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‘The next conversation will be the end of our marriage’: This couple paid off $130K in debt, only to be $50K in the hole six months later — here's why their problem isn’t actually money

‘The next conversation will be the end of our marriage’: This couple paid off $130K in debt, only to be $50K in the hole six months later — here's why their problem isn’t actually money
‘The next conversation will be the end of our marriage’: This couple paid off $130K in debt, only to be $50K in the hole six months later — here's why their problem isn’t actually money

Sarah and Kevin are at a breaking point in their finances — and their relationship. Only six months after selling their home to pay off $130,000 in credit card debt, the couple had found themselves again $50,000 in the red.

“I’m speechless,” Ramit Sethi told the pair, who were sharing their story in an episode of his podcast, “I Will Teach You To Be Rich."

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In their application to appear on the show, Sarah wrote, "I'd love for Kevin and I to be able to talk about money without being scared that the next conversation will be the end of our marriage." As for Kevin, he’d already told Sarah that if she keeps adding to their debt, he’ll ask for a divorce.

Sarah, 38, and Kevin, 42, earn a combined gross income of $230,000 per year but Sethi says they can’t escape their old habits. Here are the three steps he laid out for this couple to help them regain control of both their finances and their future together.

Analyze your money behaviors and their causes

Sethi believes that money is not only emotional; it’s also generational.

“One of the biggest lessons of this podcast is that our money decisions are rarely our own,” Sethi says. “We like to imagine we're rational, logical people making a careful cost-benefit analysis before buying a box of Ritz crackers. But in reality we're buying those crackers because our parents bought them.

"We learn to talk about money from the people around us. … And of course, we learn how to spend from the people around us. And it is very, very hard to shake those generational lessons."

Essentially, as Sethi explains to the couple, if you’re to have any hope of changing your behaviors, you need to dig deep to uncover the reasons why you spend the way you spend. And you need to face the hard truths that lurk behind your habits.

Sarah's own parents got divorced because of money, and Kevin's parents' never taught him about money. All he knew, he says, was that "Dad took care of it."

"This is a generational issue, I think, on both sides, and now, as a mom and wife, I'm breaking that,” Sarah says. “I don't want my children … to grow up in their life and not know what I didn't know.”

Read more: Can I collect my dead spouse’s Social Security and my own at the same time? Here are 5 secrets of ‘survivors benefits’ you need to know

Understand your numbers

According to the second edition of The State of Personal Finance report for 2023 Ramsey Solutions, 54% of American adults said they're afraid they won't have enough money to cover their expenses.

Once you understand why you operate a certain way, it’s time to face your financial reality head-on. It can be uncomfortable, but Sethi says it's the only way to break free from the cycles you're stuck in.

“In order to live a rich life, a truly rich life, you have to deeply understand your numbers,” Sethi says. “Many of us don't even understand the relationship between our finances and our day-to-day lifestyle. That's what I want to change.”

For couples like Sarah and Kevin, that means sitting down and facing the numbers — how much you owe, how much you’re bringing in and how long it’s going to take you to get back on your feet financially.

Look at your spending patterns and take in the story your spending tells: what do you care about? What do you neglect? Where can you easily make cuts? Sethi doesn’t shame his guests wanting to live a rich life — in fact, he encourages it — he simply wants his guests to be mindful about their spending and think about their larger picture.

As Sethi puts it on his website: “Ask $30,000 questions, not $3 ones.”

Create a plan

By now, you understand your spending and how it’s impacting your life. The next step is taking that information and figuring out how to work that into a financial plan you’ll actually stick to.

"A lot of us spend our lives dreaming about something big that we want to do," Sethi says. "I find that less than 5% of us actually try to plan it out."

It's easier to defer the logistical question of how to make your dream a reality than it is to face the reality that it may not be possible. But you’ll never know unless you actually run the numbers.

One of the best tools to get your finances on track is to create — and most importantly, follow — a household budget. If you find the process overwhelming at all, you may find it helpful to work with a professional financial adviser.

That being said, Sethi believes household budgets are often “unsustainable,” and thus prone to failure, because “they focus entirely on needs and ignore wants.” If like Sarah and Kevin you’ve tried a few different financial management strategies but nothing has worked, Sethi offers a free guide to creating a more flexible “conscious spending plan,” or CSP.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which tool you use as long as you stay consistent. If Sarah and Kevin — and any other couples like them — are able to do that, there’s hope for both their relationship and their retirement fund.

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This article provides information only and should not be construed as advice. It is provided without warranty of any kind.