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Debt ties a knot around some who want to say 'I do'

Published September 22, 2012 9:48 pm

Finances • Some couples delaying marriage over partner's burdensome loans.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Newlyweds have always had to deal with a load of sometimes painful money issues when starting life together. Now, rising college loan debt has made it even more challenging for couples to get off on the right foot.

After all, who wants to start a marriage with somebody who owes $100,000 or more to a bank or the federal government?

Ann Hakan, who specializes in relationship counseling in Kansas City, sees evidence that burdensome student loan debt has caused some couples to forestall marriage.

"It seems more that [debt] just delays the relationship," Hakan said.

Besides the average $27,000 in student loan debt, many young people also owe thousands of dollars on their credit cards.

Recent reports indicate that the average age of first marriages has risen by about a year. For men, the average age at first marriage is 28.7, and for women 26.5, according to Bloomberg News data.

Although there was no direct correlation in the data between delaying marriage and having more loans to pay off, Hakan said she has noticed younger couples who are dating are keeping their financial information separate from each other longer. Sometimes the person in debt won't talk about money issues until the loans are paid off.

Hakan said debt was less of an issue in a relationship if it had been accumulated while working toward a professional degree, in occupations such as medicine or law where future earnings power could make it easier to pay off loans.

But if someone in the relationship doesn't think the other person is working hard enough or being realistic in paying off the loans, that can raise a red flag, she said.

Lack of communication is often the underlying issue, according to other experts. Dealing with debt is often the first issue that couples should put on the table when dating gets serious. Knowing what you are about to get yourself into can help you decide how to deal with credit problems.

Arguments about money have always hampered relationships. A recent survey by Chase Card Services and XO Group reinforced the notion that money was the No. 1 cause of conflict between couples, especially while planning their weddings, starting off married life and deciding when to start a family. So the first years of marriage can set the tone for financial and marital bliss.

For Matt and Rachel Kendrick of Kansas City, student loan bills were common knowledge among them and their friends at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

The Kendricks, who began dating their freshman year in college and were married in 2009, said they eventually started having conversations about their spending habits and financial priorities. By the time they were married, they were on the same wavelength.

Matt Kendrick said their debt probably didn't affect their decision to get married, but it had spilled over into other life decisions.

The couple have made it a priority to eliminate as much of their debt as possible before entering another phase of their lives, such as raising children.

"Finances are a huge thing to think about when building your life together," Rachel Kendrick said.

Sandi Weaver, a financial planner and president of Financial Security Advisers in Prairie Village, Kan., said young married couples need to understand their money personality. For example, is one person a spender and the other a saver? Does one handle the finances more than the other?

Weaver said couples need to figure out how to deal with money and financial problems before they say "I do."

"A lot of young couples don't even talk about it," Weaver said of couples' financial situations. "They just think love [will] figure that out, but it doesn't."