Miss Information: Can I marry my boyfriend without marrying his six-figure debt?

by Cait Robinson

Have a question for Miss Information? Email missinfo@nerve.com.

Dear Miss Information,

I'm a (mostly) straight female in my late twenties, living in Brooklyn. My boyfriend of three years is in his mid-thirties and lives in the Bronx. We have a great relationship, we're both GGG, and we communicate really well. We're crazy in love. The sex is amazing. We're planning on moving in together soon, and we want to eventually start a family and all that jazz. The problem is he's broke. Like about $150 grand in debt broke. And almost $100 grand of that is in student loans. He's got a master's degree, but doesn't make enough money to even begin his payments. He's sort of told me all this before but I guess I didn't realize how real it all was until last night. He was explaining his money stress to me and I started crying because I just saw the future I want falling away. If I choose to be with him, I'm afraid I'll be choosing a life with ongoing economic problems.

I went to a very expensive undergrad college, but have worked hard to make my payments on time every month since graduation and have been slowly chipping away at my debt. I have no credit-card debt at all and an almost perfect credit score. I have a good job, but not enough income to support a family by myself — or enough income to help offset my partner's debt. I know this is so selfish of me and I'm so embarrassed for feeling this way, but I've worked very hard to be financially responsible, and now it feels like that's all going to go to shit if I start to build my life with him. I want to be with him, but I also want financial security and a kid and a house and a picket fence. Okay, maybe not a picket fence, but you get the idea.

Am I Being Awful?

Dear Am I Being Awful?,

Your letter takes me to the edge of an abyss called "legal advice," which — disclosure! — I am in no position to dispense. (Let me put this another way: do you want legal advice from a woman in sweatpants?) Luckily, our commenters are a strikingly book-learned bunch, so guys, feel free to jump in with any helpful lawyering. (That's better — take financial/legal advice from internet strangers! Who, okay, fine, are also wearing sweatpants.)

You're doing the right thing by taking a hard look at logistics before you jump into marriage. Luckily, you've got some time to change things before you put a ring on it. Go ahead and move in together, but keep your finances separate. Once you do get around to marriage, a pre-nup is a sound option: sure, the word conjures a bleary-eyed Anna Nicole Smith, but pre-nuptual agreements are no longer the sole realm of the gold-digger. A pre-nup allows you to separate your finances — including debt — from your fiance's. (I am told that debt doesn't automatically transfer in case of marriage, but each state has maddeningly different marriage and divorce laws.)  It's also a good idea to keep separate checking and savings accounts, and to file taxes separately.

I know, none of this makes for sexy conversation — and, actually, much of it is pretty delicate to talk about. "Baby, I want to have your children, but I'll claw out your eyes if you touch my credit score." Ego and money are almost inextricably tied, and when institutions like "family" and "children" get concerned, existing tensions get heightened. The more you can practice discussing dicey issues in a loving tone before you get married, the better. Look at this like a practice run.

To that end, it may be worth sitting down with your boyfriend and helping him figure out a plan to stabilize his debt. Set a timeline: if you want to get married in two years, try to have his debt reduced by x amount within one year. It may very well be that he's gotten paralyzed by the avalanche effect of his debt, and simply having a plan to dig out of it — especially assisted by someone as financially responsible as you — might help. But, of course, remember that it is his debt, not your debt: appreciate that this is likely sensitive and nerve-wracking for him, and try your best to guide without trampling. 

By the way, "holy God, how are we going to afford a baby?" is a question almost every couple ever asks themselves, crippling debt or no. Start small, and work on what actually impacts your life — the apartment, the stellar sex, paying down loans — before you start heaping on children and picket fences. The price of cribs will always be terrifying; trust that that will stay unchanged. Work on the "today" things, and don't worry about the big questions until they become relevant.

Dear Miss Info,

I'm turning thirty-five this year, and as these things go, I'm getting introspective. I've never been in a romantic relationship. I've had sex, but it was emotionally one-sided. (My side, to play against stereotypes — I'm a guy.) I lost my virginity at twenty-eight and have only been with two women sexually. I moved around a lot in middle and high school, so I never dated or had sex or really got a chance to build a identity outside of "The New Guy."

I had money problems in college, so it took me much longer than most people to finally graduate. At thirty, I went to graduate school, and of course most of my peers were twenty-four or twenty-five. This is a long-winded bit of background for my problem: I'm most often attracted to younger women, usually women eight to ten years my junior. This isn't inherently a problem, except for the fact that I often fear I'm in a state of arrested development.

Compounding this issue is my attitude about twenty-somethings. I find that I'm happier among my age peers in most situations. There's just a common language among the people who grew up in the same decade that's hard to get with someone who's younger or older. But as you've acknowledged in your column, twentysomethings are often in a place of finding themselves emotionally and sexually, and I feel like I'm in that same place, at least as it relates to romance and sex. I relate to my own age group in almost every way, but relationship-wise, I relate to people ten years younger.

I've been on a blind date or two with women my own age, and the chemistry hasn't been there. But when I've hung out casually with my roommates' friends or my grad-school chums (all twenty-somethings), I've been attracted to them and have even been flirted with (which never goes anywhere, but hey, I'll take it). Is there a good way to approach this problem as is? Am I misreading my own situation and worrying about nothing? Should I include a joke about a grim-faced man and a gas-powered cow-puncher?

No Country For This Old Man

Dear No Country For This Old Man,

Admittedly, I did not read or see No Country For Old Men, so your references are lost on me. But what a reference "gas-powered cow-puncher" is! Consider it Netflixed. What stands out most in your letter is a tremendous amount of introspection. Your overall tone sounds evenhanded and logical. Cow-punch away!

One nitpicking point, though. You say you've been on blind dates with women your age, and that you hung out with nubile young friends-of-friends, right? And you're distressed that you found the younger girls more attractive? This seems less like a problem of age than a problem of context. "Blind date" is almost always going to be more awkward than "hanging out." The younger women chilling with friends have the benefit of being in their element, while the older women on the dates were probably wearing uncomfortable underwear and sweating over the decision of lobster vs. ravioli. Put another way: in which setting do you think you came off as cuter and wittier?

You notice you are habitually attracted to these young women, but you also recognize that you have deeper relationships with people your own age. With an internal compass like that, you can't go too far astray. Ageism only gets into "danger" territory when coupled with denial. ("Doing ecstasy with her college friends keeps me young!") Your finger seems firmly on your own pulse, which is great.

Struggling with romance and sexuality isn't exclusive to one's twenties, so you're not necessarily behind the curve. Now, instead of fretting about what you're doing wrong, keep an open mind and see what happens. You may find twenty-five-year-olds so mature they blow your mind. You may find thirty-seven-year-olds who act closer to twenty. Let go of the specter of wrinkly, robed Hugh Hefner, and flirt with anyone who seems interesting. You may be surprised where sparks fly.

Want to meet someone financially solvent? Meet them on Nerve.

Commentarium (86 Comments)

May 20 12 - 12:59am
Ricochet

He needs to get out more. There's a remarkable universe of beautiful 30 something women, who have gotten over playing games (for the most part), and intelligent, intriguing women to spend time with.

As far as the attraction, I believe that most men are to an extent hardwired that way (I know I am.) But when you let the big head override the little head, I think you'll find you make better quality decisions. And a roll in the hay is only a small part of relationship (albeit, an essential and if done right, remarkably fun part of a relationship.) And a woman with some experience will only make it better.

May 20 12 - 3:38am
HeyMooooonX

"He was explaining his money stress to me and I started crying because I just saw the future I want falling away."

So he was pouring his heart out about his stress and instead of just being there for him and listening, you made it entirely about you. Nice.

May 20 12 - 4:26am
juu

That is what I was thinking.

Money is transient in life, but your partner (hopefully) is for the rest of your life. Life will always have it's twists and turns. I didn't come out of college with no debt but had to pay for one of my parents medical bills (they live abroad). I have accumulated significant amount of debt by doing so. I will do it again in a heartbeat - my partner has supported me through the entire thing.

If you truly love him, it will work out just fine.

May 20 12 - 4:30am
Argothair

That's not entirely fair. Life doesn't always allow for neatly switching off whose turn it is to share their fears and whose turn it is to empathetically listen. Sometimes your fears will be a trigger for me, and vice versa. The important thing is that you catch yourself in the act of failing to be a good listener (as this woman seems to have done), try to deal with your issues (as this woman seems to be doing), and then go back and try to listen again in a calmer frame of mind (as this woman seems to want to do).

May 20 12 - 8:29am
re: HeyMooooonX

That's naive. If they're planning a future together, that IS her stress, and it IS about her.

May 20 12 - 10:59am
Jinna

Exactly. It's not so simple as her not being emotionally supportive at that point. His life will become her life, and any emotionally intimate couple takes on each others' stresses. That is much more complex than "If you truly love him, it will work out just fine."

May 20 12 - 11:03am
Jinna

...and Juu, you mentioned that you'd take on the debt again. That's really amazing, esp. since truly, family first! But the advice seeker is in your partner's situation, not yours. Perhaps it would be helpful if s/he piped in re: how s/he approached your situation, and what facilitated his/her understanding?

May 21 12 - 4:15am
juu

It would have been very hard for me to take on the debt if my girlfriend wasn't supportive of my decisions. Knowing that this person loves you and wants to be with you even through difficult situations is what makes relationships really strong in the long run.

I agree debt isn't a pleasant situation, I am working hard to get the debt paid off - we try to not make a big deal of extravagances that we can't afford anymore. I don't know how he plans to deal with the debt or how driven he is to get out of it.

Also, I really don't see how sex would factor into this conversation.

May 24 12 - 5:27pm
QCIC

Ummm stay the heck away from this guy. The number source of martial discord, number 1 is money. And this guy has none, and won't have any in the future. This is guaranteed divorce country.

A good marriage isn't just about being in love and great sex and liking similar things, those things can help, but it is also about the overall situation, and the overall situation here is crap, and from your tone it doesn't sound as though it will improve.

May 20 12 - 4:00am
Jax

I love how you assume your readers are wearing pants of any kind. You'd think that kind of blind optimism would hamper your ability to give pragmatic advice, and yet here we are.

May 21 12 - 1:33pm
Ditto

Rampant pants-ism cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged. Miss Info should be spanked. I'm sure there will be volunteers.

May 20 12 - 9:54am
Leah

I don't know, "Work on the "today" things, and don't worry about the big questions until they become relevant" seems like bad advice to me...

May 22 12 - 4:08am
Julie

That was my thought, too. "Go ahead and move in..." seemed like poor advice too. A lot of couples get divorced over money, and the LW isn't even sure she wants to get to the alter. Why is moving in a good idea with all those doubts?

May 24 12 - 5:29pm
QCIC

It was horrible irresponsible advice, and definitely advice from someone who hasn't been married and is more interested in romance than practicality.

May 20 12 - 10:01am
Need More Info

Regarding the debt - 150k isn't that much money when you look at a lifetime, but it's important to understand *why* he has that debt. Lots of college debt, we know, but how has he been handling his finances? Irresponsibly? That's a marriage killer, regardless of how good the sex is now.

May 20 12 - 11:12am
Jinna

NMI, you said it right. I think this is the root of it. As wonderful as the union is, they need to be equal partners bearing the burden. Someone who freezes with debt, etc. is likely to have to lean on the other person. So if the advice seeker ends up being stuck as the "responsible one"...goodbye, sex life.

May 20 12 - 10:10am
HH

if it makes you feel sick, run.

People who don't see eye to eye on money and finances are doomed in the long term, no matter how unromantic that seems.

I have seen the emotional pressure of huge, un-pay-back-able debt ruin marriages and long term relationships even though they loved each other.

If marriage and children are very important to you, consider walking away.

The only problem of course is that quite a lot of people are in the same position as him.

May 20 12 - 10:53am
kelly

LW2: I'm a woman in my 30s who not long ago dated a 30-year-old virgin. There were things that were frustrating about it for sure, but I also found it refreshing and sweet to be with someone who was nervous and discovering things for the first time. Men my age are usually pretty calculating and jaded. If the chemistry isn't there with the ladies your own age, that's one thing, but know that you do have something to offer that for many 30-something women will be special and wonderful.

May 20 12 - 11:12am
js

LW1: Just keep in mind that the debt is not an immutable outside force that has come to ruin your otherwise perfect relationship; the debt is a factor of your bf's personality. If he can be responsible and rational about making a plan to pay it off, and if you guys can talk about it openly and work together on it, you will be fine. If he can't, then the relationship will probably be sunk by money issues. But if that happened, your relationship wouldn't be ruined by "debt", it would be ruined by, "a financially irresponsible partner." Every relationship has a price of entry, and staying on a tighter budget with your partner for a while while he pays off his debt is not insurmountable. But, being with someone whom you can never trust around money IS insurmountable. See the difference?

May 20 12 - 11:33am
Jinna

SPOT ON.

May 20 12 - 12:10pm
sigtunafish

10 years is nothing. Women get their acts together earlier than men do.

May 20 12 - 1:16pm
Sam

I wish when people speak about their crushing student loan debt they mention what they got their degree in. They must be embarrassed.

100k in debt but I got a degree in chemical engineering and now work at Exxon.
or
100k in debt but I got a degree in English and I'm a barista for Starbucks.

No offense to any English majors. :)

May 20 12 - 6:48pm
well

I'd be embarrassed to work at Exxon too.

May 20 12 - 8:18pm
nope

"No offense, but I think I should be able to judge you based on my pre-conceived notions about the value of your area of interest. :)"

May 21 12 - 1:05am
LT

You must not know many attorneys, "Sam." A large percentage of them were English majors. And the majority of them make a lot of money. Which is what your above point really is.

May 21 12 - 11:01am
Sam

I haven't had the need for an attorney, knock on wood.

The majority of them actually don't make a lot of money. Not until they've moved way up the totem pole. And I'm pretty sure they studied Law.

The actual degree in this case isn't so relevant, but more so that people are surprised when they find themselves treading water in debt after spending heaps of money on a degree with no real job prospects.

I have no problem with people educating themselves in what they are interested in. My problem is that tuition is so ridiculously high for everything and people pursue these interests without regard for financially screwing themselves for years to come.

May 21 12 - 7:58pm
Re: Sam

You're right Sam! *high five* All the posts contesting your first comment are probably from liberal arts majors feeling butthurt about their own bad choices. But that's OK because they still can afford internet and food somehow so they're still wealthier than most humans alive today.
Marketable Skills, people! That's what college is about unless you have somebody paying your way through life (in which case your fucked because you'll never feel truly alive)

May 22 12 - 12:10am
LT

Although I agree with the rest of what you said in your last post, Sam, two things stand out. Are you being totally disingenuous or did you really not understand that I meant before they went to law school? If the former, don't be a nitwit, if the latter, sorry but now I've explained it to you.

And two, the median wage for lawyers is about $113,000. I guess that's chump change to someone who has what? A chemical engineering degree? Median salary about $80, 000. Accounting? Median salary $75,000. Nurse, computer programmer, nope and nope, still a significantly lower median salary.

May 22 12 - 1:34am
2L

The average lawyer is also working on paying down 100-200k in student loans, depending on where they went to law school. That takes a bite out of that salary.

May 22 12 - 1:14pm
Theo

The median lawyer also hates his/her life because everybody in the world hates them and their job sucks PLUS they have to go to sleep at night knowing that the world is terrible and they are making it worse

May 22 12 - 8:01pm
Boing

These knee-jerk values about professions and status are tedious. So I was an English grad and now do alright running my own IT consultancy with five staff. The whole business is built on an ecosystem of services and needs that didn't even exist when I graduated. If you're smart, do what you love and do it well you'll be happy enough.

Having said that I'll resist the temptation to make a value judgement about lawyers but I know a number of law graduates who emerged with debt, scored a job in a law firm and died a little inside. The lesson there is - if you have a strong sense of social justice, good communication skills and a need to live an authentic and grounded life then law probably isn't for you.

May 23 12 - 3:11am
2L

I would qualify that with maybe law at a big firm isn't for you. I know lots of lawyers working for the government and nonprofits who are very happy, and are glad to take the "love what you do" tradeoff that comes with taking those jobs at a a much smaller salary than one can make at a big firm. I don't think it's a question of " (insert job here) isn't for you" so much as "just doing it for the money isn't for you."

May 23 12 - 5:44pm
LT

Agree with Boing in most ways, and ultimately agree most with 2L. All good points.

Jul 17 12 - 2:42pm
Real Sam

Anyone who thinks a degree in a technical subject is a reasonable guarantee of employment needs to turn off the TV, move out of their parents' basement and try applying for a job. Fox News Fantasyland is full of students with $100K of debt and Master's degrees in basketweaving. The real world is full of students with $100K in debt and PhDs in physics, chemistry, engineering, and medical research. I'm one of them, and I know dozens more.

Paying for one's own education is not a "character flaw." In many cases, that's what it costs to get a graduate degree in the US if your parents are unable or unwilling to help.

Jul 19 12 - 3:32pm
Chemistry

Um: any credible graduate student in science has funding for their PhD. I would see it as a huge red flag if I met a PhD student who was paying off debt from their graduate degree and assume it was because they were a weak student who could not get a funded offer (and subsequently, in many cases, couldn't get a job.) OTOH, if they had the debt from their undergrad degree, had done a funded PhD, and then had gotten a job that would enable them to pay off their undergrad degree, that would be okay with me.

May 20 12 - 1:20pm
AlexT

LW1: Run. Sorry, I'm sure he's a wonderful human being, but if a guy gets into SIX FIGURES of seemingly unpayable debt, then he himself is a terrible investment as a partner. He will never be able to afford to contribute to a house, retirement, babies. Never. He will be able to provide you with emotional sustenance, but financially, he is an albatross. You are literally better off without him. Think about it: The guy's going to have to work 2 jobs for 20 years to make his way back up to ZERO. And he's in his mid-thirties already? Is he working 2 jobs, or is he just hanging out in his financial tar pit? Run.

LW2: Your inexperience is contributing to your problem which is that you have too small a sample size from which you've drawn your current conclusions. If you're going to be all logical about it, you have to keep in mind that:

1. 20-somethings are weighted towards physical attractiveness. People-your-age are more likely to be weighted towards being more interesting. That's just how the world works. There are people who are interesting and hot in both groups, of course- you just have to do the legwork. Maybe you feel vulnerable as a person who hasn't gotten out there much, but keep in mind that you can get your heart stomped on by a cynical 30-something who's been around the block, OR by a capricious 20-something who's just getting started. Shit happens either way.

May 21 12 - 5:46pm
happyohsohappy

Yeah, run, and keep running until you trip up into the arms of outrageously wealthy Prince Charming who isn't really a prince, or charming either, but he is wealthy and that is what matters, it will make up for his awful personality and the fact that if you are honest with yourself you don't really find him physically attractive, but he's a good provider.. clearly a much better "investment" than your current partner. Money will make you happy.

Sorry if that seems harsh but I have seen that couple so often in so many places. The most sad variation is where the oh so attractive money dries up anyway. Dress it up anyway you like but essentially that is the choice facing you. If I was him I'd run.

May 22 12 - 1:37am
2L

Um, your average doctor or lawyer (and I'm sure some other high salary careers that I don't have exposure to) start their careers with six figures worth of student debt. Guess they are all terrible investments as potential partners, regardless of character, personality, etc.

May 22 12 - 1:57am
Kayla

The problem with this guy is not that he has debt, but that he has no plans to pay it back! And he has $50,000 in debt that is not student loans --presumably credit card debt. Yes, student loans can be a great investment, but this guy is just irresponsible and unreliable. No woman looking for a long-term relationship should be with him.

May 22 12 - 1:03pm
2L

Fair enough, but the commenter above made a blanket statement that six figure debt should always be a deal breaker. And I love how everyone assumes the extra 50k is irresponsibily acquired credit card debt. We have no information about how he ran up that debt. He might have just charged up a storm, or he might have run into serious medical issues with no insurance. We don't know, because the letter writer didn't say.

May 25 12 - 8:31pm
AlexT

A partner doesn't need to be wealthy, but the guy with $5 in his pocket is still $100,005 richer than the dumbass fool with $100k in student loans. Any debt is irresponsibly-acquired debt if there's no way for the debtor to pay it down. Obviously the previous commenter's insinuation that the fiscally-responsible woman must somehow be a gold-digger (who's she gold-digging, herself?!) must be a broke-as-a-joke guy himself.

May 20 12 - 3:47pm
JCF

LW1: Don't get married without talking to a real lawyer, but even then, laws change, and just because there may be a way to make you safe from his debt now, doesn't mean it'll be that way forever. You're not being awful or a gold-digger for taking financial status into account. It's ultimately your decision if your love for this guy is enough to overcome your expectations for an ideal life.

LW2: Don't use blind dates as your only examples of women your age. On the other hand, 10 years is not THAT much of a generation gap, if you're open-minded and curious about the things the younger ones like (and hopefully vice-versa). I don't know which is the better choice for you, but try to find someone you don't have to stress so much around. She's out there somewhere.

May 20 12 - 11:54pm
Jess

"Don't get married without talking to a real lawyer, but even then, laws change, and just because there may be a way to make you safe from his debt now, doesn't mean it'll be that way forever."

I don't think that's true. A prenuptial agreement can be drawn just like a normal contract between two people but it has legal power - it can be as simple as "the debt we each have at the beginning of our marriage remains the sole responsibility of the holder..." Something like that but with more legalese.

May 21 12 - 1:09am
Nope

While people can enter into pre-nuptials without the help of lawyers, it's not a good idea. Mainly because it's often grounds for challenging the pre-nup after the marriage had gone bad. One person can claim they didn't really understand what it entailed, blah, blah, blah and it lead to a whole host of problems.

May 21 12 - 10:07am
JCF

Even contract law gets tinkered with occasionally. For example, there used to be binding neighborhood covenants requiring homeowners to agree not to sell their home to a non-white person, or anyone who wouldn't sign the same covenant. Those were (rightly) thrown out. Student loans are often guaranteed by the government, which is looking for ways to get money that don't involve raising taxes or cutting subsidies for oil companies, and it may eye agreements like this. Anyway, I don't know what I'm talking about, so she should still talk to a lawyer.

May 21 12 - 12:37pm
profrobert

Well, I *am* a lawyer, but this isn't my field, so my advice is to talk to an estate planner/matrimonial practitioner type. Aside from legal issues (I believe you can paper the relationship sufficiently so that you don't get stuck with the debt either while married or if you divorce, but again, hire a professional in the field to do the papers), there's the finanacial industry issues. You want to make sure that your credit report doesn't get tied to his, and I don't know anything about those issues.

May 21 12 - 1:46pm
Laywer

I've practiced in this area, but not in her state.

In almost every jurisdiction that uses the Anglo-American model of jurisprudence, you cannot individually contract out of taking on a spouses debt. You can only waive taking on their income. There will be statutes and case law in her state that determine whether student debt acquired before marriage is now her responsibility. This is what will govern. They cannot privately change this. And, as I said below, if she moves into another state, particularly a community property state, she's got a whole new set of laws that come into play wrt income earned in that state being used for his debt. So she could be fine in state A, move into state B, and instantly she's now responsible for his debt.

States favor creditors in these types of situations. You almost always marry your partner's debt. Even in states that have traditionally allowed individuals to "keep it separate" the trend is to force couples into a financial community. So even if a lawyer tells you that they can do x, y, or z to protect you, remember that 5 or 10 years from now, the legislature and waive it's magic wand and you'll be on the hook.

Don't marry someone unless you are prepared to take on their debts. Period.

Unless she has some religious reason for getting married, it's actually better for her to be single and live with him and have kids and never have joint financials or joint title in anything. You can only "paper the relationship" if you don't get married.
Sure, go talk to a lawyer in your jurisdiction, but I guarantee you won't like the answer.

May 24 12 - 5:33pm
QCIC

In many states there are many things you cannot "pre-nup" away even if you want to.

May 20 12 - 6:59pm
Mr. Man

I can only speak for myself (obviously) but that much debt sounds like a non-starter. Especially if you want to make babies too. Babies become expensive. Especially when they become college students. That's why I have no babies.

May 20 12 - 8:08pm
LW1, don't do it!

Be advised that debt collectors LOVE to go after wives and even ex-wives for their husbands' debts. The main reason why is because women tend to feel more responsibility and are more likely to pay up to make the collectors go away. If the debt is school debt, in particular, you are looking at not being able to escape his debt albatross with bankruptcy. Think very carefully before proceeding with this relationship.

May 21 12 - 12:04am
Jess

In all honesty, I judge people who think a degree is worth that much money. Unless you are planning to be a big-time neurosurgeon who is also an associate professor at a teaching hospital (and you are successful in that plan), that shit will take you forever to pay off (if you do at all) and you will probably pay for it twice with the interest accrued.

If he can't even begin to make payments, he needs to commit to bartending full-time for a year at night and putting every single penny from that job towards his debt. Yes, two full time jobs suck. I have done it several times, and with enough determination your man could definitely save up a really significant chunk of his debt and put it down. I have a hard time having sympathy for someone who's career is paying so little that he cannot even make a debt payment - career prospects clearly were not considered before beginning the education. For your part, LW1, you could commit to paying more of your shared expenses (e.g. you pay 75% of your living costs, if you can) to help him tackle more of his debt. Sometimes the hardest part is just getting started...once he starts regularly contributing to his debt, it will become easier and the lowering number will be a motivator.

And for gosh's sake, CUT UP HIS CREDIT CARDS. He lives on cash from now on.

May 21 12 - 4:18am
huh

I just noticed that she said 100,000 of his debt was student loans, but there's an additional 50,000. He's living in one of the most expensive cities in the country at a job that doesn't let him make payments towards his debt? Sounds like he has made very specific choices that don't align with kids and a house in the suburbs. I can't understand where that 50K came from either. She'd most likely have said if it were medical, so it sounds like he's just broke and living on credit cards. Run away....

May 21 12 - 8:02pm
Re: Jess

Wow, Jess, "cut up his credit cards"? Assuming you're the same person as all the other Jess posts I'm starting to see a pattern here - you're a controlling, manipulative bitch. Please do the world a favor and invest some money in a good therapist - the world doesn't need any more terrible people like you

May 21 12 - 8:56pm
Jess

I have only made several posts on Nerve. It might be possible that there are more than one of us on the site...since "Jessica" is basically the most common name ever...

I do appreciate the massive leap as to what a terrible and controlling person I am though. I've never had my character attacked on the Internet before by a stranger so thank you for being my first on that one! The world needs more people like you!

Not too sure what's controlling and manipulative about cutting up credit cards when your sorry self is up to your eyeballs in debt with a degree that you can't even afford to pay back. Getting rid of credit = step 1 in getting out of debt and anyone with some knowledge about personal finance will tell you that. If the LW1 cut up the cards without him knowing or talking about it? Sure, that's controlling and manipulative. If the BF does it? it's the right step.

May 22 12 - 1:25pm
Re: Jess

Don't try to hide, Jess! WE KNOW ITS YOU!!!
In defense of the first guy to attack you, you did tell the LW to go cut up his cards... thats his choice to make not hers, you "controlling and manipulative BITCH"! Haha
Seriously though Jess, I bet you're ugly and have a faulty value system. Furthermore, I would speculate that you probably will have stupid, ugly children (they would have to be having been squeezed out of and brought up by you. Hahaha Blahblahblah *insults aimed at Jess* blahblahblah *further abuse* blahblah ...probably have shitty tits... ...consider suicide... you suck!

May 22 12 - 11:29pm
Jess

I finally feel like a real Internet user!! Thank you!

I intended for it to mean HE should get rid of the cards...not her. Sorry if that was unclear.

May 21 12 - 10:47am
Debt not Doubt

LW1: Get him to go see a nonprofit based credit counselor. They can help him start to tackle that debt and having them provide objective advice and resources can help you avoid the ugliness of helping him yourself. That way you can support his efforts without sharing the frustration. It will give you a chance to step back and assess his willingness and ability to improve the situation. The National Foundation of Credit Counselors can direct you to an agency in your area, they do not charge for most of their services. You may however want to reconsider having children as that can compound your financial problems and it is easier to keep everything separate without the entanglement of dependents. If that doesn't work he can always consider bankruptcy.

May 22 12 - 1:54pm
Doctor Dingbat

Whoa, actual helpful advice. You must be lost, over here we just assume that people are FOREVER IRREVOCABLY BROKEN for not being perfect in their twenties.

May 24 12 - 5:36pm
QCIC

Hey they aren't necessarily broken, but they aren't necessarily good marriage candidates either. Life isn't fair.

Yes it is sad someone can throw away their 18 to 30 years and end up as a new member of the lower class, but that is no reaosn to marry such a person. A smart person stays the hell away from them, because they are exactly the type of people who end up turning to crime, drug abuse et cetera.

May 26 12 - 6:06pm
Doctor Dingbat

In this whole thread you sound like a guy who as absolutely nothing going for him other than good credit.

Jun 01 12 - 12:44pm
QCIC

Well I have a great marriage with an always happy wife, we are both professionals, held off having kids until we you know had money and savings, didn't spend on a house bigger than we could afford, got a 10 year mortgage, didn't buy cars, don't have credit cards.

And you know what people say, they say how can you guys have such a great marriage and stress free life? We watch as divorces roll through our friends, we watch as people struggle with unfulfilling jobs or second jobs, meanwhile we have hobbies. Why because we are responsible and plan. We put our self in a situation to succeed rather than just hoping success will somehow find us.

I know it is boring and unromantic, but I have known a lot of people who have gotten divorced over money problems and stress and very few who don't have money problems who did get divorced (because if you take the economic factors out of the equation you are much less likely to pick a bad spouse).

Jun 12 12 - 10:29pm
s

Congrats on having parents who paid for your school so you could then congratulate yourself for being "responsible"

May 21 12 - 1:34pm
Lawyer

Some of this will be harsh, but divorce and lifetime debt is harsher:

In my state, if she marries him, she's responsible for that debt for the duration of the marriage. If he dies, she's left "holding the bag" and has to pay off his loans. The debt will only be severed from her if they divorce. And that's not universally true. Some states consider student loans marital debt because it enhanced the spouse's earning potential during the marriage. So she could be stuck with part of his debt if they divorce.

If they divorce, she may have to pay him spousal support to help him because he's in a worse situation financially. God forbid she pay for the communal bills when they are married out of her paycheck alone. She's setting him up for a lifestyle she may have to maintain after a divorce...if they are married long enough and/or there are kids. Yes, lifetime support is mostly a thing of the past, but she could still be left taking care of him for a long time and she can loose assets she paid for because he was too poor to contribute.

For those who think that they can "contract around this". You can do that for INCOME and SPOUSAL SUPPORT post-divorce, but it is almost impossible to do for child support and for "marital debt". This is a matter of public policy because you don't want couples to leave kids w/o support and you don't want couples defrauding creditors. Which is what would happen if they could privately say "my debt" vs. "your debt". A pre-nup cannot solve this problem.

Even if she is in one of those rare states where she's could find a way out of taking on his debt, she could later get a job offer in my state. Guess what happens when she moves? It suddenly becomes her debt. She has absolutely 1 way to prevent this from becoming her debt: not marry him.

If she were my client, I wouldn't recommend a lawyer. It's not what she needs. A lawyer can't fix this. What she needs is to hold off marriage or even talk of marriage until they have done the following:

(1) Make an appointment with a financial planner. She can determine how long it will take to dig out from this at their current income rate and projected income rates, if they cut back and are disciplined on spending. It would also not hurt her to lay out her goals and have AN EXPERT tell her how to get there. Then she needs to wait 1-2 years to see if he sticks to the plan and can make real sacrifices. Many people can be "good" for a short time frame, but few can go more than 18 months or through more than one crisis.

(2) Many, many premarital counseling sessions. It sounds like they have no idea about many basic facts about each other's situations and the shared goals that are necessary to make a marriage work. Does she know if he's going to get an inheritance 5-10 years from know? If he really wants kids? If so, when? How do they pay for them? Where does he see himself in 10 years? What will make him happy?

Maybe he doesn't want the house and white picket fence but has been afraid to tell her because he doesn't want to lose her.

Also, they seem to have not developed the communication skills necessary to hash out real problems like this. If they can't talk this out before getting married, it will only get worse after they get married. Many marriages die not from one big crisis, but from the thousand cuts of neglect and conflict avoidance. Don't be an ostrich.

Can't afford it? If you live in a major urban area, you can probably find a a "neutral third" to help you through. Sometimes a good mediator is as good as a trained psychologist. This used to be the role of pastors, family care physicians, etc. Find the modern-day equivalent where you live. Discuss your individual life goals, your joint life goals, and how you plan to get there. Discuss money, sex, housing, and kids. And anything else important to you (e.g., religious and cultural differences in particular). Get it out there in front of you and be clear you are on the same page. No, it's not romantic, but it is real.

(3) Individual counseling for each of them. She needs it because it sounds like she won't deal well if things fall apart. " Sound's like he's in denial.

W/o solid financial planning and some counseling, I think any marriage is doomed to failure. And that could "ruin" them both.

May 24 12 - 8:49pm
SJ

Oh crap, somehow I missed LAWYER's post in my judgment about the poor quality advice here. He is the exception (I'm not surprised).

Writer1, please for the love of all that is sacred, listen to my colleague!

May 21 12 - 3:03pm
dave1976

LW1: It seems to me all the breakup advice won't work since your still "crazy in love". So how about you just don't marry him (yet), but still do all the stuff married people do. While getting married usually is the sound financial decision, in your case it's not. That doesn't mean you can't have kids, buy a house (in your name), or even have a ceremony without a license. In meantime, he can work on repairing his credit, paying down the debt, and proving he will be a good husband. Just make sure to get a will, power of attorney, etc.

May 24 12 - 8:43pm
SJ

dave1976's advice is about the best advice on the whole so far. But there's another component in play here: the "crazy in love" stupidity (it's not their fault, it's damned biology) that is going to wreck both partners eventually.

As a male who's been around the financial stress-basket craptasm before, if he starts this thing charging uphill (and trust me, he's already unequal to her in HER own eyes) he's not going to make it. She'll ditch him first, likely blindsiding him in the process (which she'll hate herself for as well). If they've had offspring by then, jeebus....

May 21 12 - 4:27pm
Thomas

My $0.02 from personal experience, and information you can validate via talking to an Attorney or a quick Google Search.

1) No credit reporting agency merges your partners credit history with yours when you get married, it doesn't happen, they don't do it, go to Equifax, Transunion and Experian's web site to verify.

2) Even in a community property state one spouse can have bad credit, get sued, declared bankruptcy, etc, and it has no impact on the other spouse. Again, witnessed this with a very close friend up front.

Flip side, most people don't know this and think the creditor can make them pay their spouse's debt so they just go along with it.

It's also worth knowing that debt collectors do this hoping the spouse will help pay, will borrow money, put pressure on the actual debtor, etc.

3) In a divorce you can say: "Oh this is my partner's debt now, we agreed in the divorce" but guess what, the creditor isn't bound by that, all that matter is WHOSE is on the account, who has responsibility, etc. A relative got hit with this, wound up having to pay because even though her ex-husband agreed to pay, he decided not to and she got stuck with it as the actual debtor.

4) Now none of this means creditors won't sue you or debt collectors won't pursue you, a debt collector tried to pursue me for an ex-girlfriend's debt and I told them to prove I signed for the account and made it clear I was going to fight AND had the credit agency investigate and ask for documentation that I signed for that account. Lo and behold it magically disappeared from credit report.

5) It also doesn't mean that they aren't grey areas, particularly for debt accumulated DURING The marriage that you BOTH benefit from (like a house).

It also doesn't mean one spouse can't say buy a car with the other spouse's credit, as things can be flexed.

BUT if you marry someone with say $100k in student loan debt and $50k in credit card debt, it doesn't automatically become yours, it stays that person's problem.

BUT

IT WILL impact your life, as he won't be able to contribute to your mutual dreams and even if you keep significant cash separate (as all couples should do IMO) the fact remains that one of you has to carry the dream more than the other.

BUT let's also not forget that even without debt, if someone makes significantly more than that happens anyway - from a financial perspective at least.

and you will undoubtedly have a debt collector who at least tries to pursue you.

Case in point there are debt collectors in certain states who file Lawsuits against both the debtor and their spouse (they just name "spouse" and assume there is one), and serve you with the paperwork, but these Lawsuits aren't filed with the court so when you call the court there is no record of it. What they're hoping is that you ignore it, don't call a lawyer, etc., and don't respond, thus giving them an automatic summary judgement.

They named the spouse, so now that person is liable too.

Google Suttell & Hammer if you want more on that one.

SO what you have to do is figure if you're marrying pragmatically or just for love, talk to an attorney, do some research and figure out next steps.

Hell, for some couples getting married is a bad idea even without the debt question.

Now finally as for the debt vs. degree question.

Let's be pragmatic when we're talking about debt that can follow you for life, and think in terms of: "what's the typical job held by this degree, and what kind of money can I make?"

The "typical" creative writing, teaching, MFA types, etc., aren't making a lot of money and probably never will, so going to a private school that leaves you with six figure debt might not be a good idea.

Flip side not all Doctors and Lawyers are rolling in it either.

Either way, you have to look at income potential vs. cost and just consider the ROI like any other investment.

If you feel investing $100k+ for a degree that doesn't often pay a lot is worth it, then fine, be aware of the impact.

Instead of getting butt hurt when someone disses a major, it's better to just consider the potential income of the TYPICAL person and consider the ROI.

If you're willing to take the risk fine, just be honest about the reality of the situation.

Finally, talk to multiple attorneys, financial advisers, do the research, I know an Attorney who paid a spouses's debt because he thought he was liable only to find out later he didn't have to. It just wasn't his area of expertise and the common knowledge is that when you get married debt merges.

He was a great attorney in his usual field, but not in this particular one.

Just something to think about.

May 24 12 - 8:39pm
SJ

A head's up... that debt that's "supposed" to legally be separate won't be until you enforce it in court (count on @$100K in legal fees in SoCal). I'm an Entertainment Atty and I see this crap all the damned time.

Based on what I've read from Writer1 and the just plain garbage quality of advice based on classist cliché and conventional wisdom (that's legally incorrect in at least one state), there's some emotional literacy issues that are going to make this a total clusterfuck is they go ahead and get married. Wrong legal contract for their situation. And that young man is going to rue the day he proposed to her.

May 21 12 - 5:20pm
Buy the house now

Meeting with a financial planner, even before you talk to an attorney, is a great idea too.

It's pretty clear that LW wants a house. I am a realtor, not a loan officer, but I do see student loans have a real impact on the amount a bank is willing to lend to a homebuyer.

My husband is an attorney, and many of his recently-graduated attorney friends look for homes that are priced much lower than my teacher clients, because the teachers are richer. Between the low salaries in the legal market, and big loans, these lawyers have a very low standard of living. Some live with their parents to save to service their debt and can't qualify for a home loan, at all.

What I think this letter writer should think about is doing this on her own. If she wants a house, she should buy it HERSELF. If she were to marry him, if she were to apply for a home loan, the spouse's debt is automatically figured into the debt-to-income ratio that determines how much they will lend you. You can tell the loan officer that he does all of the payments of the student debt -- but it will still count to your monthly debt obligations as a married couple and will be figured in to determine how much they will lend you. And, if his situation is as dire as you say, it's likely he has a shit credit score as well, and that will also drag down your ability to get a loan. From this letter alone, if these two were married, I don't think they would qualify for over $100k in a home loan, assuming the responsible LW makes less than $100k per year. (And if she made more, this might not be such a problem!) I would guess if she applied for a home loan alone, she would probably qualify for much more.

In my state, good loan officers are really smart and will talk to anyone for free. Ask around for a name, call,a nd run the scenario past them.

My big upshot: If you choose to make your life with this guy, it makes no financial sense to get married. You could probably do a non-state-sanctioned ceremony, maybe like some ceremonies gay couples do in non-gay-marriage states. And you could use that family attorney to make sure assets go to the right place after death, etc., but don't get married.

May 21 12 - 7:39pm
Letter Writer 1

Hello,
Letter Writer 1 here. I just wanted to thank Cait and everyone else so much for your advise. It is really very helpful and has given me a lot to think about.
FWIW, we have been able to talk about these things, but neither of us are well versed in financial law and consequences of money and children etc., so the conversations tend to turn to, it'll all work out one way or another. But that sometimes leaves us both, especially me, feeling a want for more concrete ideas about the future. I know, que sera sera and all that, but I would like to move forward in whichever direction I go with the full information. Which you guys have helped with immensely.
Thanks again

May 24 12 - 5:40pm
QCIC

For the good of your future self please don't even think about marrying this person. It is a terrible idea.

May 24 12 - 8:30pm
SJ

There's a very classist presumption going on here that's rather despicable: anyone who gets into debt is defective. For a grand majority of Americans who are insufficiently compensated for exceptional amounts of highly productive work debt is the norm.

Quick question(s) for Writer1: HOW did he accumulate the debt? Was it all student loan debt? Did he work while he was in grad school?

If you have the amount of issues you seem to about this and the guy accumulated debt willy nilly. Why are you spending energy trying to make it work when clearly you're going to be the first one to bolt under the strain.

Id he accumulated student loan debt out of necessity and not recklessly (almost NO ONE goes into student debt recklessly—that's a pernicious owning class lie), then you might want to do a self-assessment: marriage carries a legal obligation, it's a formalized particular form of partnership. Can you honestly place a pair-bond above economics? If not, again, why are you spending energy on something so mismatched? The advice you've gotten above is typical under 30 something bullshit. heaven help you. I feel sorry for the guy.

May 28 12 - 3:14am
SJ: call me.

The big takeaway from this Miss Info column is that I'm hoping SJ is single, because the above comment is the sexiest thing I've seen on the internet.

May 22 12 - 3:15pm
mahajohn

People with immense financial debts - that's me - do not deserve love or companionship until they are in financial shape. That's the cold, hard truth. Do I want love? Yes. Does debt make finding love difficult? Yes. Would it be truly loving act to enter into a relationship knowing full well that ones financial burdens could very well bring down another person to wallow in the mire of self-defeating poverty? No, and therefore, the heavily indebted do not deserve love.

May 22 12 - 6:50pm
Mr. Man

I wouldn't go that far with it. People can make relationships work without the legal contract of marriage.

May 22 12 - 3:50pm
G Unit

Am I Being Awful? I would say it sounds like your boyfriend is tired of being in debt and doesn't know how to handle personal finance as well as you, but many couple have a free spirit with money and a financial nerd. I would recommend you and he read Dave Ramsey's book - Total Money Makeover, which covers how get in trouble and more importantly a plan of attack to get your money in order so that one day you both have financial peace. It's 4 hour read at most and the library usually has it if you want save $15 of money for paying off debt. I have given it or loaned it to several coworkers. Pretty much all of them said they felt it made sense and have started working the steps recommended.

May 23 12 - 8:02am
131 ecipson

Why get married at all? Just live together, keep your accounts separate (with a joint account to handle common expenses like rent/mortgage, utilities, pet care, etc.) and then you have nothing to worry about. Let him figure out how to get out from under his mountain, and keep an eye on whether he actually wants to or not.

May 24 12 - 12:28am
2L

I think that's sound advice. Add to that that however much he saves on rent and other expenses by living together should go directly to paying down his debt.

May 24 12 - 8:21pm
SJ

I was gonna say, that's sounds like a whole lot better plan... but I seriously doubt she's emotionally fit for such a precision partnership. She sounds like a privileged class girl with a lot of issues about debt (why and how it functions). Not a very good fit for him.

May 24 12 - 8:16pm
SJ

The judgment by women especially being heaped upon this poor guy in debt is shocking, and unsurprising. He probably came from nothing and was/is trying to be something. She sounds like a judgmental type who isn't really hearing him. I have nothing but contempt for women who do what she's doing to him. Have some self-respect, girl! If economics is a deal killer, that just fish or cut frackin' bait. That said, from HIS POV, I'd say dump HER, painful as it will surely be and do the grind until he gets the debt done (if he'll ever be able to, student loan debt is about as fair a deal as loan sharking with the Russian Mob). He'll be fifty (OMFG that's so OLD!), but he'll be better off, clean and clear. He can hook up while he's young along the way in short term monogamous liaisons. Then, all the jaded selfish women who judge men solely on their debt (and don't give a frack about how or why, just their own classist b.s.) won't have to worry about his economic fitness and will likely find he's a good second-husband. These days men are just plain economically fucked, especially lower middle to working class men (based on the women commenting here, the owning class dudes are stylin' and likely have no problem finding mates—but they'd best have that pre-nup waiting). There are fewer career tracks for men outside the Wall Street craptastica and a JD costs an assload of debt (I make a shitload but nearly all of it goes to my loans—I didn't have the benefit of a rich uncle, I worked hard and still had to borrow). Bottom line, this woman's attitude ('I-worked-hard for MY grad degree but he just went into debt for his... um, navel gaze much?) is such that he's screwed both ways, losing the great lay and being mired in the shitstorm that is debt. Clearly she doesn't want to live in debt. So don't. Simple. Yup, it's gonna hurt, but if she can't put a pair bond over economics, she shouldn't get into a situation that's going to demand it. I covered my hyper-feminist mate's ass for a decade and helped her career and debt-load. Now she's covering some of mine (I'm lucky to make what I do). That's what a real marriage PARTNERSHIP does, dumbasses. You pool the pot and accomplish something; strength in numbers, especially when it's stressful and shitty. "Kids" these days. Jeebus.

May 24 12 - 9:44pm
2L

Thanks for your comments. Most of the commenters sound really out of touch about financing grad school. Either they didn't go, their rich parents totally bankrolled it for them, or they went 30 years ago when it cost a fraction of what it does now. Maybe it's typical under 30 something bullshit advice, or maybe it's over 50 something advice based on what life was like when they were "kids." In any case, it is pretty shocking that everyone would assume that six figures worth of debt, most of it student loans, is a deal breaker as far as marriage potential. Who are these people, and where do they live? Just about anyone from a middle class background who has an advanced degree is carrying a significant amount of student debt, so might as well rule all of them out as potential partners. I didn't think about the rampant classism in these comments, but you're right. Thanks for the reality check.

Jun 01 12 - 7:29pm
kdgd

yeah if she eliminates all the indebted people from her list of potential partners she might as well give up now

May 25 12 - 12:39am
frechoce

I would imagine the state has a developed concept of common law relationship or spouse, meaning that if they lived together as gf-bf for a period of time, usually one or two years, that under law they are treated as a married couple. That is the case in Canada, in any event, another common-law jurisdiction.

May 27 12 - 11:44am
JCF

Common Law Marriage is only available in a few U.S. states. New York is not one of them.

May 26 12 - 12:50pm
eg73

I married a guy with considerable student loan debt and also some pretty irresponsible spending habits. Paying down the debt is the easy part. Changing those habits takes much, much more work. And it's him who has to want to change. In our case, he basically started handing his paycheck over to me (his choice) and I paid all the bills, talked to the debt collectors on the phone, filed the taxes. Everything got paid, the loans are gone, and he's stopped caving to his pill-popping relatives (whole 'nuther fantastical money adventure there). The problem is that now- a whole lot of years later- I'm still responsible for all the money stuff. I don't like money stuff. I'm not particularly confident about it. I'd like to share that responsibility now, and he doesn't want to. Welcome to phase 2 of our financial married life.
Marry the guy or not. It's your choice. You can make it work either way, I'm sure. Just be aware that sometimes the real roadblocks are the hidden ones. The debts won't last forever, but there will be a new phase down the road. Are you ready to handle a lifetime of those challenges with this person? Sometimes life just gets hard and goes to shit and it isn't anyone's fault. It's just life. Are you ready to do that forever?

May 28 12 - 5:22am
cm

About the debt. One the one hand: RUN. On the other, make up your mind that if you go the full hog you'll probably always have to be the responsible one. Sure, people can change. But they usually don't. If he doesn't have the attitude that chipping away at this debt is more important than going out to see a movie or getting new sneakers, chances are that he'll always have a far less than perfect financial record. TRUST ME ON THIS ONE!!!