All told, the nation's student loan debt totals a staggering $1.5 trillion, an always-looming, life-disrupting obligation that affects more than 44 million people across the country. Student loans make it harder to save money, build wealth, and buy a home; indeed, when you're funneling the bulk of every paycheck into Sallie Mae's pocket, most things become harder — including divorce. According to a new survey by Student Loan Hero, an online platform designed to help people pay down their educational debt, of 808 divorced adults, 35 percent of people with student loans delay their divorces out of financial necessity, versus 24 percent of people without.
In addition to finding that couples with student loans are more likely to put off divorce, the survey also found that 58 percent of divorcees with student debt took on even more debt to pay the many costs associated with legally ending a marriage: Attorney, document, appraisal, court, and accountant fees, on top of potential costs associated with kids. On average, respondents shelled out $18,652 on proceedings, with student debtors spending about $2,000 more.
This makes sense: If you haven't been able to save, and/or if your $351 monthly average loan repayments make it impossible to keep a comfortable amount of your paycheck, you may lack the fluid assets to pay for divorce yourself. As a result, you may find yourself waiting to file and saving in the interim, or you may find yourself taking out more loans to foot the bill. Among the survey participants, 23 percent of student loan debtors took out an additional $10,000 or more, and 10 percent took out over $30,000.
What's more, the financial pressure student loans exert on borrowers can contribute to separations. One 2015 study pinpointed money problems as the number one relationship stressor, while according to the Institute for Divorce Financial Analysts, they comprise the third most common reason couples cite for ending the marriage. (Behind infidelity and basic incompatibility.)
"Money management is tied to so many other aspects of a person's goals, values, and behaviors — so it can often be an area where conflicts and compatibility issues show up," Elyssa Kirkham, debt expert for Student Loan Hero, tells Bustle. "Even something as simple as deciding how often to eat out or the right amount to have in emergency savings can cause friction between a couple."
Which explains why people may be cagey about this particular topic: In a previous Student Loan Hero survey, 36 percent of participants said they'd lied to a partner about their debt, while 24 percent kept it a secret. Another third reported that the stress their debt generated took a toll on their sex drive. With all that in mind — the arguments, pressure, dishonesty, and potential for sexual malaise sometimes associated with student loans — it makes sense that, in this survey, roughly one in three respondents with student loan debt cited repayment and other financial problems as contributing factors in their splits, while 13 percent blamed student loans specifically. Financial stress, Kirkham notes, can compound existing tensions.
"If one spouse has no debt, and the other brings a lot of student debt in the marriage, that can quickly lead to feelings of imbalance or inequity."
"If one spouse has no debt, and the other brings a lot of student debt in the marriage, that can quickly lead to feelings of imbalance or inequity in their financial life," she says. "The debt-free partner might feel disgruntled or even resentful that they're helping to pay off debt that they did not agree to nor benefit from. And the spouse with student debt could be embarrassed or ashamed about their student debt, or [think] that they loans somehow make them a less worthy partner." Student loan debt can also stand in the way of things like marriage, having kids, or buying a home — and which, in turn, can seed discord into a partnership.
How To Deal With Debt In A Relationship
All of this paints a very doomy picture of the practical reality so many millions live with. But according to Kirkham, there are ways couples can overcome these hurdles together — surprise surprise, none of them involve secrecy.
"Communication is central," she says. Pick a time when you're not already heated. "Have an open, honest, and gentle conversation about the problems you're noticing," Kirkham says. "If each partner is being honest and truly listening to how their partner is experiencing the issues, you can better understand the emotions behind the problems and how to start mending those rifts in your connection."
It's possible, she adds, that financial issues represent one symptom of a larger problem: feeling undervalued in a relationship. The best thing to do to resolve money quarrels is to make a plan together. "Look for steps you can take at a concrete financial level: You could each agree to cut back on $50 worth of spending each month to pay $100 extra toward debt," Kirkham says. "Or you might agree to leave the debt alone and start saving aggressively for a down payment on a home. You could even compromise and meet somewhere in the middle." In any case, set times to check in with one another about how you're doing on the budgeting front.
People without private student loans might consider income-based payment plans to get their monthly fees down to an affordable rate. People with private loans might consider refinancing them: especially if they have good credit, they stand a chance at securing a better rate.
Perhaps the most comforting thing to keep in mind, though, is this: A huge number of people struggle with student loan repayments. It's not a reflection of your self-worth, but rather, of our broken educational system. Hopefully, your partner can understand this and exercise a little sympathy.