According to the New York Federal Reserve, total student loan debt in the U.S. has reached $1.3 trillion, while more than 44 million Americans have student loan debt. Between these figures and soaring credit-card debt, paying off all we owe can take some people years, if not decades.
The problem can seem particularly acute for young couples, more and more of whom are getting married with tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay off. In many instances, one partner has significantly more debt than the other.
When Jeff and Cassandra Campbell of Austin, Texas., got married in 2006, Jeff was $61,000 in debt — his was a combination of credit card debt, a second-home mortgage and a car loan. Cassandra was debt-free, but the couple immediately agreed that with marriage, his debt was now the burden and responsibility of both of them.
“I believe that successful couples combine everything when they say, ‘I do,’” says, Jeff, 53. “It’s no longer my income or your debt, it’s ours.”
Deciding how to tackle a single spouse’s or partner’s debt is no simple thing. It might be nice to chip in to help pay down your beloved’s debt, but in the eyes of the law, marriage doesn’t necessarily mean you have to.
What happens to debt when we marry?
Adam S. Minsky, a Massachusetts-based lawyer and expert in student loan law, says that although it varies by state, most of the time debt brought into a marriage only affects the spouse who brought it in.
“Generally speaking, certainly where I practice here in Massachusetts, there is no way to make a spouse liable for a debt,” he says.
An exception might be if the couple did a form of refinancing once they got married and now jointly own the debt together. But if one spouse brought a debt into the marriage and both spouses paid off the debt together, the other spouse would not be liable for the debt, and that debt wouldn’t affect his or her credit score.
“As long as [the debt] only stays in one of their names, it’s only going to be reported for one of them,” Minsky says.
There are, of course, slightly different rules when it comes to couples who are divorcing. For example, if a spouse helped pay off the other’s debt in marriage, that circumstance is often taken into account in divorce proceedings, Minsky notes.
Learning the legal nuances of spousal debt, having necessary premarital conversations and understanding optimal strategies for paying off debt can allow a couple to avoid the uncomfortable and frustrating conversations that might accompany one spouse having significantly more debt that the other.
Here are some tips on how to tackle debt as a couple:
Have those tough (but essential) conversations before getting hitched.
Minsky says his greatest piece of advice for couples in which one partner has significant debt and the other doesn’t boils down to this: Talk about it openly before marriage.
“Communication is the most important thing,” he says. “Because you don’t want to get married and then find out there’s a bunch of debt you didn’t know about, or you didn’t fully understand the nature of the debt, or you didn’t have a plan. I’d say develop that communication and be comfortable talking about it.”
Eric Bowlin, 32, a real estate investor based in Worcester, Mass., says he and his wife, Jun — whom he met during graduate school—always approached their finances as a team. Eric says Jun accepted his roughly $85,000 debt ($60,000 of which was related to student loans) before they got married in 2009. But a tough conversation ensued when Eric wanted to make a large real estate investment before they had paid off the debt.
“I deployed to Afghanistan” around 2010, he says, “and when I got home, we had saved about $100,000. We could have easily paid off all my student loans, car and half the multifamily house we owned, but I told her I wanted to use every dollar to invest in more real estate and I wanted to drop out of our Ph.D. program.”
He says despite Jun’s hesitation, she agreed. “To this day I’m amazed she ever agreed to let me do that,” Eric says. He spent all of his savings, maxed out all his credit cards and borrowed about $40,000 from friends.
“She was crying at night and I couldn’t sleep because of the stress,” he says. But his decision paid off. He has since built up a successful real estate portfolio, and the couple paid off their debt in 2016.
Employ strategies for paying the debt off together.
Once you and your partner have agreed to tackle the debt together, come up with a solid plan.
“I’ve seen trouble happen when married couples never really talked about [debt], and then it’s a thing,” Minsky says. “Or they didn’t really come up with a plan and now there’s complicated feelings of resentment or guilt or shame.”
The plan a couple employs will vary based on an array of variables: the amount and type of debt, income level, housing situation, location and more. The Campbells, for example, didn’t decide to pay off their debt until the birth of their first daughter.
Shortly thereafter, they discovered the “snowball method,” popularized by personal finance personality Dave Ramsey, and decided to pay off their debts from smallest to largest.
They put retirement savings and vacations on hold, paid cash for everything except bills and generally limited their eating out and social activities. They became debt-free about five years ago.
Jeff’s advice for newly married couples is to agree on a budget before each month.
“Some spouses will naturally be more of the spender, saver or math nerd,” he says. “So while it’s not crucial that both be involved in doing everything, the discussion should happen prior to the start of each month about where ‘our’ money is going to go, and what out of the ordinary expenses may be happening.”
Don’t forget about your taxes.
Minsky advises giving thought to how you will file your taxes, especially in the case of student loan debt.
For example, if one spouse mostly has federal student loans and is going to do an income-driven repayment plan, there could be incentives for filing taxes as an individual as opposed to making a couple’s joint filing. That way, the income of the spouse without student loan debt won’t be factored in.
We have previously explored the nuances of deciding whether or not to file jointly or single when spouses have student loan debt.
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