Many couples get married thinking that they are beginning their own version of happily ever after. However, given that the divorce rate is over 50% in the United States, it is clear that the majority of marriages do not lead to the happily ever after these couples hoped for. What is certain is that marriage is hard work. What is even harder than trying to make a marriage work? Trying to make a marriage work when one partner has heavy student loan debt.

Undoubtedly, most marriages start off with some level of debt. This may be credit card debt, student loan debt, medical debt, car loans, etc. It is rare for a marriage to start off debt-free. However, there are a number of factors you may want to consider before marrying someone with student loan debt.

The Problems​ Caused by Debt

The first factor is initial financial stress or differences in opinion over finances which are major factors in divorce decisions. Starting off in the red can be equally challenging for both partners. The partner without the loan debt may feel resentful of having to live below his or her means. The other partner may feel stressed over having taken out so many loans. Regardless of the feelings, it is likely that a high level of student loan debt can help cause additional stress in a new marriage, which is already a major life transition.

Secondly, you may wish to consider the amount of student loan debt of your future partner. Perhaps if the debt is low, it can be easily repaid within a few years. This poses less of a problem than someone who has taken out a six figure loan. The size of the debt will determine how long of a stress factor this is in a relationship.

A third factor you may wish to consider is the earning potential as a couple. If one partner has a high amount of loan debt but attended medical school, his or her earning potential is much higher than someone who has higher debt from obtaining a private school education for an art degree, which has a lower earning potential.

A fourth factor is to consider your financial goals. How long will it take you to reach them if you marry? Consider the fact that you may want to build an emergency stash, repay the loans, start a family, buy a house, etc. How long will it take you to reach these goals as a couple?

The fifth factor to consider is how you each value money. Someone with high debt may spend recklessly or they may not value their money, which could continue during your marriage. Problematic spending or money management could result in a lower net worth for you and your spouse.

A sixth factor to consider is that a high level of debt may makes it difficult to qualify for a competitive loan such as a mortgage or a car loan.

Overcoming the Challenge Together​

Despite all the challenges, there are some ways to address student loan debt in a marriage if you are certain that you wish to proceed with the wedding. Most of these suggestions require couples to take an honest inventory of their debt and then have clear communication regarding financial goals and debt repayment.

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One option is to consider debt consolidation. If you and your partner undergo credit counseling in order to develop a plan (and then actually stick to the repayment plan), you could be on your way to a happy marriage that can guarantee you financial freedom. 

In some cases, if you decide to refinance a government loan, you will lose certain benefits like the ability to have loans forgiven, deferred, or other benefits. In addition, if you refinance together, the person who did not borrow the loans would be on the hook for making payments if the original borrower is unable to make the payments for any reason. It's a risk that deserves some attention.

Keeping your own bank accounts and debt separate has its advantages and disadvantages. First, it can be hard to get a comprehensive picture of the true debt of your significant other unless you are 100% certain that they have disclosed all information. It can also be hard to qualify for joint purchases, where you will both need to sign. However, keeping the debt separate will not result in the spouse being responsible for the loan debt or other debt incurred prior to marriage. Additionally, this route will enable you to have the option of filing taxes separately, if you so desire.

What is the right answer?

In short, there is no right answer. While opting to happily marry someone with high student loan debt is possible, there are some drawbacks. Overall, couples who begin a marriage with student loan debt especially high interest debt such as credit cards and private education loans are likely to have a lower net worth. It will be much harder for you to save money during the initial stages of your marriage, since much of your income will be going to pay down the loans. There may also be feelings of increased financial pressure and stress due to the cutbacks that will be required to pay back the loans. In some cases, the high pressure can lead to divorce.

However, if you are determined to make a marriage work, there are indeed ways to do so. This requires that both partners are upfront about their pre-marriage debt. In the next step, the couple should take inventory of their debt and develop a plan for paying it off in a timeframe that matches both of their financial goals. Lastly, and perhaps most challenging, both partners need to stick to the repayment plan until the debt is paid off. Ultimately, it will be impossible to know whether both partners are able to adhere to repayment guidelines until you actually do it. Thus, you must decide for yourself if this is a risk you are willing to take.