One of the issues that is likely to arise in a marriage is that of debt — including student loan debt. With student loan debt more prevalent that credit card debt, student loans are increasingly becoming a big part of what needs to be addressed by couples planning to marry. As you discuss Big Issues before marriage, the money portion should include student loan debt. This is one of those things that you should be honest with, disclosing how much student loan debt you have, as well as the monthly payments that you make on your student loan debt. Then you have to decide where paying down the student loan debt fits into your future finances.

Deciding Who’s Responsible for Paying Down Debt

When my husband and I married, we both had a little student loan debt from our time in college as undergrads. I had a little bit more than he did, but we decided that we were going to combine our finances and so we both, by default, became responsible for all of the debt. Since all of our money goes into one pot, it makes it easy to make student loan payments: it all comes out of the same account. However, there are plenty of folks who have separate finances in marriage. In these circumstances, it might make sense for each spouse to work on paying down his or her own student debt with earnings from his or her job.

If one person is a stay at home spouse, his or her student loan debt will still need to be paid off, and resentment might come from the working spouse. In such cases, it is normally necessary for partners to consider the valuable services offered by a spouse who stays at home caring for children and the home, and remember that this role is important to the overall functioning of the marriage and family — even if society doesn’t recognize it with a paycheck.

Another issue is what to do about acquiring debt as a couple. Some say that individual debts should be paid off before the couple gets new debt together, such as a home or a car. While this is a nice thought, it is not always possible when it comes to student loan debt. If you have both been contributing to a down payment fund, and if you feel that you are ready for a home or a car together, you may want to move before you have paid of individual debt. But it is usually best to pay down as much debt as possible before taking on new debt.

Continuing Education After Marriage

The next hurdle comes if you plan to continue your education after marriage using student loans. Both my husband and I have post-graduate degrees (my husband is almost done with his Ph.D.). I finished my M.A. first, since we decided that I would be able to work from home as a writer, paying down my graduate student loan debt while he worked on a M.S. and then a Ph.D. So far, it has worked out. We just sort of agreed that we both needed an advanced education, and that we would both be paying for it later, with our jobs. Luckily, my husband’s teaching and research assistantships during the Ph.D. portion of his education have now eliminated our need for student loans, since he gets a tuition waiver, plus a stipend.

But what happens if one partner wants to continue his or her education after marriage — but has no intention of getting a job when finished? This can make the whole situation a little stickier. Scholarships and assistantships can make student loans unnecessary, resulting in the spouse “paying” for the degree. But what if student loans are needed and the spouse doesn’t plan to work afterward? Things can get tricky here. In such cases, it is up to the couple to decide how important the education is, and whether or not the working spouse will feel resentment about the arrangement.

Sometimes the stay at home spouse feels as though he or she “deserves” an education. I know a woman in my parents’ neighborhood who, after 25 years of raising several kids, putting dinner on the table and generally making sure the home was comfortable and well kept, announced that her husband owed her an education. He agreed. While he ended up saddled with student loan debt, he also recognized that his wife had done a great deal of work, and sacrificed a lot — all without receiving any of the monetary compensation that our society uses to measure “worth.” He thought it only fair that he recognize her contributions with something she had wanted for so long.

In the end, how you handle student loan debt as a couple depends on your situation, and your comfort level with the debt, and whether or not you are capable of setting aside resentment over the other person’s debt to work toward the best possible outcome for the family.

How do you think student loans should be handled in marriage?