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.
But I don't think that you have to dump people just because of their debt load, whether it's education or even credit card obligations. If you're dating and want to know when debt should be a deal breaker, here are four signs.
-- The debt isn't treated like a big deal. Listen to how someone is talking about his or her debt. Does the person have a cavalier attitude about it? Dating gives you an opportunity to examine someone's values. Love can't conquer all. If owing people keeps you up at night, you may not be able to stay in a relationship with someone who can sleep soundly despite being mired in debt.
-- There's no remorse. I meet a lot of people deeply in debt. It's the ones who recognize that they shouldn't have borrowed so much who tend not to go there again.
-- There's no change in behavior. If someone has a lot of credit card debt and he or she is still piling on more with no intention of living within his or her means, that's a red flag of financial irresponsibility.
-- There's no plan to aggressively get out of debt. If your significant other ignores calls from creditors, isn't opening mail and doesn't have a specific strategy to get out of debt, you should be very concerned.
Often people want to know when they should disclose their debt. Talk about the details when you start to get serious. If you've decided to be exclusive -- and particularly if marriage is on your mind -- it's time. And be prepared for the other person to walk. It's his or her prerogative. Discerning what you can and can't deal with is why you date.
I loathe debt. As I've said before, if debt were a person, I would slap it. Yet, I would not judge someone solely on the basis of his or her indebtedness.
People make mistakes. Maybe they borrowed too much because they used to be irresponsible. Or they lost a job or were trying to better themselves.
Don't stand in judgment of past behavior. It should inform you, not necessarily stop you from getting further involved. When dating, pay attention to the person's present-day financial conduct. If you like what you see, then stay.
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