Debt, Dating, and Marriage


Your financial situation impacts your attitude about the possibility of getting married.

My wife and I have been married nearly eight years. And for the first time in our marriage, we are debt free (with the large, obvious exception of our mortgage). Furthermore, it's the first time I've been out of debt as an adult. I got my first credit card my junior year of college. Immature and unwise decisions ensued, followed by low-paying jobs for several years after that. Result? I've never had a month without some sort of credit payment—since 1990. That reality meant that my wife and I, like many people, entered marriage with a significant debt load, which we've been paying off steadily (in a three-steps-forward, two-steps-back kind of way) ever since.

When things were obviously getting serious in our dating relationship, we set aside an entire day to unpack our mutual baggage and to talk honestly about what each of us needed to know about the other person before walking down the aisle. You know—the kinds of weaknesses you mostly tend not to discuss in the heady early days of dating. Our mutual debt was one subject that came up. I mostly had consumer debt, while she had a good chunk of student-loan debt from grad school. It was a sobering talk, but we didn't feel it was a deal-killer as far as moving forward into marriage. We knew we had work to do in this area, but we were willing to help each other in it. And so we have.

Last week I came across an article that suggests not everyone these days feels the same way about the debt they're carrying. Author Phoebe Connelly looked at the impact that debt, specifically astronomical student loans, is having on young adults' vision of the future. Reading that article, several quotes stood out to me.

"Student loans have basically ruined my life," said Tanya Carter, a graduate of the University of Toledo. She talked about how she needed a combination of federal and private loans to complete college—despite the fact that she'd gone to an inexpensive community college for two years and worked part-time as well. The result for Tanya? "I never see myself owning a home, vehicle, or maybe not even getting married."

Connelly also quoted Lauren Dollard, who graduated from Fordham University with a whopping $157,000 of student-loan debt (including interest). "My boyfriend won't marry me because of my debt," she said. "He doesn't want it attached to his name." Dollard said she would gladly exchange her "fancy private school education" for the chance to live "as an independent adult."

April Flores, a San Diego State grad with $110,000 in student loans, added, "It's going to be hard to buy a house and start a family with our debt. We joke and say that our baby is Sallie Mae, but it is true! Education is invaluable, but I was not wise in my early 20s and did not make the right decisions when it came to my private loans."

These days, it seems debt—especially such massive student loan commitments—can be added to the growing list of cultural factors working against many young adults' prospects for marriage.

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