I don’t recall learning what it meant to be in debt, but I very clearly remember the time I spent agonizing over whether to take out loans for college.
For weeks, I debated two very different college experiences. I’d fallen in love with Wake Forest, nestled in N.C., with a beautiful campus, impressive theatre program—and an $80,000 student loan price tag. But I’d also been accepted to St. Bonaventure University, a big legacy school for my family in small-town, western New York. Its biggest pull? The fact that I’d qualified for academic scholarships covering 50 percent of the costs. My parents were willing to cover the other half, which meant I’d graduate debt-free.
I ultimately succumbed to the rational choice. Giving up my dream school increased my opportunities to live my dream life. I wouldn’t be shackled to finding the highest paying job out of school just so I could afford my student loan payments.
My whole “debt-free life” plan was perfectly on track until my senior year of college, when I met my fiancé.
We dated exclusively in school and managed to survive, even thrive, in a long distance relationship for years while he finished his undergrad and master’s degree in education before joining me in New York City.
Then a few years into the relationship, he confirmed what I’d already suspected: He had student loans—totaling up to more than he’d earn as a first-year public school teacher.
I did my best poker face while my brain frantically did the math on how much taking on his debt would shave off the net worth I’d accumulated through ardent saving and investing. “Get out!” my money-focused, rational brain screamed. After all, I notoriously made decisions based on practicality over emotion.
If we got married, our financial lives would merge and his debt would directly affect me—whether I liked it or not. So it would only make sense that we pay it off as a team. That would definitely slow down my own progress toward financial goals.
Did I want that? I felt like I’d already made a sacrifice in denying myself my dream college in favor of graduating debt-free. And that sacrifice had paid off. I’d been able to save $10,000 in college and accept the low-paying entertainment job I wanted without having to worry about juggling loans and other big-city expenses. I had the freedom to take more risks early on in my career, like working for a startup and later becoming self-employed. I also had wiggle room in my budget for luxuries like travel and adopting a dog.
But as I thought more about it, the idea of ending a relationship simply because my partner hadn’t been granted the same opportunities felt irrational. What mattered was how he’d manage his money going forward.
At the time, he was still in grad school, working full-time in order to pay out of pocket and graduate debt-free. His work ethic assured me that his debt was something he—and ultimately we—could conquer swiftly.
Four years later, we’re ready to become a financial team, and we’ve discussed (at length) various strategies for ditching his debt quickly. He wants to maintain ownership over paying off his debt, but I want to help. So we’ve agreed that we’ll divvy up his paycheck between his loans, retirement savings and our joint savings goals. My income will cover our daily expenses, plus our savings goals.
Do I love the fact that I’m marrying into debt? No. But I love him. This time, I’m not making the rational financial choice, but I’m confident I’m making the right one.