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Student loan debt shouldn't keep you from marrying someone you want to spend the next, oh, 60 years with — if you know what you’re getting into.
Undisclosed financial problems can put a tremendous strain on your relationship when they emerge. Discussing student debt openly can help you both assess whether getting on the same page is possible. Only then can you plan together how to pay off the loans.
“If you can’t talk about money, you’re not going to be able to talk about some of the other, more difficult things that you’re going to encounter as a couple,” says Kitty Bressington, a certified financial planner and president of Linden Financial Consultants near Rochester, New York.
Here’s what you need to know about marrying someone with student loan debt.
Understand how their debt can affect your future
Any student loans you took out before marriage won’t become jointly owned when you say “I do.” But when you’re building your life with someone, their debt has an impact on your future plans.
When you get married, if either one of you takes on any new student debt or refinance your existing loans, it legally becomes both partners’ responsibilities if you live in a community property state — Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington or Wisconsin. California is also a community property state, but it treats student loan debt separately. This can also impact you both in case of a divorce down the road.
One partner having student loan debt could delay or prevent you both from making life changes like getting a mortgage or starting a family. It could also make it harder to save for long-term goals like retirement.
What you need to do now is kick-start a candid money conversation with your partner about financial goals and how to get there.
Begin by sharing credit reports. Everyone is entitled to one free credit report annually from each of the three major credit bureaus. The reports show current and past accounts and payment histories. If you see any red flags on your partner’s report — like frequent late payments to their lender or servicer — discuss why they occurred and how to prevent it from happening in the future.
Your credit histories will always remain separate. Debt you acquire jointly, or co-sign for, will appear on your own credit report.
Create a plan to pay off their student debt
Start building a plan to repay the student debt so other financial options will be open in the future.
Focus on high interest debt first. If your partner has any higher-interest debt, such as a credit card, they should aim to pay the balance off first before paying extra toward student loans.
Assess repayment options. In the case of a particularly large student loan burden that makes paying extra or keeping up with regular bills impossible, your partner could consider a federal income-driven repayment plan, which sets payments at a portion of your income and lengthens the loan term.
Consider refinancing. If your partner can qualify, consider refinancing the debt into a new loan with a lower interest rate. This is best for private student loans. If they refinance federal student loans they could lose out of on repayment options and opportunities for forgiveness. If they decide to refinance, they’ll need to have a credit score in at least the high 600s and solid income to qualify. You could also opt to co-sign the refinancing loan if they can’t get one on their own. But co-signing will legally bind you to repay the debt if your partner can’t, so make sure you discuss this with your partner before moving forward.
Determine if marriage could impact their future bills
If your spouse has federal student loan debt and is enrolled in an income-driven repayment plan, your income could cause their payment to increase depending on the tax filing status you choose.
If you file taxes jointly, payments will always be based on you and your spouse’s combined adjusted gross income, which usually raises the monthly payment. If you do have student loan debt, that will be factored in, too.
If you opt to file taxes separately, your spouse will avoid an increase, provided they're enrolled in any income-driven plan besides Revised Pay As You Earn, which always counts both your incomes. Talk to a tax professional to weigh your entire financial situation.
Have an emergency savings before you help them pay off debt
If you want to help your partner pay down debt, make sure you have adequate emergency savings first. A solid goal is to save at least three to six months’ worth of expenses.
You can also encourage your significant other to build their own emergency savings or you can each contribute to a joint account. This will help you face any future financial hurdles as a team.