Q: My partner and I are not technically engaged yet, but we plan to get hitched next summer. By the time he’s through with grad school, he’ll have about one hundred thousand dollars in student loan debt. First of all, we plan to merge finances eventually, but he’s firmly convicted that the loan payments should come only out of his paychecks. Is this a reasonable plan?
Secondly, my upper-class parents are FREAKING OUT. Neither of them took out loans to pay for college, and they were careful to make sure I didn’t have to take out any loans either. They see student debt as a sign of financial irresponsibility—even though my partner comes from a poor family and there was no other way he could afford an education—and they don’t trust him to stay on top of the paperwork. They are insisting that I enumerate the loans, figure out the terms, and make a payment plan. Moreover, they want copies of the paperwork.
I think my parents are probably projecting feelings about my uncle’s recent and financially damaging divorce onto my relationship. Still, I’m hurt by how suspicious they are. My partner feels insulted by what he sees as thinly veiled classism. He doesn’t think his loan paperwork is any of their business. How do I deal with this?
Debt Exacerbates Brooding Tensions
A: Dear DEBT,
Student loans are gross and scary. While I can’t offer you financial advice, here’s some good information by the experts (and sure, you can share it with your parents, too, I guess). I really can’t blame your parents for getting hand-wringy about this stuff. Luckily, debt is just one of those exciting adventures that you sign on to tackle together when you get married! Yaaaay. But really. A giant burden is so much lighter when it’s on four sturdy shoulders, and you have a terrific opportunity to help your partner with this load, if only emotionally. So much guilt and shame is tied up in having debt (even if your in-laws aren’t there wagging fingers), that I’m sure you can be a great help in easing that pressure for your partner and being a source of encouragement and support.
Marriage sets you up to be a team and to face challenges together. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) your parents aren’t on that team. Or if they are, they’re second-string. Or maybe they’re the cheerleaders? Or something. I think I just lost myself in a sports metaphor. The point is, your parents love you and want to protect and care for you. But, now is that time when they have to take a step back and let you guys take care of yourselves, first, before rushing in to save you. It’s only healthy for all parties involved—themselves included. Not only is this stuff no longer their right, it’s also no longer their responsibility. This is that point where they get to let you run off and make your own fabulous, expensive mistakes while they remain blissfully ignorant (at least in part). Of course your parents will still worry about you. They love you. But knowing the nitty-gritty details of interest accrual and payment due dates won’t relieve some of that worry, it’ll only add to it.
Marriage can definitely be a community effort (something we talk about on APW sort of often), but you as a couple, establishing your baby family, determine when to allow that community in to help. It’s not up to them to elbow their way in. It’s up to you to establish boundaries and gently help your loving, well-intentioned parents maintain them. (I totally just made that sound easy, huh? Ha!) Wise folks don’t assume they’ll be able to handle everything themselves. But, how much help and by whom and how is a decision you make with your partner.
I have no doubt that your parents’ motivations are pure.
They want to take care of you. If you try to see it from their perspective, it’s almost a fear of the unknown. They’ve never dealt with student loans before! Perhaps they don’t know anyone who had to work three jobs just to get by in college, and still racked up student loan debt. But, of course it happens. It’s not a character flaw. It’s a matter of unfortunate, and all too common, circumstances. Sometimes, folks are forced to do the best they can with the cards they were dealt. Unless you faced those circumstances yourself (or know someone who has), it can be hard to imagine what that’s like (or that it’s even possible). Try to help your partner to see it that way. First, that he’s awesome for getting this education in the first place. And second, that it’s not about him; it’s about this unknown challenge that your parents never have handled before.
By working on this on your own (together) without the babysitting of mommy and daddy, you can try to prove to your parents that he is the responsible guy you know him to be, and that you are becoming a responsible married couple. He’s mature and adult enough to handle his debt without having the in-laws peeking over his shoulder, and you’re responsible enough to support him. Show them that! But, politely. “Thanks so much for offering to help, but (Partner) and I would rather sort things out ourselves.” You can let them know about whatever important steps you take—meeting with a financial advisor, seeking consolidation programs, etc.—but only within those predetermined boundaries that you establish with your partner. (Hint: This almost certainly doesn’t involve them having copies of anything.)
As far as the two of you guys go, if you’re pooling finances, all of the money is “our” money, so it doesn’t really matter whose paycheck it comes from, right? Assume he does pay for his loans straight from his own check. Then, he has X amount of money less than you do. So, does that mean you go out to dinner by yourself? He’s not able to come to the movies? He wears old, holey shoes while you buy some new ones for yourself? Or, does it mean that you treat him to everything from your own account—paying for your dinners, buying him presents without him able to reciprocate? Neither of those situations is ideal. If you’re merging finances, it makes sense for these student loan payments to become just another bill that you’re tackling together, despite your partner’s guilt hang-ups. Maybe eventually, he’ll use that expensive education to make bank. Then you’ll both reap the rewards! Then, maybe you can pass along those keys to your French summer home (ahem). In the same way, practicing this teamwork and setting these boundaries may be sort of difficult and scary this time around, but it can lay the groundwork for the many years to come.
Team Practical, did you face marrying into financial inequality? How do you navigate setting boundaries with well-meaning but intrusive parents?
If you would like to ask Team Practical a question please don’t be shy! You can email Liz at: askteampractical [at] apracticalwedding [dot] com. If you would prefer to not be named, anonymous questions are also accepted. Though it really makes our day when you come up with a clever sign-off!