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How student loans impact romantic relationships

Natalia Lusinski

February 13, 2020

Even if you wish it were not the case, student loans impact romantic relationships in one way or another. You may be coupled up, discussing marriage with your partner, or you’ve already tied the knot. In any case, you and your significant other have likely talked about finances, including your — or their — student loan debt. And if you haven’t, now’s the time so that there are no hidden financial surprises down the line.

But some people avoid these discussions. In fact, according to TD Bank’s fifth annual Love & Money survey, 27 percent of Millennials currently keep a financial secret from their significant other — more than any other generation. The good news, however, is that since 2015, Millennials are communicating more about money — 21 percent more, and more than other generations. These days, almost all Millennial couples, 94 percent, discuss money together at least once a week.

At the same time, however, TD Bank’s Love & Money survey also discovered that Millennials are still more likely than other generations to argue with their significant others about money. Almost 40 percent of respondents 23-to-38 said they fight about finances at least once a week versus 14 percent of Gen Xers. On top of which, one third of Millennials would consider leaving their significant other over a financial secret. 

Having “The Money Talk” With Your Significant Other Is Key

“When couples are sharing dreams and spending time together, it’s a matter of time before the subject of money comes up,” Julie Spira, founder of Cyber-Dating Expert, tells Pillar. “Perhaps one person has an 800 credit score, while the other is struggling financially, with student loans hanging over their head.”

She says that while many hope love is unconditional, attitudes toward saving and spending money can make or break a relationship. “For this reason, when you know the relationship is getting serious, it’s time to have the money talk,” Spira says. “The way I suggest bringing it up is to say how proud you were to have attended [insert name of college], and while you wish you had a full scholarship, or that your family could have written a check in full, you were one of many who needed to get a student loan.”

Then she suggests that you pause and let your partner digest the news. “They may ask you questions as to what the balance is, or what your plans are to pay it off,” Spira says. “You also might have a supportive partner who will ask you how they can help, because you’re a team.” 

She says that many people fear the “money talk,” though. “Just hearing the word ‘debt’ of any kind can send someone running for the hills,” she says. “Your partner might think that you’re financially irresponsible if the student debt is enormous, and they might not want to take on the burden of responsibility for a loan created before meeting and coupling up. But asking your partner for help and advice will bring you closer in the long run.”

For instance, perhaps you two will cut back on certain expenses and create a joint budget if you think your plans include being together. But, at the same time, you can also talk about creating something more fun, like a vacation fund.

When You And Your Partner Have Different Perspectives On Debt  

Bonnie Way, who runs The Koala Mom, says that student loans have definitely affected her and her husband’s relationship. Although they were able to finish their first degrees, before marriage, without student loans, after having their first two kids (of five), they both went back to school. “We used student loans to cover our expenses — housing, tuition, and more — during those three years,” she tells Pillar.

At one point, about halfway through their degrees, Way and her husband had a big fight about whether she should continue her degree — which meant them going into more debt. “I dislike debt; he’s less concerned about it,” she says. “To me, student loans are an unfortunate reality that helped us get through those four years of our life. To him, it seemed like free money. So we got angry and yelled at each other and I cried and he won the fight — I finished my degree and we racked up more debt.”

They graduated with five separate student loans between them and have since paid off her part-time student loan — which was a couple thousand dollars — and one of her other loans, thanks to an inheritance from her grandfather. After several years of making payments on her loan, it is now under $10,000, Way says. 

However, her husband has struggled to find work since graduation and still owes almost 10 times as much on his loans — and has never made payments on them. “When he lost one job after two-and-a-half years, we were able to get repayment assistance with both of our loans, and pay nothing for now,” she says. “But I worry about how I will pay off his loan if something were to happen to him. Our different perspectives on debt and our student loans is a source of tension and stress that we rarely discuss.”

Making A Payment Action Plan Is Key

Daniel J. Mendelson, owner and CEO of BYE Student Loan Debt wrote a book, also titled BYE Student Loan Debt, all about how he and his wife eliminated six figures, $150,000, in student loans within five years.

He tells Pillar that a casual afternoon three months into their relationship turned into a several-hour financial discussion when she casually mentioned she had six figures of student loan debt. “This was the very beginning of us planning our financial future, which always starts with open communication,” he says. “The initial discussion was very shocking for me personally, as I had significantly less debt. For her, she felt as if I was intruding on her privacy a bit as I started asking numerous questions about the terms of her loans and her plan of action.” But in the end, they reached a good place, he says, where they agreed to come up with a plan together and have ongoing regular discussions about their financial situation and future goals.

When they first met, Mendelson says his now-wife had about $100,000 in student loan debt and he had about $10,000. “However, after two masters and interest accruing during our MBA, that total debt ballooned to $150,0000 in spite of me paying off my $10,000 in debt,” he says. “We eliminated this debt in five years through hard work and diligence, frugal living, and constant planning and communication.”

“I would say that the worst part about hiding or delaying an important discussion like this is that it will likely add more stress than openly discussing the problem,” he says. “If you are in a committed and loving relationship, you will figure out a plan and work through it together. Unfortunately, many do not, and the problem will likely only get worse if there is a lack of communication and transparency in a relationship.”

Making Extra Student Loan Payments Can Help Eliminate Them Faster

Kristine Thorndyke, teacher and founder of Test Prep Nerds, tells Pillar that she and her boyfriend both have/had student loans. “His was much larger than mine ($50,000 initially and $22,000 now), and he is still paying his off monthly,” she says. “I recently was able to pay all of mine, $20,000, off and use that expense as a purchase on a credit card, in which I received 80,000 points for travel/flights.”

As far as discussing their student loan debt, Thorndyke says they both knew about each other’s student loans pretty early on in their relationship. “Although we never spoke about specific numbers, I knew that he was paying his off without any problems and he knew mine was quite low and that I’d be able to pay my student loans off within the next couple of years,” she says.

When the couple did have a conversation about the loans, it happened organically, Thorndyke says. “I’m an open book and was explaining how I had student loans — but the minimum payments were low — so I was trying to pay them off more aggressively because I didn’t like having debt. I think he, in turn, felt obligated to divulge a bit more about his loans, saying that his minimum payments were significantly higher.” She adds that neither of their reactions were shock, and she thinks this is because their debt amounts were not intimidatingly large. 

Thorndyke says it took her seven years to pay off her student loans. “I would pay double the minimum payment automatically each month and then, at random intervals when I had extra savings, I would make one-time payments,” she says. “I had been raised not to have debt, which, of course there is good debt and bad debt, but for me, it felt like a load off my shoulders each time I cut down that principal balance.” Although she does not contribute to her boyfriend’s loans, if he suddenly was not able to make the payments, she says she would help out until he was back on his feet. 

Your Relationship Should Not Just Be Based On Each Other’s Bank Balances

“Most singles hope to find someone who’s baggage-free, but there really isn’t a perfect person or situation,” Spira says. “If you’re sharing a bed and planning a future together, having a serious talk about money, loans, and credit are crucial to the long-term success of your relationship.” She adds that whether someone has medical issues, financial issues, or has a great job one day, and suddenly finds themselves unemployed, these are things that happen in the game of life. “While I hear people say they’re looking for someone who is financially secure, situations change, and if your relationship is based solely on your bank balance, you are with a partner who isn’t there for the long haul,” Spira says.

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