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Commentary: Girlfriend's approach to college debt raises red flags

4:02 PM, Aug. 28, 2013  |  Comments
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Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: I got through college without any debt. I know that's odd.

I am involved with a truly wonderful woman and, given a perfect world, I would like to marry, have kids and get old with her.

However, after undergrad and law school, the $150,000-plus in debt is a flashing red neon stop sign in my eyes, especially given her rewarding-in-ways-other-than-money law career.

It's not that she's fiscally irresponsible, it's just that I am going to end up paying back the lion's share of it, and it's going to delay all the things I'd like to do. I like to think I'm a generous guy and love conquers all, but does it?

- Fiances and Finances

Dear Fiances and Finances: Love conquers only what you're willing to conquer. I can't answer this for you, but I can say that if I were this truly wonderful woman, I'd be annoyed at your assumption that you'd "end up paying back the lion's share," since I took on debt presumably expecting to pay it back without help.

If she expects you to tackle her debt for her, or to carry the whole of your household expenses while she chips away at it, then that's something else to think about beyond just the debt.

And ? if instead the issue is that she planned to live a Spartan existence when she incurred this debt, and you have no interest in that kind of life, and therefore - you reason - you'd effectively be paying for her share of any luxuries you don't want to live without, then that's something else again.

So, predictably, there are issues of character and values embedded in this; it's not just about money vs. love. It's about the lifestyle you planned to have vs. the one she planned for herself, and whether you love her enough either to finance your vision for both of you, or to downsize your vision to accommodate her reality. It's also about what each of you expects from others.

It's still your call, of course, but if you focus on the strength of both parties' feelings and character, then I think the right choice will be clear.

Sender's reply: I came off as more of a jerk than I meant to.

I'm not assuming, I am basically being told that's her plan for our money, to pay down her debt before we have kids, etc. Except when she says it, it's "our" debt and I start worrying that I am a starter husband whose expire-by date is the termination of the loan payments. Which is silly, but irrational isn't always deniable.

The last discussion was a little heated, and maybe I do need to rethink what other plan there is.

- Fiances and Finances, again

Hax's reply: "'That's her plan for our money"? - I would balk if my fiance insisted that we were going to pay his debt before pursuing other life plans. Even if that's what made sense, the expectation would leave me cold.

If it were my debt, again, I'd treat it as mine and pay it down as planned, making clear that this would shift the burden of paying for any extras for our joint lives onto my intended. Declaring it "our" debt without your voice is a not-at-all "silly" red flag.

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