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When KellyAnn Kirkpatrick hears that her date went to an Ivy League school, she’s more concerned than impressed. Her inner dialogue goes like this: Congrats! You’re probably really smart. But I wonder how much debt you’ve taken on — probably more than I have.

Kirkpatrick, 22, graduated from Boston University in May with about $36,000 in student debt. Monthly payments of about $380 will start coming due in November, but they’re weighing on her mind already. Especially when she’s considering suitors who might be even more heavily indebted.

There’s a good chance they might be. Members of the class of 2015 graduated with an average of about $35,000 in student debt, according to a study from Mark Kantrowitz of Edvisors.com, a Web site about college costs and financial aid. The economy may be recovering, but millennials aren’t necessarily feeling it: Just 37 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 are very confident about paying off their debt, according to May report from Country Financial.

That same report found that younger Americans are more likely to discuss how they might manage their finances as a couple before getting married.

Financial planners recommend talking about debt much sooner. Marcio Silveira, founder of Pavlov Financial Planning in Arlington, suggests that couples review each others’ credit reports before moving in together. (Or, if you’re not cohabiting before marriage, then a little while after getting engaged, and definitely before you start budgeting for a wedding.) Catherine Derus, founder of Brightwater Financial in Chicago, also mentions cohabiting as a good time to bring up the money talk; another option is before a couple goes on a big trip together. Her bottom line is: Talk about it before a relationship gets serious.

People are a lot more shy with their finances than with their bodies, Silveira says. “To be intimate financially very often is much harder than to be intimate physically,” he says. “Because money is such an emotionally charged subject, it becomes a very difficult topic.”

For Kirkpatrick, the financial conversation often starts earlier than cohabiting or vacation-planning with a significant other. She’s a paid intern at Young Invincibles — a nonprofit advocating for millennials on health care, jobs and higher education — so once friends, acquaintances and dates learn what she does, the conversation often turns to venting about student debt.

This is similar to a tactic Derus recommends for starting your own conversation. “You can reference, ‘Hey, I hate having this student debt, or credit card debt, or car loan,’ ” she said. “Then follow up with: ‘So, how about you?’ ”

Kirkpatrick tries to get a rough picture of a potential partner’s debt situation about a month into dating, at the point where the two of them might be discussing their family backgrounds. If a guy says he wants five kids like his parents had, she might come back with: “It’s really expensive to have kids. Are you gonna be balling like that?” 

Those conversations usually reveal whether or not the other person has started thinking about settling down and having a family (she says she’d like to be married by 30) — or whether he’s more focusing on paying bills. If a prospective partner has a lot of debt but is in a good position to eventually pay it off (a med student, say, versus a psychology major), she’s less alarmed.

“It’s kind of hard for me to date somebody who’s in the same field as me,” she says of others holding liberal arts degrees. “I’m thinking about degree outcomes all the time,” she says of her advocacy work, “so I might be a little cynical.”

She might just be practical. According to data from 2012, 11 percent of liberal arts majors end up marrying other liberal arts majors. And they’re not among the highest-earners.

 

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