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How Real Couples Handle Debt

When most couples imagine the conflicts they'll have to resolve as a married unit, the subject matter is decidedly mundane. That can include how to decorate a new home, whether or not to get a dog, or something as simple as who gets to sleep on which side of the bed. In reality, a large portion of marital conflicts revolve around something more complicated—money. Three couples tell their stories.

Whether directly or indirectly, a couple's financial situation can affect every part of their life. It's no exaggeration to say that how a couple navigates these issues can determine the entire course of a relationship.

For many couples, debt and different views about money are at the root of many relationship problems.1 Research has found that couples who had similar amounts of debt had fewer money fights than those with disparate levels of debt.2

But you don’t choose the person you love based on their student loan balance. Here's why debt can cause so many problems in a relationship, and how some real couples have chosen to handle it.

Be Aligned

How you navigate money issues as a couple can determine the course of your relationship. It’s important to be aligned.

Accept the Other Person’s Debt

When Ashley J. graduated from college, she had $21,000 in student loans. Her then-boyfriend Ben didn’t have any. They both had car loans for similar amounts.

Because Ashley and Ben dated all throughout high school and college, they talked about money frequently. Ben knew that she was a responsible person who wasn’t taking out more debt than she could afford to repay. Ashley also worked two jobs in college to minimize how much she had to borrow.

When they got married in 2015, she went to grad school and he received his paramedic and firefighter training. Once they both started working full-time in 2017, they focused on paying off their debt. 

“We were a team the whole time,” she said.

They paid off her student loans in 2018 and paid off both cars in 2019. They’re only 26 years old, but are completely debt-free.

Ashley’s advice to couples trying to become debt free: Get on the same page about your long-term goals.

Tackle Debt Together

When Molly E. graduated from pharmacy school, she had $241,000 in student loans while her then-boyfriend didn’t have any. Most couples might struggle with paying off six figures worth of debt.

“I never felt like he resented me for it,” she said. “He’s never made me feel bad about it.”

Molly and Devon got married in 2018 and immediately combined their finances.

“I was always the one who was like, ‘Are you sure you want to combine our finances?’ But Devon always wanted to combine them,” she said.

Since then, her student loan balance has shrunk to $85,000. They hope to pay it off completely in late 2021. The couple still manages to invest and have fun. In 2019 they bought a house.

Molly says: I think tackling finances together has made our relationship stronger.

Recognize Your Own Faults

When Erin G. married her second husband in 2019, she had $25,000 in student loans and $7,000 in credit card debt from expenses incurred during her divorce proceedings. Her new husband Brandon had $100,000 in student loan debt.

He initially planned to pay it off himself, but Erin wanted to do it jointly. As a financial coach helping others pay off debt, Erin was excited to tackle the loans together.

At times, the couple has found it hard knowing that debt freedom is still several years away. When Erin starts to feel especially annoyed with the situation, she reminds herself that she’s not perfect financially. 

Erin says: It’s always easy to feel resentful about debt, but chances are you bring financial baggage into the marriage. We’re going through it as a team.

Need Help Building a Financial Plan for Your Situation?

1Investopedia, How to Stop Fighting About Money, July 2, 2020

2Fenaba R. Addo & Xing Zhang, Debt Concordance and Relationship Quality: A Couple Level Analysis, 2020

This is an unpaid testimonial and may not be representative of the experience of other clients. 

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