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My wife revealed she has $220,000 in student debt: Now what?

MarketWatch logo MarketWatch 8/7/2018 Quentin Fottrell

Dear Moneyist:

I’ve known my wife for 8-plus years and I’m happily married with a newborn son. We both make a good living ($100,000 per year), but we pay a significant amount in student loans. I work multiple jobs, and we get some help from my parents and scholarships. My master’s cost 3 times less than her master’s. She owes over $200,000 in federal student loans and another $20,000 in private student loans (one is at 12%).

I was not aware at the time that my wife’s loans were twice our mortgage payment and, while I think we will manage, it has really eaten into an already hectic marriage with our newborn. I don’t know who to turn to for advice and I feel like we have become economic slaves. We pay $1,000 each month just to keep her large federal loan from accruing interest. She’s very well educated, but money is a handicap.

I recently started managing her debts and realized she had not made payments for a few months due to forbearance and misunderstanding her loans, unfortunately those few months added $5,000 onto the accrued interest of the total we already owe. I’ve begun to learn as much as I can about debt, and student debt, but I know I’m not where I need to be. Please help.

Economic Slave in Chicago

Dear Chicago:

Ideally, this is a conversation you should have had before you were married. But you’re not alone in leaving the financial reality of married life until after the wedding. Only 65% of couples discuss their finances before getting hitched or becoming common law partners, according to this survey. And yet most couples say they understand that it’s a discussion that’s important to have. There’s still a taboo about discussion debt and money. That may also explain why nearly half of couples argue over finances. Nearly 40% of couples say they would hold off on marriage until the student loans are paid off, but recriminations won’t help you now.

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This wasn’t a debt incurred by lavish spending. Your wife was getting an education. The good news: You are tackling this issue together, without regret or blame. Yes, there was a huge breach of trust. Your wife should have told you before you were married. You have a decision to make: walk away, decide to face this together as a family or work on a plan where your wife pays off her loans. Unlike credit-card debt, federal student loans taken out before you were married are the sole responsibility of the recipient even when he or she is married; if your wife were to die, the debt dies with her.

What do you do next? Assuming your wife does not work in the nonprofit sector and does not qualify for loan forgiveness after 10 years, it’s time to figure out a way out of this. You need to do the boring, yet hopefully ultimately rewarding, task of planning a budget, cutting out all unnecessary expenses, and set a goal of paying off at least the installments every month. Ideally, more. You’re not alone. This couple paid off $125,000 in debt ($89,000 of which was on credit cards). They got rid of cable TV, worked extra jobs for four years and did not take vacations. None of it is pretty or easy. They did not sell their house. And nor should you.

I always think of Kandy and Russ Hilderbrandt when I read stories like yours. When Russ told her about their debts, Kandy didn’t blame him. She asked him how they could fix it as a family. “It actually strengthened us,” she told me. “It could have been detrimental. During that debt-management plan, there was no money for any extras. It really made us thankful for all the intangibles. We were faithful at the family dinner hour. That was our time with Russ almost on a nightly basis. He would tell childhood stories. It was our time to release some stress and laugh. It became huge to us during that time, and it’s still important to us.”

Fear is a terrible thing. Your wife clearly was afraid of telling you. Contact the National Foundation of Credit Counseling and/or seek the advice of a financial adviser.

You have chosen to build a life together, but you must address the trust issue too. Start that hard work today.

Do you have questions about inheritance, tipping, weddings, family feuds, friends or any tricky issues relating to manners and money? Send them to MarketWatch’s Moneyist and please include the state where you live (no full names will be used).


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