push back on this? Many individuals spend all of the money they make, without saving any money for emergencies (lets face it, many of these emergencies are actually inevitable, non-regular expenses, that should be expected and not viewed as an emergency). For most of the middle class, spending everything you make is a choice, and not saving anything for ’emergencies’ is a choice. I don’t think it’s accurate to say that the medical event is the cause of people’s debt – it’s the medical event, on top of not saving any money in an emergency fund. (Full disclosure: my income is 31K as a grad student, and my husband and I live on that (excluding travel) and save his income.)

      • Dom

        I agree – if medical issues or other emergencies were the main cause of debt, then the shame around it would be less. Usually, from what I’ve seen and experienced – it is an unfortunate incident that tips the debt from “acceptable” to horrific and scary. Debt is debt is debt. The problem I see is that people think carrying a balance of a few grand is acceptable, and then something comes up that is another few grand gone, and then oops – the house needs a new roof. The next thing you know your “reasonable” debt has grown into a nightmare that will take years and sacrifice to break free.

        Reasonable debt is a lie. Sadly, I don’t know anyone who hasn’t relied on debt – student loans, mortgages, car payments. Some things would be unattainable for the middle class without bank loans. The problem is when you forget that it can grow so much in so little time.

      • HannahESmith

        Yes, having an emergency fund is important. I personally have at least enough saved for a year of expenses (but about 75% low-fee index funds and bonds because holding that much money in a only a checking account would be silly.) I also bought my car in cash, and we live in the same apartment that we’ve moved into when we first started our careers, even though we could now afford something more expensive. I’ve never carried a balance on my credit card. I’m ahead of schedule on my 401k. I’ve made all the “right” financial decisions, and yet, if either myself or a family member were hit by one disastrous event, like a major medical event, and all that money would need to be spent very quickly. I do think our lack of safety net is a huge problem.

  • Ashley

    Okay, I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but here’s the obligatory “Go check out You Need A Budget” comment on an APW financial post. YNAB is a game changer for a lot of people, myself included. It’s a digital form of the envelope method, and it’s a really wonderful tool, regardless of where you are in your financial life.

    • Absolutely! If someone else didn’t bring this up I was going to. I think it would be really great if YNAB did a sponsored post because it’s not just software, it’s a way of life. It has absolutely transformed our lives for the better. I recommend it to everyone I can. We’ve been using it since August and it has helped us pay off huge amounts of debt because we’re much more clear about where our money is going. I wish I had found it years ago!

  • Mary Jo TC

    I’d love to hear more about the life plans you help teenagers create! I’m a high school teacher and I’m always looking for resources like that.

  • Really enjoyed the article, congrats on the zero balance!

    I don’t personally have any similar experiences (my relationship with credit cards would be like, a montage of me frolicking in the fields, using the points and miles and cash back I get for using CCs for my spending that I always pay off). But I am really, really big on encouraging discussion of finances and being open about them. I share an absurd amount online (or in person) about mine, in an effort to break down the taboos. The psychology of money is one of my most favorite topics.

  • Valerie Day

    Yay~ This is a great piece. I love how her partner helped her without spending money (a good listener!). I found an excel spreadsheet sample on one of the former discussion posts about budget tracking and it has helped me become a responsible adult. My wife and I imported it into google docs so we can both access it from everywhere. We have a tab for everything and I have found that having different budget lines really helps my “poverty brain” when I am struggling with the frustration of “not enough” or the desire to binge spend.

  • Kara E

    Bravo for kicking that consumer debt! AND for having the hard discussions about finances early rather than waiting until it impacted your marriage.

    My husband and I have more or less separate banking, but that’s more a heritage of getting married late, rather than young. We tend to pay expenses out of our accounts and most of the bills comes out of my husband’s account, mainly because he earns more right now (though he’ll probably retire long before I will). Towards the end of my (6 month) maternity leave, I was running low on accessible cash and had a really painful (for me) conversation about needing more money to pay for the things I pay for (which is pretty much all the household stuff). His reaction was something along the lines of “of course you do, you take care of all these things (x,y,z) and we should have done this earlier!” Still haven’t worked out all the separate, but the discussions are less scary now.

  • Shauna O

    Thank you for this post. It has made me feel human for having debt, but made me feel confident in knowing the my plan (already in action) to conquer it is entirely possible.

    • Shauna O

      that* AH typos.

  • InHK

    My husband and I decided to put all our money on the same boat, so to speak, and do everything jointly. (Good for her, not for me, right? Every couple has to find what works for them.) I’m not “bad” with money, but I’m not making a whole lot of it. My husband has always made more than me and yes, I was insecure about what that meant for shared finances. Did it mean that he got more say in every financial decision? If I bought shoes, would he fuss at me for spending “his” money from our joint account?

    My fears were unfounded. My husband isn’t that guy and the rational part of me knew it, but the freaked out newly engaged woman who sat down to talk out a new financial relationship didn’t. When we had our very first conversation, I made sure there was wine. I had a glass, he had a glass, we went over spreadsheets, I would have to stop and cry a bit, he comforted me, I gritted my teeth and we got through it.

    Now, as we come up on our one year anniversary, financial conversations are so much easier. We have a good dialogue going and we’ve been hashing this stuff out monthly when we plan trips or other expenses on top of our monthly budget. All of this to say that if you’re just starting the finances conversation with your partner and it’s tough, you’re not alone. It is hard – for everyone – but it does get better.

  • Laura

    This essay was fantastic and just what I needed to hear. Thank you x

  • Rachel

    THANK YOU! This is exactly the article I needed right now. :)

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