Taboo money topics: How to talk about student debt with your partner


Over a third of Americans say student loan debt is the most uncomfortable financial topic to discuss in social settings. But keeping your loved ones in the dark about your debt can lead to turmoil in your personal relationships. Nearly four in 10 student loan borrowers say that loans have affected their relationships with significant others, according to a recent study by the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA) and the MIT AgeLab.

But there's no reason to be ashamed of having student loans. Nearly 70% of students from the class of 2018 borrowed money to pay for school, according to the Federal Reserve.

Cynthia Borges-O'Dell, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Modesto, California, says if you're in an exclusive relationship, it helps to be candid about your student debt situation early on.

Here's how to make that conversation easier and keep student debt from hurting your relationship.

Be transparent

"I think there is an embarrassment or a stigma attached to student loan debt because there's an underlying fear that someone will not be able to accept it, or understand why one made the decision to acquire that kind of student debt, when there are other options," says Borges-O'Dell.

She recommends kicking off the conversation by explaining your initial reasons for choosing your college. Ask your partner if they have student debt too, and if so, what kind.

Sharing personal financial information probably won't cause a rift, she says. Being aware of your loved one's loans, and making them aware of yours, can actually help you better understand each other and your priorities. And being open about money in general can establish a solid foundation for your relationship.

"It's perfectly fine to ask what kind of credit history they have and what their spending habits are," too, she says. "Knowing this information about your partner will help them come up with a financial plan and set goals for the future."

I think there is an embarrassment or a stigma attached to it because there's an underlying fear that someone will not be able to accept it or understand why one made the decision to acquire that kind of student debt when there are other options.
Cynthia Borges-O'Dell
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Decide what your roles will be

One of the most important decisions you make as a couple could be determining what your partner's role is in your debt. Will they cheer you on as you pay it down? Are they willing or able to contribute in some way? What are the two of you comfortable with?

Whatever you agree to do, make sure you set clear expectations early on: 36% of borrowers who currently contribute to their partner's education report conflict as a result of unclear expectations about the amount, according to the TIAA and MIT AgeLab study.

There's no right or wrong way to go about handling your debt, and having the conversation will help you both come to a decision. It can also inform the approach you take to money generally as a couple.

"I've seen people tackle it all kinds of ways, but usually couples will divvy their finances into 'yours, mine, and ours' buckets," says Richard Kahler, a NAPFA registered financial advisor with Kahler Financial Group in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Buckets allow for couples to contribute to a joint account in proportion to their individual incomes or to put in equal amounts. Though Kahler says many couples choose to tackle student debt together by putting all of their earnings into an "us" bucket, and paying off debt and other bills jointly, some couples opt for separate accounts and that's fine, too.

Consider asking an expert

If you and your partner decide to tackle the debt together, Borges-O'Dell suggests seeking help from a certified financial planner (CFP) to ensure that you're both on the same page about money. Clear, consistent communication helps couples manage finances and set expectations about how much of your combined monthly income will be put towards debt and other expenses.

Borges-O'Dell says that meeting with a CFP and having regular check-ins with each other can help both parties come to a mutual agreement on a budget and a set of financial goals to help keep both partners accountable.

"They need to sit down and schedule a time once a week or so to review their finances and to review where the money is going," she says, so you're making joint decisions.

Agree on your goals and how to pursue them

Student debt can be difficult to discuss in part because of the threat it poses to other priorities. Of the borrowers surveyed, 84% report that student loans are negatively affecting the amount they are able to save for retirement, for example.

But student loans don't have to hold you back, as an individual or as a couple. Though Kahler says that, in most cases, paying off student debt should be a high priority, your circumstances, like the amount of debt you have and the interest rates on your loans, matter. You may have the flexibility to prioritize saving for a mortgage, too, for example, or to start a family.

Financial advice and etiquette for dating

And many experts encourage you to start putting aside at least a little for retirement as soon as you can, even if you're paying off student loans at the same time, so that you can benefit from compounding.

Start having the conversations with your partner early on so that you can figure out how to take care of your loans and how to think beyond them, too.

Borges-O'Dell says that these productive conversations, and a stronger, more open relationship, begins with overcoming the fear of telling your partner about your student loan debt. "If you enjoyed what you did, if you got an outstanding education, then why be embarrassed about that?" she says.

"There's no doubt that debt is kind of a romantic buzzkill," Kahler acknowledges. But dealing with debt can help you and your partner can learn to collaborate and compromise, skills that help couples thrive in all sorts of challenging situations, and it can end up bringing you closer.

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