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Color of Money: Is debt a deal breaker when dating? Four signs that it is.

Michelle Singletary on

WASHINGTON -- The intersection of finance and romance is always a tricky place. And many people even arrive there while still dating, when the level of debt -- student loans included -- being carried by a potential partner creates concern about the next step in the relationship.

Here's the big picture: There's $1.4 trillion in outstanding education debt. But what happens when heavy debt hits close to home? What do you do when your significant other is struggling under the weight of student loans? Should you dump him or her because of the debt? Could you bring yourself to marry someone with substantial student loans?

IonTuition, which provides an online debt-management service for students, conducted a survey of 1,000 American adults to determine how student debt plays out in dating.

It's not playing well.

Seventy-five percent of survey respondents viewed student loan debt as "baggage." And 12 percent said they'd be more concerned about high levels of education loans than if a prospective partner had a child, was divorced or had a record as a nonviolent felon.

During one of my recent online chats, a reader expressed apprehension about dating someone with student loans. She wasn't sure if the debt was a deal breaker.

"I am debt-free thanks to various factors, some related to hard work and much related to luck. My parents could help me pay for college," the reader wrote. "My girlfriend is so incredibly responsible and hardworking but did not grow up with the same privileges. At 20, her parents disowned her for being gay. She went from homeless to working full time to paying for college and graduate school herself and has become a very successful adult."

Nevertheless, the debt load looms.

"She still has student debt, recently consolidated, as well as some credit card debt (almost all gone)," the reader added. "I've never met anyone so responsible and focused. But I've bailed out significant others before and I have vowed to never do that again without being married. The differences in our financial standing are real and it's hard for me not to get judgmental sometimes about her decisions when I'm all about aiming to be debt-free. Do you have any advice on how to be more understanding?"

You absolutely shouldn't go into a relationship thinking debt won't be your problem if being debt-free is a value you hold dear.

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