Why Student Loans are Causing Marriage Problems (and How to Avoid This)

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Kristen Kuchar

By Kristen Kuchar

January 13, 2020

Dealing with student loan debt can cause anxiety and stress, and relationships are certainly not immune. In fact, student loan debt is to blame in one in eight divorces, according to a study by SunTrust Bank. Fighting about money is the second leading cause of divorce, according to survey by Ramsey Solutions.

It makes sense that student loans can lead to problems in a relationship, especially if a couple isn’t on the same page with how to manage finances. Jean Fitzpatrick LP, a New York relationship therapist, weighs in on why student loans are taking a negative toll on marriages and what couples can do to avoid this.

How would carrying student loan debt add to marital problems?

If one or both partners has high monthly student loan payments, they will have less money to contribute to current expenses. That means the couple may live in a smaller apartment or house than they might wish, travel less and postpone starting a family. They may also disagree on how the student loans will be paid off. For example, does the partner with the loans pay out of his or her current income or is the other person willing to sacrifice some of their own discretionary income and share the burden? 

For couples dealing with student loan debt, what actions can they take to maintain a healthy and happy relationship?

Discuss finances and how you will manage them in the broadest sense. First, talk about your personal experiences with and feelings about money. I encourage engaged couples to create a money autobiography so that they gain an understanding of how each partner relates to money. It helps partners deepen awareness of themselves and also gain understanding and compassion for each other. 

Then take a giant step back and talk thoughtfully about your big money picture. How do you plan on sharing expenses? Will you pool your incomes to cover your nut, or will you keep your finances separate and contribute to expenses proportionately to your incomes? That way you create a context for discussing student loan debt in a meaningful way. 

When it comes to dealing with student loan debt, or any financial stress, what are the biggest mistakes couples make?

If one partner has student loan debt and the other doesn’t, it’s not helpful to make negative comments about how their parents should have saved more for college expenses. 

If one partner has student debt and has been accustomed to borrowing for living expenses, they need to be ready for a new approach to budgeting. Living with credit card debt creates an enormous financial drag on a couple. Time to hit reset. 

In the short run it might look like a good idea for a money-savvy partner to take over managing the finances, but long term they end up with what feels like a parent-child relationship. Neither partner likes that. Better for partners to work as a team to get control over finances and track expenses. I always recommend partners set up monthly or even weekly meetings to go over details and tackle concerns as they arise. 

If one partner is worries about the other partner’s debt, it might be tempting to hide assets, but in the long run this hurts trust in the marital relationship. Better to be open about what you have and consider talking to an attorney about a prenuptial agreement.

For those entering a new relationship, when do you tell your new partner about your student loan debt? 

Certainly, by the time they are contemplating an engagement, it’s important to share information about finances, including student loan debt, credit card debt and also your credit rating. That way partners know where they both stand financially and can make plans to get onto a solid financial footing. I often recommend they see a financial advisor in order to start off on the right foot. 

When it comes to money management, and specifically dealing with debt, what should be decided before marriage?

How are you going to combine your finances? When does it make sense to pay off student debt ?  How will you manage credit cards? How will you automate payments to ensure you don’t miss any, and what else can you do to ease money management? Will you maintain separate checking accounts, a joint account or both? Do you need consult with an attorney about the merits of a prenuptial agreement to assign debt to one spouse

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