If you feel like you're drowning in student loan debt, you're not alone. With student loan debt measuring around $1.5 trillion in the U.S., many young people are struggling to climb out of it. But while the student loan debt numbers have been growing (and becoming more terrifying) in recent years, we're only beginning to understand the way in which this debt actually affects our day-to-day life. And new research shows that student loan debt may be keeping people from what some consider a major life milestone: marriage.
Research published in Springer's Journal of Family and Economic Issues looked at data from 1979 and 1997 National Longitudinal Study of Youth, to get a sense of how attitudes toward marriage, debt, and cohabitation changed in that 20-year span. The researchers found that from the 1979 group, 70 percent of people were married by their mid-30s, while less than half of the 1997 group were married by that age. Not only that, the researchers found that the number of people who got married before they live together dropped by more than half between the two groups. The findings were clear: rates of living together before marriage are going up, while marriage rates are going down or, at the very least, being delayed.
The study authors found that one of the reasons that cohabitation is becoming more popular is that it allows young people to lower living costs to help handle student loan debt and other financial troubles. Couples can live more cost-effectively by moving in together but then, according to the researchers, marriage is delayed. While other forms of debt also were found to influence decisions, student loan debt was particularly associated with falling levels of marriage before living together.
"[W]hile student debt is associated with directly marrying (with no prior cohabitation) other forms of unsecured consumer debt as well as homeownership and the value of financial assets all positively predict marriage for women, both direct and unions preceded by cohabitation," lead author Fenaba Addo tells Bustle. "It does appear to operate different than these other economic attributes.
Even for those who can afford to get married, many are taking a less traditional approach, in part due to the weight of student loan debt. "The average H.E.N.R.Y. [High Earner Not Rich Yet] at Stash Wealth has over $80,000 in student loans," Priya Malani, co-founder of Stash Wealth, tells Bustle. "However, despite their debt, we don't see student loans as holding people back from getting married. We do see a big trend on people not taking the traditional approach to weddings. ... The trend is definitely shifting towards more intimate and more unique gatherings it's way more common to see clients, even high earners, plan for less than $5,000 to host a cocktail party with family and friends after a small private ceremony or city hall." As student loan debt and costs of living have continued to rise, it makes sense that people are finding different ways to make traditions their own and, more importantly, within their budget.
Changing Attitudes Are Also Driving People Away From Marriage
Though there's no doubt that student loan debt has a huge effect on many of us, there's also the possibility that changing attitudes are another factor driving the shift away from marriage.
“The paradigms are shifting and the old model requiring marriage vows to validate one's relationship doesn't appeal,” psychologist, relationship expert and author of The Ultimate Guide to a Multi-Orgasmic Life Antonia Hall, tells Bustle.
Everyone has a different version of what commitment means and, more than that, relationships aren't everyone's ultimate life goal. There are different ways to be happy and successful, different markers of adulthood an achievement — and maybe our generation's actions are more reflective of that.
Student loan debt — like all debt — can be absolutely suffocating, so in some senses, it's no surprise that it may delaying marriages. That being said, there are other factors that might also affect marriage rates — and one of those could be shifting attitudes toward the institution itself. But for those who do want to get married, it's an upsetting truth that debt might be standing in their way.