My Boyfriend and I Can't Get Out of Debt. What Do We Do?

Our editor-in-chief 'makes cents' of tackling debt

Illustration depicting a couple in debt

The Balance/Alice Morgan

Dear Kristin,

We can't seem to get out debt. Even when we seem to be making progress, we end up with a setback. This summer we had a plan and we were taking action to get our credit card debt under control, when we were hit with mold in our basement and then an emergency for our dog. Now we're in even more debt. What are the first steps we should be taking?



Dear Sara,

I can only imagine how stressful and scary having debt must be but I want to tell you that all hope isn’t lost. While it might feel that way, you can eventually eliminate your debt.

You’ve identified one key hurdle in paying off your debt: life and its unpredictability. Unfortunately, emergencies often impact us at the worst times and if you don’t have the money set aside to take care of them, you’ll be forced to pay for them through debt. So if you don’t have an emergency fund, you need to make one.

I know this might seem counterintuitive: if you have several months worth of expenses set aside, why not use it to pay off your debt? But the reality is that without this fund, any setbacks will only exacerbate the existing debt you have, as you have seen already.

So your first step is to make sure that another unexpected event doesn’t knock you further back into debt. And the way to do that is to start setting money aside each month to establish an emergency fund. How much will you need? Tally up all your monthly expenses from rent or mortgage, utility bills, to the cost of veterinary care. You’ll want to save at least three months worth, but ideally even as much as six. If you set this aside (and top it up when you take money from it) you’ll always have cash on hand to handle any of life’s emergencies without looking at your credit cards.

The best way to save for emergencies is to incorporate the financial goal into your budget. You’ll also be using this budget to set aside some money to pay off your debt each month. This way when you get paid, you already have a “job” for each penny you earn. Some dollars will go to your credit card bill, while others will be used for savings or anything else you need. 

The next step is to figure out the best way to pay off your debt. You don’t say how your debt is spread out or if you are holding it across multiple credit cards, but as they say, the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. You just need to get started—and the good news is, there’s multiple debt repayment strategies to get you on your way. You can tackle your highest interest debt first, regardless of size, which is known as the debt avalanche method. Or if you need the motivation, try the debt snowball method. You pay the smallest debt first, working your way up to the greatest debt you have.

And if you have multiple credit card debts, consider debt consolidation or a balance transfer to a credit card with 0% interest rate. Debt consolidation could possibly lower your interest rate and make it easier to pay your debt, since you are paying just one bill instead of many. If you decide to go the balance transfer route, you should realize that you’ll only have a limited amount of time (up to 21 months) that you can make interest free payments. So be sure to check the terms of the agreement, and make sure you can pay off the debt before you are hit with a high interest rate again. This means that a balance transfer is better if you are confident that you can pay off your debt in a shorter period of time.

Decide which method is best for you, and focus on it in earnest. You will likely need to make spending changes to make this goal a reality and cut back on your expenses. But you will be able to get through this, even though it might not feel like it right now. If you take it one debt payment at a time, you will one day become debt free.


If you have questions about money, Kristin is here to help. Submit an anonymous question and she may answer it in a future column.

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  1.  Vanguard. “What’s the Right Emergency Fund Amount?