Getting engaged and planning a wedding is one of the biggest steps a couple can take together. But between cake tastings, venue tours, and honeymoon research, consider tackling a decidedly less-fun task: Have an honest talk about your student loan debt.
After all, there’s a good chance you or your future spouse are among the 44.2 million Americans with student loan debt. If you are, now’s the time to have the talk about finances, if you haven’t already.
“Often when people are in the blissful, early stages of their relationship, the last thing they want to do is talk about money or debt,” said Heidi McBain, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “But if it’s not discussed openly from the start, this can cause major stress in their marriage later on.”
To make the discussion easier, follow these seven steps recommended by money and relationship experts.
1. Schedule time for a state of the union discussion
Having the money talk can be tense, so don’t spring the conversation on your partner.
Instead, Caitlin Bergstein, a Boston-based matchmaker with Three Day Rule, recommended setting aside time to talk. “You can say something as simple as, ‘Let’s sit down and talk about our student loan info on Saturday afternoon so we can start to put together a plan.’ This way, you’ll both be prepared for the conversation, which will make it more productive.”
If this sounds awkward, ease into the discussion instead.
“Try starting with a conversation about your financial goals,” suggested Sam Schultz, co-founder and CEO of Honeyfi, a free app that helps couples manage money. “Compared to student loans, goals can be a more positive and fun way to start talking about money. Once you get a financial dialogue going, it’s easier to naturally get into conversations like spending habits and student debt.”
2. Put it all out there
Open up your money conversation with the goal of understanding your partner’s general financial outlook, rather than diving right into details, recommended Wilson Muscadin, a certified financial educator and founder of The Money Speakeasy.
“Personal finances are much more about behavior and mindset than dollars and cents,” he said. This means tackling questions such as whether your partner talked about money with their parents growing up, and how comfortable your partner is with carrying debt.
Schultz also recommended a big-picture approach, addressing issues such as current monthly spending and financial goals. “As part of that discussion, you should dig into your student loans,” he said. When you do, there are a few key questions to address:
- What do you owe?
- What’s the interest rate?
- What’s the minimum payment?
- When do you expect the loans to be repaid?
While focusing on debt might seem like a downer, you’re setting a solid foundation for your future. “These conversations are hard, but if you start doing them at the beginning of your relationship, this will create a positive environment where you can have these conversations later on in marriage,” said McBain.
3. Set financial goals together
Since you’re building a future with your partner, focus not just on your current money situation but also on what you hope to accomplish.
“Figure out what your priorities are as a couple,” Bergstein advised. “Would you rather save up to pay off your student loan debt or is it more important that you take a big trip each year, have a big wedding, or put a down payment on a house?”
If your answers to these questions are different, keep talking until you find a compromise. “Both partners have to be on the same page financially,” stressed Muscadin. This doesn’t mean you must agree on everything or nail down every detail, but you should reach a consensus on a broad framework for handling money.
4. Decide if loan repayment will be a joint project
As you consider your debt payoff plan and other goals, there’s one big question to answer: How much of your financial lives will you combine?
“If you’re keeping bank accounts separate, that probably means you’ll each use your individual income to pay for your own student loans,” Schultz explained. “If you’re combining finances, that probably means you’re using your combined income to pay for both of your student loans. Make sure you’re both comfortable with that.”
Of course, even with separate accounts, your partner’s debt and spending habits affect things you do as a couple, such as buying a house or starting a family. “Regardless of who incurred the debt, as a married couple, you both own it,” Muscadin said.
Even if your bank accounts won’t have both your names on them, debt repayment must be a team goal.
5. Choose the right student loan repayment options
When discussing student loans, make sure you’ve chosen repayment plans that make sense.
“There are a ton of repayment options out there, some of which can significantly lower your payment or interest rate,” Bergstein advised. For example, income-driven repayment plans can lower the amount you must pay toward loans each month. But marriage could change the amount you pay monthly if your combined income is counted.
Bergstein also advised couples to find out if either spouse is eligible for loan forgiveness for qualifying public service work, and to look into refinancing student loans if your current interest rates are high.
6. Set a budget that addresses debt repayment
Once you’ve got a broad idea of how you’ll handle your cash, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty details. That means creating a budget.
“For most couples, creating a budget isn’t a fun activity,” Schultz said. “But crunching the numbers is crucial. It makes you more likely to actually align on money and avoid big, unpleasant surprises after you get married.”
Schultz explained this process is important, even if you’ll be keeping separate finances. “It will help you understand your partner’s financial stressors and concerns, and you’ll also be able to use each other as a sounding board for important financial decisions,” he said.
7. Schedule regular money meetings
Once you’ve tackled the tough issue of student debt and are ready to walk down the aisle, set a plan for money management in the future. To make sure this process goes smoothly, Muscadin recommended scheduling monthly money dates.
“Sit down with your partner monthly to check in on your financial progress, budget, and look forward,” he advised. These meetings allow you to make adjustments to your payment plan, tweak your budget, and set new goals as life changes.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Muscadin recommended you celebrate your wins, no matter how small. When you work together to accomplish your goals, you can do anything — even pay off lots of student loan debt.
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