In case you haven’t heard, there’s a debt crisis in this country. Around 40 million Americans have student loans, and staggering numbers aren’t making payments. What’s more, U.S. credit card debt is set to hit $1 trillion this year.
With numbers that massive, debt can feel almost like an abstract concept. But it’s not when you and the person you love are dealing with it. I know. My boyfriend Jordan* and I had more than $100,000 in debt combined when we moved in together after college in 2011.
My payments have been manageable—and I’m still steadily working through a $20,000 student loan balance—but my boyfriend wasn’t nearly as lucky. He owed almost $80,000. While much of it consisted of student loans that wouldn’t hurt his credit, he also owed thousands to various credit card companies for incidentals like books, airfare to and from school and winter boots.
The first few years out of college, we both worked insane hours and barely saw each other. It never occurred to us to to find less-demanding jobs, since debt—especially Jordan’s—always hung over us. For two young people newly in the adult workforce, it felt like the only way. But even after landing a job that should have made Jordan feel secure, he never felt comfortable. Even with our tiny apartment and regular meals of quinoa and hot sauce, repaying his debt drained his bank account to zero every single month.
I certainly wasn’t swimming in money, but my lower monthly payments gave me a cushion that he didn’t have. I wanted to help him, but he said that being indebted to me as well would have been too much to bear.
The stress of his debt sometimes felt like a third, uninvited person in our relationship. We fought all the time. To be clear: I didn’t resent that he had the debt. I deeply respected how hard he’d worked. But I resented that no matter what I did—from trying to talk it out to offering to send checks to his creditors—I couldn’t seem to help. And it was frustrating for him that I couldn’t understand what he was going through. Simply deciding what takeout to order would send us into a shouting match if I suggested a restaurant with a slightly higher delivery minimum, not realizing that to him, any extra cost was unthinkable.
Beyond the small, individual fights, it was impossible to ignore that the emotional weight of his debt was crushing him, and he couldn’t get it out of his head. When I talked, I could see that he was trying to listen, but juggling his debt stress at the same time.
Eventually, it got easier to just stop talking. Though we’d always been able to communicate about issues I know can challenge other couples—complicated family situations, ambition and future plans—it seemed like we’d met an obstacle we couldn’t overcome. I’d never felt more lonely.
Finally, one night, he came home from work and told me we needed to talk. Every muscle in my body tensed, but he launched into a talk that wasn’t “we’re over,” but “we need to fix this, together.” So we sat down and laid everything out.
Click on the next page for more on how we tackled it.
Well, we looked at his budget. Mine was loose, with the only things set in stone being rent, food, utilities and debt payments. Jordan, on the other hand, budgeted every single penny. I’d always known I had a cushion, but not precisely how much—so we filled in the gaps. Once we knew how much extra I had each month, I made it clear that I needed to be able to help, and he finally accepted.
I wish I could say that during this conversation, we brainstormed ways for Jordan to lower his debt somehow—with a payment plan, balance-transfer card or by consolidating, for example—but we didn’t. We were young, and didn’t know much about personal finance. If we were to repeat this conversation today, we’d certainly explore these things.
What we did do was identify ways for me to take some of the load off Jordan. We adjusted how much we each paid for rent, utilities and groceries each month. Instead of a split that was proportional to our incomes, we bumped mine up about $300 a month until he felt more stable—about a year later.
This isn’t because I’m some selfless hero. I have never once let Jordan have the last bite of ice cream. We just agreed that this was part of the ebb and flow of relationships. Plus, we knew it wouldn’t be one-sided forever.
As I was shouldering more of our joint expenses, Jordan made it a priority to show his appreciation in non-monetary ways, like planning our meals each week—a chore we used to share but I hated.
Even today, many years after that first conversation, we remember that supporting a partner isn’t only about offering to pay more. Now that I’m in graduate school and working, he’s again picking up more household chores than our usual 50/50 split. We remind ourselves that balance doesn’t always translate to down the middle.
We also committed to checking in with each other every month to see how we were feeling, and to make sure our plan still made sense—which is something we still do to this day. And it’s in these conversations that we’ve worked out new arrangements to support each other.
For example, when health issues took me out of work for a few months in 2014, he picked up the slack and shouldered much more of our shared expenses. (At that point, he had enough cushion that he could divert his “fun” money toward joint priorities, and keep paying his loans as usual.)
It’s now been five years since we graduated from college, and Jordan’s made a dent in his debt—about $12,000—which took care of most of his credit cards. And his income is finally at a point that he can increase his monthly payments a few times a year and afford to go to a movie or dinner without checking his account balance.
His debt still weighs on him, but he knows he has an ally in me. While I’m not financially contributing to his debt anymore, the option’s always there, should he need it. And I know the opposite is true, too.
*Name has been changed.