I Due: How to Tackle Student Loan Debt Without Sidelining Your Marriage
Getting married this fall? Congratulations! Just be warned – there comes a moment in every autumn wedding where half the guests suddenly slip away to watch the big game (just follow the cheers to find your wedding party).
Football is actually pretty apropos for a wedding – after all, in both football and marriage, you’re either tackling things together or you’re being tackled by them. Money is a common example of this (in marriage, not football), as the growing number of couples dealing with student loan debt can attest.
Whether the loans belong to you, your spouse or all of the above, once you get married it doesn’t really matter anymore. Paying off debt is now your shared responsibility, and it’s going to take a team effort to get that student loan linebacker off your, er, back.
So what’s the best strategy for tackling student loans without letting them clobber your marriage? Here are five tips for proactively – and collaboratively – running a play that leads to the big pay-off: a debt-free happily ever after.
Tip #1: Create your big financial picture
Preparing to take on a big financial goal usually requires some conversation and preparation upfront. Before making any decisions, sit down and talk about your short- and long-term financial objectives, and make sure you’re both on the same page (or as close to it as possible). This can be an overwhelming topic, so I encourage you to break it down into chunks. Have you established a household budget? How do student loans (and paying them off) fit into your long-term and short-term goals? Should you start aggressively paying off debt, or will it be better to ramp up over time? What other factors (e.g. buying a home, changing careers, having children, etc.) affect that decision?
Not only does this exercise give you the clarity you need to create an action plan, it can actually be kind of fun – after all, planning a life together is part of the reason you got married in the first place. The key is to listen to each other and remember that you’re both on the same team. Now you just need a roadmap for achieving your collective goals.
Tip #2: Take advantage of technology
Once you’re clear on the big picture, it’s time to get into the weeds. Most people have more than one student loan, often with multiple lenders, so a good place to start is by gathering all of your loan info in one place. You can use an online student loan management tool to collect this information, compare student loan repayment options and even analyze prepayment strategies.
After crunching the numbers, your debt pay-off strategy may include putting extra money toward your loans each month, which means creating and sticking to a budget that supports that goal. Platforms like Mint and Learnvest allow you to aggregate household accounts and track spending. Disclaimer: tracking your spending so precisely may feel like ripping off a bandage at first, but over time, this kind of discipline can help you see where your money goes and make conscious choices about your spending. And once you have your budget in place, these apps will alert you both when spending is getting off track.
Tip #3: Define the who, what, when
Whether your finances are separate or combined, you’ll need to agree on how to collectively pay all of your financial obligations. Many couples address this based on each person’s share of the total household income. For example, if one person makes 40% and the other makes 60%, the former pays 40% of the shared bills and the latter pays 60%. Others find it simpler and more cohesive to have one household checking account and pay all bills from there.
However you decide to split things up, it’s crucial to agree upon a plan that accounts for everything, because missed payments can screw up your credit (and/or your spouse’s), making your future financial objectives that much tougher to achieve.
Tip #4: Look for opportunities to optimize
Okay, so now you’ve established a plan and a budget, and you know who’s on point for each bill. You’re on the path to getting student loan debt off your plate. Is there anything else you can do to speed up the process?
Short of winning the lottery, your best bets for accelerating loan payoff are prepayment (or paying more than the minimum) and lowering interest rate, the latter of which can be only be done through refinancing. If you qualify to refinance student loans at a lower interest rate, you can lower monthly payments or shorten payment term, plus save money on interest over the life of the loan – money that will come in handy for those other financial goals you’ve both agreed to pursue.
Tip #5: Be on the same team
Living with debt is stressful for any couple, but being part of a relationship has its advantages, too. There’s a reason that weight loss experts often recommend finding a “buddy” to help cheer you on and keep you honest in your diet and exercise journey – and the same applies for achieving a big goal like paying off student loan debt.
Keep it positive and keep the lines of communication open, and you may even find that the journey to being debt-free makes your marriage even stronger – so you can take the hits that come your way as easily as your favorite team does.
Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of a post we originally published in November 2014. We welcome new comments and questions below.