Calling my husband's student loans 'our' debt helped us pay off $51,000 in 15 months

Erin Lowry shares the strategies she and her husband used to pay off debt and merge their money.
Photo by Sage & Fae Photo

In September 2018, my boyfriend of eight years became my husband. By December 2019 we were completely debt-free and, even more importantly, had found a streamlined system for handling our money together.

When we got married, my husband, who I call Peach, had $51,000 in student loans. We created a plan that allowed us to pay $1,875 each month, six times the monthly minimum payment on the debt. About a year in, we had $13,000 left, and being so close to the finish line motivated us to put even more towards the loans. Now we're debt-free.

But all those accomplishments didn't simply fall into place over 15 months. We'd been talking, preparing, and laying groundwork for years. We started with three conversations about how we'd handle money as a couple, and pay off student loans, before we were even engaged. 

I'm eternally grateful for the time we spent having those conversations because it illuminated one potential issue early on: how to navigate ownership mentality about debt. These conversations could also help you take some of the tension out of making big money decisions as a couple and achieve your goals more quickly.

These are the three conversations we had that I think any committed couple could benefit from.

Define whether debt is 'yours,' 'mine,' or 'ours'

Years before we combined our finances, Peach pushed back on the idea that any of "my money" should go towards paying off his student loans. It's not an uncommon reaction, thanks to guilt, pride, or a sense of duty, or a combination of the three.  Peach felt that the student loans were his burden and that I shouldn't be financially obligated to help.

My issue with this logic is that once we were married, they still would affect my life. That's true even though I wouldn't be legally get tied to the loans unless I co-signed.

"While you're right that it's the debt you're bringing into the marriage, it still will directly impact me and our life together," I said. "By working towards getting debt-free together as a team, we can reach our joint goals much faster."

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It wasn't a simple, one-and-done discussion. But because we started having this talk years before we got married, it helped prepare us for the mental and emotional transition that followed the wedding. 

I also made the decision to shift my language right after we got married and started calling the debt "our student loans" and not "your student loans." 

And I took the same approach to money. With the exception of our individual spending, it all gets referred to as "our money."

Decide how to handle different incomes

We found that the strategy that works for us is a hybrid model of mostly joint banking with some autonomy, in the form of two personal checking accounts

We have joint accounts for household bills, saving, and investments. But for relatively smaller purchases like clothes and toiletries, gym memberships, gifts, travel, and covering the cost of being in weddings, we use funds from those individual accounts. For bigger ticket items, like those trips, we check in with each other, as a general courtesy and usually because we have to coordinate our schedules.

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Peach and I do not earn the same amount of money. When we got married, my take-home pay income was nearly double his and I'd been fairly used to spending, and saving, how I wanted. 

But since Peach is a public school teacher, it felt like I would be punishing his notoriously underpaid career choice if I was able to spend more because I earn more. So we decided that we would each get the same amount to individually spend each month. 

While that figure has changed over time to fit our goals, this system allowed us gradually merge our financial lives, minimize any feelings of deprivation or loss of autonomy, and helped us develop a better household budget.

Align your spending and money priorities

As the resident money nerd, I check in on our finances a few times a month and do an evaluation at the end of the month. I look out for where we might be overspending, if we don't need as much for a given category, and what to prioritize after a goal is completed. For example, once we've completed a short-term goal — like saving up for a new couch — we are already know where we will reallocate those freed up funds. 

Then I'll update Peach on our progress or any missteps. Sometimes, though, we'll have a longer talk about changing our household budget in order to better align with our goals. For some couples, this meeting is at a set time and date each month. It can be smart to temptation bundle if it's a dreaded task. Feel free to open a favorite bottle of wine or order your most beloved takeout to eat while you talk money

Having these ongoing conversations made a big difference in our lives. We paid off our loans earlier than we originally planned and reallocated those funds to savings and investing goals.

By focusing on debt repayment, and by doing it together, we were able to optimize our household budget and make sure it truly aligned with our spending patterns and financial goals. This process also helped us build a communication pattern around money that stripped away tension, and it helped us figure out how to use our income to live the lives we truly want. 

Erin Lowry is the author of  "Broke Millennial," "Broke Millennial Takes On Investing," and the forthcoming "Broke Millennial Talks Money: Stories, Scripts and Advice for Navigating Awkward Financial Conversations." You can find her at Broke Milliennial, Twitter and Instagram.

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