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First comes paying off debt, then comes marriage

Group Therapy is a relationship advice column that asks readers to contribute their wisdom.

A reader writes: My boyfriend and I are planning to marry and start a family, but his financial habits are scaring me. While he has a stable job, he has racked up $30,000 in consumer debt - buying a boat, expensive car etc. I'm struggling to make my small business grow while saving so that we can buy a home etc. - not to pay off his debts. How should I proceed?

Create a plan

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Explain to him how you see your ideal financial situation in a marriage and ask what his ideal looks like. Use that as a starting point to create a plan. Make sure you are on the same page before marriage - you may need counselling to get there.

- Carissa D'andrade, Vancouver

Heed the warning and run

Unless you want to spend the next few years battling his compulsion to spend, run as fast as you can. Otherwise, when you finally leave him, you will be responsible for half of his debt … or perhaps all of it if he defaults.

- Denise Goodkey, Vancouver

Think pre-nup

Keep your finances separate. It's worth the trouble of recording shared spending and the awkwardness of a pre-nup to avoid forever paying consumer interest. You need to make it clear that the $30,000 is his debt - and that you want to buy a house with him, which is why his debt load matters. It'll be a key test of whether it's likely to work out in the long term.

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- Geoff Bowers, Vancouver

The final word

I am no financial expert, but I know this: Debt is to harmonious couplehood as a provoked skunk is to a fragrant summer's breeze. In short, you don't want it. Don't kid yourself that the transcendent power of your strong and noble love will be enough to bridge the yawning abyss that separates the two of you when it comes to your attitudes toward money.

Not to sound alarmist, but if you intend to bind your future to this man, you should be more than scared - you should be just a tiny bit terrified. Thirty-thousand dollars is no joke, and is the kind of debt that can only balloon if not tackled aggressively and followed up with a strict car-and-boat-free diet. Geoff is correct that the amount is his alone to pay off.

But it's more important to realize that any debt he accrues once the two of you are husband and wife will be yours to share. Discussing how much this concerns you, well in advance of the big day, as Carissa suggests, makes a lot of sense. Running as fast as you can, as Denise suggests, may make even more.

But here's a compromise. Sit him down, articulate your terror and ask your intended if he thinks he can change. If the answer is yes, the next step is to prove it. Both of you must agree not to make that walk down the aisle until the debt is paid off completely.

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Yes, this will mean a long engagement. It will require time, patience and a singular lack of expensive cars - perhaps even the sale of one. If your man is up to it, you can consider this a clean financial bill of health, and confidently expect a happy and prosperous future together.

Next week's question

I dated a man several months ago when he was going through a divorce, then decided I didn't want such an entangled relationship. But now we're talking again, and I'm not ruling him out. Initially I was fine with the Coles Notes version of his situation, but now I'd like details about the divorce arrangement, the marriage, his ex and his kids. How much is appropriate to ask?

Let's hear from you

If you would like to participate, e-mail us at All questions are published anonymously, but we'll include your name and hometown if we use your response (it will be edited).

Lynn Coady is the award-winning author of the novels Strange Heaven and Mean Boy.

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About the Author
Relationship Columnist

Lynn Coady writes the Group Therapy column for The Globe and Mail's Life section. She is the award-winning author of the novels Strange Heaven, Saints of Big Harbour and Mean Boy. Her most recent novel, The Antagonist, will be released this September. She lives in Edmonton, where she is Senior Editor of Eighteen Bridges magazine. More

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