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Debt: A Deal Breaker in Millennial Romances?

Piggy bank in debt vice grip

We heard through the grapevine about a boomer couple upset because their son, who graduated from a prestigious college and professional school without loans, was marrying a young lawyer with tens of thousands in educational debt. The parents feared that paying off this financial burden would delay the couple in buying a house and starting a family. Wisely, they chose to say nothing.

Their concern is not unwarranted. Millennials who are able to get ahead financially by owning a house and saving for retirement early are usually those whose parents have helped them finance their educations, according to an Atlantic magazine article. Also some researchers believe that money problems can negatively impact a marriage. The article, “In Love … and in Debt,” cited a study that found that couples who routinely argued over finances were 30 percent more likely to divorce than those who did so infrequently.

Still, the parents’ objection reflects a generational difference between millennials and boomers when it comes to student loans and other debt. A Money survey found that only 41 percent of millennials consider a large debt an unattractive quality in a mate, as compared to 61 percent of boomers. Millennials were also less likely to end a relationship because of debt. While nearly a third of boomers said having more than $50,000 in student debt was a relationship deal breaker, only a fourth of millennials agreed.

Parents can’t hold up a “stop” sign for a marriage because of student loans, but perhaps we can offer a few points to consider. We consulted Lauren Locker, a certified financial planner from Little Falls, N.J., who has discussed this issue with her boomer clients. A fee-only planner, Locker offers gift certificates for parents to give their adult children for a financial advice consultation with her.

Locker advises young couples to:

  • Share credit reports. While student loans are one burden, credit card debt can also be problematic. “The first step is full disclosure: Show me yours, and I’ll show you mine. A credit report is going to affect their housing, mortgage rate, car insurance, even their life insurance. What kind of consumer or educational debt do they have and when is it due? If it's credit card debt, do they have a problem with spending? You need to know that.”
  • Discuss a financial strategy. No one likes to talk about money, but it's necessary, especially if there’s a disparity between incomes. “They need to consider whether they should pool their money or keep separate accounts. Should they file taxes jointly? Should they put off having kids, not buying a house or getting a bigger apartment?”
  • Be prepared to make tough choices. Some couples move in with parents for a year or two to pay off loans and save for a house. Others maximize the monthly student loan repayment but then must decide where they are going to economize — from vacations to eating out. “You can allot $900 a month to pay off a student loan, but you still have to live. And if you end up putting that other stuff on a credit card and run up consumer debt, you are just swapping one kind of debt for another.”


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Even with financial eyes wide open, couples will get married, despite the unspoken — or spoken — opinions of parents. A friend, whose son married a young woman with graduate school debt, looks at the upside: “Our attitude is that they are two professional adults, and they are responsible for working it out. At one point, ‘Scott’ alluded to the disparity in their financial situations. I noted that over the years he’d met and dated a lot of girls from wealthy families, yet the love of his life is a self-made woman. It says a lot about who he is and where his priorities are.”

Mary W. Quigley’s blog, Mothering21, tackles parenting of emerging adults and beyond.

Photo:  zimmytws/iStock

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