Initially, Geena Russo's* partner had a strict romantic requirement: She wouldn't date anyone with debt.
But that rule went out the window after the two of them immediately hit it off. G's partner said she knew they were meant to be from the first moment they met; it took G about a month to feel the same. After two months of long distance — with G in New York City and G's partner in Washington D.C. — they moved in together in New York. The topic of student loan debt came up early in their relationship; G had accumulated $80,000 of debt while getting a master's degree from NYU. Eventually, everything was so perfect that G's partner was able to overlook the student loan debt. And, after getting engaged earlier this year, the couple made a decision that felt fair to both: They'd postpone the wedding until G’s student loans have been paid off.
“The goal is to pay it down by 2020 in time for a wedding,” G said. “The jury is still out on whether or not that will happen, but I'm trying my damnedest because I want to marry her and I don't want to wait too long.”
G’s story is not an outlier; millennials have debt — a lot of it. In fact, recent findings from an NBC News poll found that a full 62% of millennials have more debt than they do savings. And while most of these debts stem from the pursuit of a college degree, credit card debt is a huge factor, as well. Unsurprisingly, this debt also affects the way this generation is able to plan for (and afford) traditional milestones. As a result, millennials are routinely postponing marriage. In 1965, American women and men first married at 21 and 23, respectively. Today, these ages have shot up significantly, to 27 and 29 respectively.
Nadya Agrawal, 27, does not have student loan debt, but currently cohabits with her long-term partner, Nikhil*, who does. Though they two are in a committed relationship, they have decided to postpone getting married until Nikhil is able to pay off his debt. “He made it really clear that he wants to be done with his debt before we get married,” Agrawal told Refinery29. “It’s something that’s hanging over his head and he prefers to start his life without it.”
Agrawal agrees that starting a life together is easier without debt, though she admits the situation is somewhat at odds with their families’ South Asian cultural expectations — particularly Nikhil’s, whose parents are more conservative than Agrawal’s. “We’re both Indian so there is a clear expectation for marriage and that’s something we’re both comfortable with so we talked about it pretty early,” Agrawal said.
And while a wedding may not yet be on the horizon, Agrawal says her partner’s financial circumstances have been eye-opening for her. “It’s made me really aware that, as equal as our relationship feels, we might not always be on equal terms,” Agrawal said. “I’ve had to recalibrate my expectations about what we can do together as a couple, but it’s also giving me more time. I’m [also] not trying to centralize myself in the story of his student loans.”
Similarly, G has made an effort to remain aware of how debt impacts relationships, realizing that many fall apart because of money troubles. As such, paying off these student loans has been a major priority, and G has now successfully paid them down to $54,000, in part thanks to G’s partner, who (conveniently) works in finance and has helped G refinance the loans and find viable ways to budget.
“She’s very candid about how she feels because she wants to be set up well for our future,” G said. And yet, despite the progress, there have certainly been some bad moments. “I’ve had really bad days where I’ve just cried. Days where I make a payment and have no money left for the whole month and scrimp on eating.”
According to financial expert Tiffany Welka, G and Agrawal's experiences are far from uncommon. While planning ahead and aiming to be debt-free before marriage is certainly an option, Welka says couples don't necessarily have to wait. Typically, debt incurred before marriage does not legally pass onto spouses, so Welka recommends checking local laws before making decisions to postpone a wedding. Still, for many people, looming debt is more of a psychological threat than a legal one, as it can significantly impact a couple's financial decisions. Regardless of their choice, Welka urges couples to carefully discuss each other's finances, assets, and liabilities before making any decisions and to come up with a budget and hold each other accountable.
For G, in addition to pragmatic strategies like Welka’s, overcoming this situation has depended largely on attitude. “I had to learn how to thank [my student loan] payments,” G said, adding that focusing on gratitude for the experiences that came out of a Master's degree has been transformative. “We can talk forever about whether it’s [all] worth it — and that’s a whole other topic — but I’ve had to learn how to say thank you and [now] I don’t feel as burdened.”
Agrawal also feels that her situation has come with some surprising silver lining. “It’s removed a lot of the urgency in some ways which is really nice. It means there are personal goals of mine I can focus on before we get married, too,” Agrawal said. “It’s nice to think [we each have] goals that we are trying to accomplish.”
In the end, the student loan debt crisis is a serious matter and has affected countless Americans’ ability to feel stable as they start their careers and lives. However, for those who do find themselves saddled by debt, there is resilience to be found in working towards financial stability.
“My hope for our future is that we remain as present and vigilant of each others needs and don't push for things we don’t understand,” Agrawal said. “This has taught me to be aware of what my partner needs and I want that to keep going.”
G, too, is hopeful for the future and envisions a life free from debt. “We don’t want to live like celebrities or have all these lush things. We just want to be stable and comfortable and not have to worry,” G said. “In both of our upbringings there was that worry of ‘Is everything going to be okay?’ and we never want that for our lives.”
* Geena Russo prefers no pronouns and has asked to use ‘G’ in place of ‘she/her’
*Name has been changed