When I was a child, my limited understanding of marriage included knowing I would have to eventually share all my stuff. As I got older, I realized I would have to split my money as well. But it wasn’t until very recently that I learned my debt would also be a shared asset. Aside from the scary business of marriage, what with the merging of emotional assets and vowing to love one another, it’s the union of two banks accounts. The Spice Girls were singing about when two credit scores become one, right?
I don’t suppose I had really given the idea of asset integration much thought until one of my best friends got engaged a couple years ago. After dating for seven years it was time for both their last names checking accounts to merge. My friend put her foot down and insisted that her soon to be husband pay down his entire credit card bill before the wedding; starting their new life together with a clean slate. Good for her; well both of them really. Once you sign a marriage license and file for joint taxes, finances become muddled. Sadly, we live in a world where all too often divorce rules and romance drools. Even more confusing, in the case of divorce all the assets and debt brought into the marriage, as well as those accrued during the union, would be up for grabs. Despite my cynicism, I still believe in the sanctity of marriage, and my friends’ marital financial situation made me pause and think about assuming my future life mate’s debt.
The credit card debt is one thing. You’d be hard pressed to find any twenty-something without at least a nominal monthly payment. However, no matter how big the bill, the number of zeros will most likely pale in comparison to a run-of-the-mill student loan debt. The average twenty-something graduate owes about $21k for their college education. That’s a brand new Toyota Camry, people!
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, student loan debt is the only form of consumer debt to actually rise after its peak in 2008, outweighing both auto loans and credit card debt. It’s the largest form of consumer debt held aside from mortgages.
You think these numbers are frightening? What about trying to navigate dating, with the intention of finding someone until finding someone to have and to hold…with a mountain of student loans?
That’s where I am at right now. My wonderful boyfriend has enough debt to put a sizeable down payment on a condo. I on the other hand was insanely fortunate to have parents who were able to give their one and only child the gift of a college education. As he so romantically pointed out a few months ago, we could end up married solely because we started dating during our mid-twenties, prime life-mate shopping time. He’s not wrong, which made me entertain the idea of what our future together would look like.
It may or may not be surprising to find out that massive student loans are actually a deal breaker for some people, while others seek partners with similar debt situations. I’ve been seriously considering graduate school lately. Maybe I should just bite the bullet so my boyfriend and I will be even?
Debt inequality is a real issue. Unless a partner is totally on board with contributing to the repayment of his or her spouse’s student loans, it could easily lead to resentment and poses a roadblock to moving forward with major life milestones such as a home or children. These are the important conversations young couples are faced with in today’s world, relatively early in relationships. When you realize the stakes for legally binding yourself to another person are higher than ever, arguments over hypothetical baby names seem trivial.
But, maybe having these honest financial discussions is setting us up to have longer lasting marriages than our parents.
Not only are twenty somethings coming of age in a time of economic crisis, but a great deal of Millenials are products of divorce. As a result, we are all very cautious about who we choose as “The One.” With my own parents finally divorcing after almost a decade of separation, I am very aware of the legality of joint finances, at least in the state of California. Unfortunately it’s become a priority for me to understand my financial options and rights not only in marriage, but also in divorce.
I decided to research how student loan debt factors into marriage, as consideration for my own potential graduate education costs, and that of whomever my future spouse may be. As it turns out, student loans never transfer credit reports; a spouse is never held legally responsible. Student loans enter the marriage in one person’s name, and they leave the same exact way. Whether or not a spouse helps to pay down the debt is a personal conversation, but it’s nice to know your rights if you decide to part ways.
I felt like a huge ass when this knowledge allowed me to breathe a big sigh of relief, because I happen to love someone with considerable student loan debt. But like I said, these open conversations about finances will only set our relationship up to be a stronger partnership, where both of us understand exactly what we’re getting into.
If only coming to an agreement about who’s responsible for the dishes was as easy.
Heather is a contributing editor at the-dah. She is a Los Angeles based writer, improviser, snacker, social media mistress, and aspiring adult. Read more of her food-stained stories about growing up weird at Terrible-Twenties.com, or follow her digital alter ego @MissHezah on Twitter.
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