A few months ago, I had a friend and colleague call me and ask me the following question: “What happens to my student loans if I choose to get married?” In the same breath, she went on to explain that she had been delaying her marriage for months because she was fearful of how that would affect her finances.
I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for her, feeling like she had to choose between marrying the man who she describes as her “number one supporter and best friend”, or her student debt. The concern was that she and he both had student debt, and they were both currently under the loan forgiveness program. Which meant that separately, they were both paying a percentage of their income towards the loans. She feared that getting married meant combining their incomes which would create a higher total income number and which therefore would require them to make an even higher monthly payment on BOTH of their student loans. So here I am, walking through some of the basic info, just like I did with her on that far away phone call. I hate seeing student loans get in the way of, well, l i f e , and I want to say to all of you the same advice I said to her. Life is too short, for numbers to be the only factor. I hope this helps.
We all know that we bring into our marriages our past experiences, the perceptions shaped by those events, and other baggage (suitcases of?) that we may be carrying. Student loans is more commonly becoming one of those suitcases, or if you’re like me, loads of suitcases. As student debt numbers continue on the rise, it seems to become a bigger deciding factor than ever before.
The fact that student loans are preventing people from getting married seems ridiculous, but it’s a fact that exists none-the-less. My friend was not the first to delay getting married because of student debt concerns. In fact, I frequently get calls regarding student loans after a recent marriage. I have people all of a sudden interested in a CFP after tying the knot, because now, their professional pursuits are affecting other people they care about. More than that, it’s affecting their futures. I’ve spoken openly about how my own marriage is what motivated me to get rid of debt. In addition to marriage, I have had people confess that it’s prevented them from pursuing passions, changing career paths, buying a home, and also, starting a family. But it shouldn’t.
Here’s how marriage affects those under the student loan forgiveness plan.
Will my student debt affect my spouse?
Technically, your student debt will only be tied to your name. Even if you get married, your spouse will not be responsible for paying off your debt. An exception to this rule is if you decide to refinance your loan and have your spouse co-sign. Co-signing puts your spouse on the hook for your loans. I would not recommend refinancing if it requires having someone else sign their name. I wouldn’t want to burden even my worst enemy with this debt. If you refrain from doing this, then the student debt will stay with whoever originally took out the loan, and that’s it.
But it does not mean it won’t affect the other individual. Take my case for example. I have a student debt payment of $6,500 a month for almost ten years. That means that every month, that’s $6,500 less than what my spouse or I can use to live our life. It’s that much less that we can put towards paying down our mortgage, or setting aside to travel. Or, if my spouse hypothetically had loans of his own, then it would be $6,500 less that we can contribute to his debt.
So the short answer is yes. It does affect your spouse and family in the grand scheme of things. Which was my number one motivator to get rid of the debt faster than they can be forgiven.
If both individuals have student debt, should the student loans be consolidated?
They say that when you become married, you become one. Everything gets joined together, finances included. Most married couples decide to combine bank accounts to simplify life. “It’s all half-and-half now anyway.” So some ask, shall we also consolidate student debt.
I would put the brakes on this one. While there are some pros, it could also be harmful too. Let’s consider both sides of the coin.
A positive of loan consolidation occurs when one spouse has a significantly higher credit score than the other. Since interest rates are determined by credit score, the individual with a really low credit score might benefit from consolidation.
Merging debts can also be beneficial in terms of simplicity. When loans are consolidated, you no longer have to worry about your tax filing status when tax season rolls around. Additionally, you would reap similar benefits as if you refinanced your loan. These include lowering your interest rate, lowering your monthly payments, adjusting your length of repayment term, and therefore decreasing your total number of monthly payments. Lastly, it will get rid of having to juggle multiple loan servicers at the same time.
Out of all this, I think the most beneficial aspect (for me anyway) is the psychology of combining student debt. When things remain separate, it sometimes happens that one person will hold a grudge against the person with the higher debt. This can either be a silent sentiment, or one that gets voiced more and more frequently as the time passes. Consolidating loans at the get-go is a symbol of both individuals wanting to work together to get rid of the debt. Regardless of how much there is to pay back, both are putting their hard earned pay towards the loans once they are consolidated, and the adversity can unite rather than divide.
That being said, I would be wary of loan consolidation, especially for those under the Public Loan Forgiveness program and the 25 or 30-year Loan Forgiveness Program. First and foremost, loan consolidation of any kind usually resets the clock for the loan. This affects those in PLF because their 10-year service to a company may be reset as well. I have talked to nurses who have been unfortunate enough to consolidate their loans after working at a hospital under PLF for multiple years. By doing so, their previous years’ contributions to the hospital did not count towards PLF, and after loan consolidation, they have to contribute another 10 years in order to qualify for forgiveness!
Additionally, most lenders who will consolidate multiple student loans are private lenders. By consolidating with a private lender, you will lose the ability to qualify (ever-again) with a 25 or 30 year loan forgiveness program! This is all fine and dandy if the private lender gives you a lower interest rate that would allow you guys to keep up with the payments. But take my case, for example. We heavily considered refinancing my student debt, and I drawled on about our wishes to do so in this post. In the end, we did not pull through with refinancing, firstly because they required Mike to co-sign (see above) and secondly, because it would forever prevent us from falling back on loan forgiveness. That would mean that even with a lower interest rate, it would require us to pay $5,500 a month every month for 8 years. Currently, 100% of my dental income goes towards paying down the debt. If something were to happen to me, say I broke my wrist while baking, that would prevent me from working, and we would be screwed! By not refinancing with a public loan lender, my monthly payments are only a small percentage of my income, and we can manage that payment in case temporary (or permanent) disability occurs (applicable also to natural disasters, personal conflicts, and job insecurity).
In the end, we chose flexibility and peace of mind over money. I think that consolidation would be more beneficial as the student loan amount decreases and the pay increases. You have to just run numbers with your own personal situation to see what the risk is, and if it’s worth the cost.
If both individuals are on the student loan forgiveness program, how can they keep their monthly payments to a minimum?
Sometimes, when people choose to get married, both individuals have student debt under their names. If they are both under the student loan forgiveness plan, then they are currently paying a small percentage of their reported income based off of the previous tax year. The concern most people have is that when you get married, the student loan forgiveness plan may or may not consider your total household income. For example, currently, you may be paying 10% of $10,000 (just to make the numbers easy) per month. That’s $1,000 a month towards student debt. And your husband may be paying 10% of $10,000 a month as well. But when you get married, now your household income is $20,000 a month. Will you both be responsible for $2,000 contributions to each of your loans?
First off, if you both are in this situation, you should probably consider filing separately. If your monthly payments are dependent on your income, then filing separately will help lower the total monthly payment, because it will be based on only one person’s income. Remember that under the student loan forgiveness program, you want to pay AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE, and you want the government to forgive as much as possible.
The Caveat: Not Every Married Couple Should File Married-Filing-Separately
I follow up that last paragraph with this caveat. Not all married couples on the loan forgiveness program should file taxes separately. Here’s the thing. You may get a lower monthly student loan payment by lowering your total income. However, choosing to file taxes separately will likely lead to higher taxes. So even though you are paying less towards your student loans, you may find that your monthly savings will not be worth the extra amount you have to dish out come tax season.
The only way to really know which situation is best for you is to run the numbers. You need to compare the savings you get from having a lower income to base your student loan monthly payments with the additional taxes you would pay by filing separately. Unless you are a tax whiz, this is the part where I refer you to an accountant. Or talk it through with my pal Travis at Student Loan Planner. As you can tell from our conversation at this Itunes Podcast recording, I may know a little bit about student loan repayment, but Travis is the guru. Even he pointed out ways to optimize my own plan, which we used to save thousands of dollars.
There is one situation where your tax filing status does not matter as much. This is the situation Mike and I fell under. My loan is under the loan forgiveness program but we decided to file our taxes jointly. The reason is that although we are under the loan forgiveness program, we are trying to still pay my debt down aggressively and as quickly as possible. We stayed under the loan forgiveness program in case of a financial crisis or emergency… essentially, for peace of mind. However, we have all plans to pay it down like a standard loan payment. By filing jointly, we reap the tax savings of being married. Even though our total household income is greater and our minimum monthly payments are larger, our total monthly payments are aggressive and far exceed our minimum monthly payments anyways, so our total household income becomes null. Which is the perfect example to show that every choice behind what to do with the loans is entirely situational. It requires a good grasp on your financial abilities and your personal goals, while considering the best path for your psychological well-being. For, let’s face it, a lot of the motivation comes from the mind, and any long-term progress will highly depend on how “right” everything feels to you.
The moral of the story is this: Instead of fearing marriage as being an impediment to your financial journey, or vice versa, use them as tools to fuel each other. My marriage is what inspired me to be extremely aggressive in my student loan repayment. In much the same way, my student loans have ironically strengthened our relationship. For the first year, we sweated, cried, and rejoiced over battles and victories regarding debt. We’ve learned to work together as a team, stretched our creative boundaries, and really stood our ground, hand-in-hand, against nay-sayers, financial instabilities at work, and plain old exhaustion. We hit walls that we never thought we could surpass, only to climb over mountains. I think everyone can do the same, too. And if you need someone to simply talk to, to rant or cry, know that I am here. And so are all the other people who have reached out to me. We are all going through a similar journey, but I want us all to feel empowered, not struck down by the weight. I want to a be collective, rather than lonely individuals. I want you to succeed, not in being rich, but in your pursuit for a happy life.