Editorial Policy

How to Support a Loved One Who's in Debt

Erica Sandberg

May 21, 2013

QDear Erica,

My girlfriend confessed to me that she's $15,000 in credit card debt. It was a shock, but I'm trying to be supportive. The first few months after she told me, she was motivated to pay it down and stick to a budget. But now she's getting frustrated and slipping up. So what can I do to support her? What are some things I should say or avoid saying? I want to marry her someday. I won't give up on her. Since you've worked with people who are in debt, I was hoping you could give me some pointers about how to help her. I know there are no magic words to say, but I want to do what I can. — Michael

ADear Michael,

If this person is the woman of your dreams, I say yes, support the heck out of her right now! She's going through a tough time and could use all the cheerleading she can get.

Paying off such a big balance is not easy, and it's normal to get frustrated. Many people start off strong in the beginning, but after budgeting to the hilt and denying all pleasures, even the most committed can become dejected. There are only so many times you can eat ramen noodles before you want to run over to the nearest cafe and order the most delicious, expensive thing on the menu.Ask Erica

You can absolutely help your girlfriend stay on track. Here are a few things that would work for me, if I were in her shoes:

  1. Listen and convey understanding. It's so tough to constantly monitor spending, and she's going to get frustrated. Let her talk to you about it. Venting is fine. Crying and yelling is, too, as long as it's not directed at you.
  2. Refer her to a credit counselor. Nonprofit credit counseling organizations provide free budget and debt appointments. A counselor can give your girlfriend great pointers on ways she can reduce spending without the agony (perhaps she's been focusing on the wrong things). They may also suggest a debt repayment plan, which can take the burden off of her having to pay separate accounts. They may even be able to reduce her credit card interest rates, so she can get out of debt faster than she is now.
  3. Work on the numbers together. Use an online calculator and figure out how quickly she can get out of debt on her own. It's possible that she's being too aggressive with payments. She might feel more motivated to stay the course if she gives herself some slack. Plug in the numbers and run through several options. For example, let's say her initial goal was to be debt free in a year and a half. With an interest rate of 17 percent, she'd need to send about $950 a month. That might be unrealistic, so extend the time frame and lower the payment.
  4. Inspire her to get a better-paying job. This is a big one. Too often, people focus so much on paring their budget to the bone, and what they really need to do is make more money. If your girlfriend is working part-time, encourage her to take on full-time work or earn extra cash in creative ways like tutoring or pet sitting.
  5. Splurge on her. If I were in her place, I would never want someone to pay off my debt for me (pride, you know). But being treated to a swank meal every once in a while? Yes please! If you can treat her, do so. It can help her feel human and I'm sure she'd be grateful.

With encouragement, compassion and the occasional lobster dinner, your girlfriend should be able to meet her debt-deletion goal. Just as important, she'll know you had her back during a long rough spot.

Got a question for Erica? Send her an email.