Dear Meghan and Meghan’s dad,
I have a relationshippy money question. My boyfriend and I (me: early 30s; him: late 20s) are about to move in together. We’re very happy together and in the short-term our attitudes about money are similar—frugal, with the occasional splurge.
Here’s the problem: my boyfriend has HUGE student loan debt. Like, staggeringly large. His salary is pretty low… which doesn’t bother me except that he’s barely making any inroads on paying off his debt, and doesn’t really have a plan to do so. I don’t mind being the bigger contributor to our rent, bills, etc., but I don’t want to sink my life savings into paying off his debt, not least because of the, let’s face it, entirely real possibility of future break-up or divorce. A girl’s gotta be practical.
I was careful with my money for a long time, and saved up a not inconsiderable amount, because I know what I want in life: kids, house, travel, comfortable retirement. All of those things now seem threatened by the specter of my boyfriend’s debt. Do I have to choose between a great relationship and my financial goals?
Thanks for your advice!
No! No. What? Of course not! Of course you don’t have to choose! Or do you? I don’t know, I’m not in a relationship—there’s a reason this isn’t a love advice column, haha. Ha.
But no, of course you don’t have to choose. And you know why? Because you are the most modern of women. You have hauled yourself into your early 30s by being pragmatic and savvy. You have made brilliant financial choices and should be incredibly proud of what you’ve accomplished. I salute you. This isn’t a binary choice because you have created a world in which you do not need the financial support of a partner in order to build a life. You have already built one.
Now, let’s talk about your lover.
A friend of mine recently married her partner of 3+ years, and part of their contract involved merging their finances. They did this carefully and with much consideration. And in that carefully considered deal, my friend’s now-husband absorbed her student debt. The caveat to this (hopefully) happy ending: They both draw solid salaries in careers with plenty of job security, which doesn’t sound like it is necessarily true in your boyfriend’s case. But I bring this up for two reasons: a) to show that it can work, and b) to show that it only works when both partners are equally culpable and equally committed.
The part of your letter that concerns me is not the debt itself, but the fact that your boyfriend lacks an articulated and reasonable plan to pay it off. Not to get all gendered here, but he’s also younger than you. And, you know, a dude. Unfortunately, sometimes they take their goddamn time shoving their actions into something approximating a life, and you, you beautiful capable thing, are left jerking his sorry corpse into adulthood (#notallmen). Maybe this is just my experience; yet even if it is, your statement about his apparent inability to face his finances with clear eyes makes me more than a little wary of suggesting you throw your financial lot in with his at this time.
But again, this isn’t an either/or. My suggestion? Sit down with him. Explain your concerns and let him know what you need to see from him in terms of career goals and a repayment plan. Give him the space to step up. Because what you really are is afraid. You love him, you want to make a life with him, and you’re afraid he’s not capable of giving you what you need—not what you need financially, but what you need as a partner. You need someone as committed to your future as you are. You need someone who wants to participate as actively in the world as you do. And you want him to be that for you. It may be that he hasn’t started down that path simply because the debt became so overwhelming as to no longer seem real or bearable—there are plenty of narratives like that right here. Make it clear that you are in this together, and that you are there to support him—emotionally.
If he resists this, offer to bring in some outside help. Maybe your contribution to his debt is to pay for the services of a financial counselor who can help him face his financial reality and create a plan to address his debt. And maybe, eventually, that plan—your plan, as a couple—includes your taking on some of his debt. But when, or if, that happens, you should know you are doing it because it helps you reach your twinned goals, your shared vision. Anything less than that fails to honor what you have made with your own two sensational hands.
Meghan’s dad says:
This question raises an issue that we have discussed from time to time, but bears repeating; Meghan and I are not experts. Recently, one of our columns was posted on Yahoo! Finance. It referred to Meg as a “personal finance writer.” At the risk of alienating the affections of my co-columnist, Meghan is about as far from a “personal finance writer” as one can get. A writer (exceptional), yes. Personal finance? Eek.
And this is important because this question, in part, begs for real expertise. You sound like someone who is extremely grounded and responsible and your parents must be exceptionally proud. You are approaching a very tricky situation in a very mature fashion (children, take note). I can’t approach this any other way than from the perspective of a parent and I think the answer to your question lies in a combination of a confab and a pre-nup.
For the confab, we start from the premise that you guys talk about this stuff and come from the same general place—you are careful and frugal. I know several couples—very close family friends— who have annual meetings of their corporate familial entity. How did we do this year? Can we travel to France next year, or are we stuck with Fargo? Do we celebrate our year with a bottle of 1998 Chateau Beaucastel (absolutely stunning, and drinking beautifully right now), or a six-pack of Coors Lite? I admire those people. I think this is a sensible thing to do. My wife and I don’t do it. That Meg and her brother received financial help from us through undergrad and grad school is a testament to the powers of luck and timing in life, and not any form of planning. Planning is better!
But it looks like you guys have common ground to use as the basis for a discussion about a plan for the financial aspects of cohabitation. Don’t confuse this with other aspects of cohabitation, and don’t try to have this conversation while in bed or while discussing the division of chores. This demands a standalone, sit across from each other at the table, no alcohol, sharp pencils and paper discussion. Fast forward to your proposed cohabitation and list your assets and liabilities, and income and expenses. Make a 3-year plan. Make it clear that your current savings are sacred—they are your (and this is the single “your”) vestal virgins to whom you will continue to make small monthly offerings through that period of time. But at the same time, on the income statement side of your cohabitation, make it clear that you are prepared to make a disproportionate contribution to expenses on the basis that your beau contributes a defined amount each month to reduce his debt. You need to have buy-in on a reasonable plan for debt reduction. Finances, depending on which study you read, are the first or second most common cause of relationship break-up. You are going in with a challenge; meet it head on so both of you know what is expected.
And just in case that doesn’t work, we need to talk about a pre-nup and the need for real expertise. I don’t know where you live, but that doesn’t matter except to point out that the laws around community property vary significantly depending on where you reside. The U.S. and Canada are full of state and provincial differences in terms of when the idea of community property might descend upon you and, in the unhappy event of a separation, turn that sad event into a horror show. You need to understand how that plays out for you and your boyfriend. I would start by visiting a free legal clinic if you can find one, or cough up a few bucks for a legal consultation and try to get some sense of what is at stake. Does your jurisdiction pool your property immediately upon you guys starting to live together? If it does, can you enter into a pre-nup (or in this case a pre-“let’s-live-together”) agreement that maintains the separateness of your individual property for the time you are together (and note that these things often die upon marriage so you would need to reconsider the situation if things work out and lead to that happy outcome). This will be much harder than the confab. It raises all sorts of issues of trust and love, but, sorry, this is your surrogate father—you asked for the advice and you are getting it. Screw hormones and romance, secure your financial future first, and love will follow (or not, but you will still have your money).
Come sit around our dinner table. We’ll bring the alcohol and sharp pencils. Questions welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org.