As many young couples do, my boyfriend and I met during college. We had yet to venture out into the real world and didn’t fully grasp what that entailed, especially in terms of finances. We both graduated in May 2015 and decided the next logical step was to move in together.
That was when the reality of being adults set in.
While I like to focus on the happiness and love that I brought into my partner’s life, I also brought something else — $100,000 in student loan debt, on top of his $20,000.
As an unmarried, cohabiting couple, we’ve spent hours discussing the best plan for our finances. Both of our salaries fall significantly under the average salary of $50,651 for those who graduated from college in 2015, so we’ve had to be careful with money from the start of our post-grad lives. My $1,000 student loan payment each month is my priority. This means my partner has taken on many of our larger living expenses, such as the electric bill and mortgage, and I handle smaller ones, like the Internet and cellphone bill.
It’s easy to feel guilty about this situation, as if I brought a burden into my partner’s life. I can’t help but think that his financial situation might be easier if he’d ended up with someone who did not have a crushing amount of debt. If that were the case, he may not be living paycheck to paycheck. He may not be having to contribute more than his fair share to household expenses. He may have been able to apply for a home loan with that person, rather than being forced to apply on his own because of my debt-to-income ratio.
But he has decided to create a life with me, debt and all — and we’re not the only couples learning to navigate this terrain. According to the Institute for College Access and Success, 68 percent of students who graduated from public and nonprofit colleges in 2015 averaged $30,100 in student loans, up 4 percent from 2014. Take that times two, and the average couple is already over $60,000 in debt — without factoring in credit cards, medical bills, personal loans and more.
As average student loan amounts increase, unmarried couples have to decide how to face the accruing debt. This may mean having a serious talk about money, something that a Country Financial report found is happening sooner for millennials than for other generations. Financial planners also say they’re seeing this conversation play out earlier.
“I do see couples willing to discuss their financial situations earlier in the relationship and more candidly with each other, which is great,” said Pamela Capalad, a certified financial planner based in Brooklyn. “With the amount of debt that a lot of people are carrying, I believe the conversation feels more urgent to have once a relationship starts to get serious.”
Student loan debt can also take a toll on couples when it comes to planning their future. This may mean holding off on buying a home or a car, even planning a wedding. For example, 24-year-old Reed Osell of Minneapolis and his fiancee, Caitlin Krieg, 25, together have over $80,000 in student loan debt.
For Krieg, the thought of financing a wedding on top of paying student loans is anxiety-inducing. “The thought that I could pay off half or more of my student loans with the cost of a wedding keeps me up at night,” she said. “The only thing keeping us from just going to a courthouse is expectation from family.”
As student loans affect more couples, the strategy taken to attack debt is shifting. Rather than paying off student loans together, many couples, such as Krieg and her fiance, are each handling their own. Krieg attended the College of Saint Benedict, a private school in St. Joseph, Minn., and got degrees in English and education. She teaches seventh grade, and recognizes that a private school education holds a high price tag in relation to a teaching salary. Because she knowingly made this decision, she feels the debt is her responsibility to pay off.
“I chose to go to an expensive school, I chose to study abroad, I chose to go into a profession that pays you for about half the work you do,” Krieg said. “I think I feel that my debt, for the most part, stems from my choices and I don’t feel like that should carry over to my fiance.”
Once married, Krieg and Osell plan to jointly file their taxes. According to Capalad, this is an important conversation to have, as how couples file can affect loan payment amounts.
“One conversation to make sure you have with your accountant before you file your taxes as a married couple is to see how it will affect your student loan payment if you file jointly versus separately,” Capalad said. “Certain income-driven repayment programs will adjust your payment amount if you file jointly but not if you file separately.”
For other couples, the decision to treat loans separately stems less from guilt and more from necessity. Allison Youngers is part of one such couple. The 28-year-old from Sheldon, Iowa, had $85,000 worth of student loans after graduating from college, while her boyfriend had no student debt. The couple, now with two children, has put marriage aside so that Younger’s debt does not hinder their ability to make other big life choices.
“If we were married and had combined debt, we would have never been able to get a house loan because of our debt-to-income ratio,” Youngers said. “Matt’s finances and credit score look better without mine added to it, and he is able to qualify for loans. Because of my debt burden, I can’t even get a relatively small car loan without a co-signer.”
Brian Hanks, a financial planner in Boise, Idaho, says he often sees this type of mind-set in couples with a large amount of student loan debt. “The main impact I see is couples with lots of student loans are scared away from doing what they want in life,” he said. “The career option that’s a little riskier, but with huge upside? They pass. The opportunity to work in a country or city helping others? They can’t afford to do it. The real tragedy of student loans is the value of the opportunities not taken.”
That’s certainly something I’ve seen in my relationship. It’s tough to decide if one of us should accept a job that we are passionate about but might not have the highest paycheck. We debate over attending certain events for friends and family that include travel expenses. We would have liked to be engaged by now, but that has been delayed because of our financial situation. I’m sure the same will be true of having children.
Our student loans are always at the front of our minds. But at the same time, we know it’s important to not completely put our lives on hold or allow our debt to dictate every move we make. Being young and in debt is a balancing act, but it’s also an opportunity to learn how to navigate a challenge together, which is a benefit for any relationship.