Would you marry someone who’s six figures in debt?
Josh Hastings, a 32-year-old teacher and blogger, did just that in 2016. His wife, Laura, racked up nearly $300,000 in student loans to become a physical therapist. But Hastings wasn’t exactly free and clear, either; he had about $40,000 in student loans once he graduated, plus a mortgage on a townhouse.
Even so, the couple decided to get hitched. They figured that Laura’s salary in the medical field would be high enough to eventually pay everything off. But that’s not to say these huge numbers didn’t give both of them pause.
A 2019 YouGov poll commissioned by LendKey Technologies found that more than half of respondents said the debt load of a prospective spouse would be a factor in tying the knot. Of the 1,000 respondents, only 4% said student loan debt would be a deal breaker, while 11% said credit card debt was a bigger issue. Nearly one-third of respondents between ages 18 and 34 said they would ― or had ― postponed marriage due to debt.
The truth is, a number of factors have to be considered if your bride- or groom-to-be is deep in debt. Today, Hastings says it was worth it (and we hope his wife agrees), but the issue took some work.
The Consequences Of Saying ‘I Do’ To Debt
When deciding whether to pop the question ― or agree to a proposal ― it’s important to consider how debt can alter the relationship. From a legal standpoint, bringing debt into a marriage doesn’t mean the other spouse becomes liable for it. That remains the responsibility of the person who accumulated it.
However, marriage is about becoming a team and accomplishing goals together, and debt will undoubtedly impact your ability to accomplish certain things as a couple.
“We both made enough money with our careers that we could still have a pretty good lifestyle and afford everything, but barely,” Hastings said. “We had no savings, no investments and we weren’t getting ahead on anything.”
In fact, the couple wasn’t just struggling to get ahead. They were falling behind. Laura’s student loans were on an income-based repayment plan, which means the payments were affordable. Unfortunately, they were so low that they didn’t even cover the monthly interest that was accruing. “In one year, we had $16,000 added to the principal,” he said. Plus, Hastings financed a new truck, which added to their financial strain.
It’s important to keep in mind that debt doesn’t just impact the big stuff like savings and investing. “Relationships are built on developing positive experiences with your partner. We do that by traveling, going out and creating memories (i.e., spending money),” said Annie Varvaryan, a clinical psychologist who practices in San Jose, California. “If there is financial strain, then there is less likelihood that partners will be able to spend money engaging in those enjoyable experiences.”
Not to mention, relationships are difficult enough to navigate, considering obstacles like lack of time, distance apart and daily tasks to manage outside of the relationship. “The added stressor of debt could contribute to emotional stress in the relationship, too,” Varvaryan said.
Hastings admitted that he sometimes felt a bit frustrated that his wife’s parents allowed her to take on so much debt. “I did everything right, was my mindset,” he said. “I bought early when the market was low, I minimized my debt. Why am I going to pay now for all this student loan debt?”
However, he knew that as a married couple, their only option was to work together. Eventually, they realized some big changes needed to happen if they were going to pull out of their current situation.
Questions To Ask Before Marrying Someone With Debt
Choosing whether to move forward and marry someone who has debt is a deeply personal decision. It’s going to depend on your financial standing, values around money and more. However, there are a few important questions you can ask to help guide your decision, according to Diane Strachowski, a psychologist and relationship expert.
What type of debt is it?
Perhaps you’ve heard of the concept of bad debt versus good debt. While having no debt is certainly the best situation, certain types of debt are worse than others. “Bad debt” is often the result of reckless spending, like a massive credit card balance or a giant car loan.
On the other hand, maybe your partner has debt from grad school, which may be less of an issue. “It’s considered ‘good’ because the debt is essentially an investment,” Strachowski said. “The idea is that the education will pay off in terms of being able to get a better position and/or salary, and as a result, they will be able to pay it back.”
Of course, too many college grads know that’s definitely not always the case, but at least the debt came from a more pragmatic place.
What is the root cause?
Strachowski said you should consider whether your partner’s debt was the result of a one-time expense or a pattern of spending beyond their means. For instance, does your partner have a gambling problem or a shopping obsession? Does your partner have low self-esteem or depression, and overspend in an attempt to self-medicate through retail therapy?
This type of debt is tougher to get under control and can be the sign of a deeper issue. It’s also a symptom of another psychological issue that can impact your relationship in other ways. It’s a good idea to get to the root of the financial mismanagement and seek help before taking the relationship to the next level.
Is there a repayment plan in place?
No matter how your partner accumulated the debt, it’s important that they’re actively trying to pay it down. Otherwise, you could end up dealing with the financial repercussions for years to come, and without any help from your spouse.
Even if the debt came from a completely practical place, such as paying for college, it’s not going to bode well for the marriage if your partner is hiding their head in the sand and letting the debt accumulate. On the other hand, if your partner racked up debt due to overspending, but they’re focused on eliminating it now, it’s a good sign that they’re financially and emotionally prepared to improve the situation.
So You’re Ready To Get Married. Now What?
If you decide you want to get married despite you or your partner’s looming debt, there are a few steps you should take first to get the marriage started off on the right foot.
Have a frank conversation: The topic isn’t very romantic, but one of the best things you can do for your relationship is to get on the same page by talking about money openly and honestly. “Start by talking about your earliest money memories,” Strachowski said. How did your families handle finances? What did it mean to grow up with or without money? This will tell you a lot about each other’s feelings and values surrounding money.
Be sensitive: “Recognize that they might also have some shame discussing these topics,” Strachowski added. You should approach the conversation without judgment, and not try to list problems your partner needs to “fix.” After all, no one wants to feel like they’re bringing baggage or a burden to the relationship. “If you can remain calm and not trigger your partner’s shame response, they will see you as a safe person who is there to help,” Strachowski said.
Consider counseling: Hastings said that premarital counseling was a huge, helpful step that he and his wife took before getting married. And he stressed that counseling isn’t just for couples whose relationships are rocky. “It doesn’t mean you have issues, it means you’re bringing up any potential issue, like how you’re going to raise your kids, what you plan on doing with day care, finances ― everything.” By having an impartial third-party to guide the conversation, you can talk calmly and get expert advice.
Plus, Strachowski said that couples who go to therapy early on in the relationship are less likely to build a bank of resentment. “Not addressing big underlying issues like debt and spouses’ poor spending habits are likely to cause a marriage to fail. When couples can be on the same page about the money, they can accomplish their goals and heal together.”
Prepare to make sacrifices: Falling in love and planning a wedding are the fun parts of getting engaged ― and you should absolutely enjoy the process. But don’t let that side of your relationship distract you from the hard work that also has to come.
Hastings knew that if he and his wife were going to pay off their debt, they would have to give some things up. “We slowly implemented small changes over time,” he said. For instance, he realized his truck cost way too much money, so he sold it. They also gave up luxuries like Direct TV and gym memberships. Soon, they were paying off loans.
“The more you accomplish, the more excited you get to keep working together,” he said. And though they delayed other goals like travel and starting a family in order to pay down their debt, “we’re so close now that we can see the light in the tunnel,” he said.
Now, Hastings said he sees all that debt was, in a way, a blessing in disguise. “It made us really aware of what we’re really capable of in a lot of different areas … it forced us to work together,” he said. It also led him to start a blog about helping others pay off student loan debt. And, by example, the couple has proven to other borrowers that it is possible.