“Honey, when did you last have a look at our bank accounts?” is quite possibly my least favourite question ever. When my wife Sam asks it, a shiver runs down my spine.

I put this visceral reaction to a very reasonable query down to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. You see, about a year ago we had a rather harrowing financial experience. The culprit: creeping debt.

We’ve always taken comfort in the fact that our home loan – traditionally the biggest debt burden for families – is comparatively small and easily serviced. Over the years, however, we’ve steadily acquired more and more monthly payment responsibilities, financing first one car and later a second, maintaining a shamefully underutilised family gym membership, ever-rising high school fees, and so on. Added to this is the growing ease and frequency with which we spend money on credit, from an impulse online purchase here to new cell phone contracts for our teenage children there.

And that’s the most dangerous thing about debt. Not the large, predictable lump sums from things like bond repayments, but the small amounts that sneak up on you in a gradually accumulating sort of way until the situation assumes crisis proportions.

When our personal debt melt-down finally hit, Sam and I went through several stages of grief, starting, predictably, with denial, followed by shock and an inability to act on the problem. Alas, the reality that we’d pushed all of our available overdrafts and credit limits to the max and that it was becoming harder and harder to match our family income to our monthly expenses wasn’t just magically going to disappear.

We had no one but ourselves to blame for the dilemma. We should have done a better job of monitoring our finances, realising the ominous trend and curtailing our unsustainable spending habits long before things spun out of control.

If you haven’t realised it by now, we’re not the most fiscally savvy couple in the world. But our biggest fault was simply that Sam and I had left it too late to start talking about the situation.

When we finally did, the conversation wasn’t pleasant. How could this have happened, who was to blame and how on earth were we going to extricate ourselves from this mess?

It may have been tough to start with, but talking things over honestly was what allowed us to start fixing things.

After taking a few deep breaths, we spent some time conducting a post-mortem on our finances, which revealed a number of leaks that, however small, were threatening to push us ever further into debt. Then we put together a budget that would allow us to actually reconcile our spending with our income. 22seven is a great tool for exactly this kind of thing. And yes, we should have done all of that much earlier – see my previous comment regarding our deficiency when it comes to financial smarts.

While these steps helped relieve the immediate pressure, they weren’t quite enough to get us into the clear in the long run.

Sam mentioned that a friend had recently gone through a successful exercise of consolidating her debt. Clearly some more talking was required to get us out of trouble, this time to the folks at our bank.

We were both quite nervous about the prospect of having to tell them how our laissez faire attitude towards family economics had led us into a sticky situation. Were they even going to speak to people who are that fiscally inept?

Turns out they were happy to see us and rather interested in having clients whose financial status was secure rather than precarious. A consultant helped us lump most of our outstanding debt into one consolidated facility, set up a manageable monthly repayment schedule and consider our plans going forward. In the end, a massive weight was lifted off both our shoulders.

Ignoring debt-related issues is never a good idea. As in all successful relationships, communication is key. Talking about money matters with your partner and your financial service providers may not be your favourite pastime, but it’s a vital component of effectively managing your debt and a great habit to get into.

There is another, crucial, benefit: it may just save your marriage. In an online survey conducted for the American SunTrust bank in 2014, about 35% of all respondents who were having relationship problems blamed issues concerning money. This confirms the results of an earlier study published in the academic journal Family Relations in 2012, which showed a strong correlation between arguments over family finances and divorce. According Sonya Britt, a researcher at Kansas State University and a co-author of the paper, the most consistent cause of divorce is “not children, sex, in-laws or anything else. It’s money – for both men and women.”

When Sam asks me whether I’ve checked in on our bank accounts lately my stomach still does a bit of a nose-dive. But only for a second, because these days my answer is always “Of course I have!”

 

Photo via pixabay.com.