My Husband Doesn’t Care That His Student Loans Will Keep Us in Debt Forever

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Dear Penny,

I married my husband knowing about his student loans. I didn't dive right in to address them, because I was under the impression he was handling them.

We've been married almost four years now, and after he asked me to help, we consolidated them. I did research to get him into the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, but he doesn't take his loans as seriously as I do.

He would rather not discuss them at all. When we do, it starts an argument to the point where I don't even want to try to help him anymore.

Now the balance is significant enough to affect our future — over $43,000 at 5.5% interest — and his payments don't even touch the principal due to the income-based plan he's in. I fear it'll never get paid off, and we will retire with student loan debt, especially given the state the PSLF program is in.

Should I pour all my resources into helping pay this off in the interest of “us”? Or should I just leave it to him to take care of his loans? Part of me wants to get them paid off, and by my calculations, I can get them paid off in five years. But the other part of me thinks I shouldn't be investing all my extra funds into debt he just wants to ignore.  

Ring Around the Debtor

Dear RAD,

I never expected to preach this rule of marriage, but here we are: Never assume anything is handled.

It’s not that we don’t trust our spouses to be responsible members of our households. The problem is that what one person considers “handled” may be far from it by another person’s standards.

Without establishing the baseline for taking care of tasks in your family, you’re bound to end up with disappointment.  

It’s like the group projects in school where everyone divided up the work, set a date to regroup, and then came back to that same table in the library to finalize the presentation. But you, as usual, discovered that you were the only one who gave your group any chance of earning an A grade. You went above and beyond, while others were satisfied doing the minimum required. Or, even more challenging: Maybe they came to the table proud of their work, but it still fell short of your definition of excellent.

Expectations have a tendency to be miscommunicated unless they’re overcommunicated.

And if you assign your expectations to someone else who’s an equal, i.e., your husband, as opposed to a teacher assigning expectations down to you, you’re likely to face a lot of resentment.

That’s what I’m sensing here. No matter how well-meaning you are, your husband probably feels like you don’t trust his judgment. You keep pushing him to do more, while he may be looking at that monthly student loan statement thinking, “This is the payment due; I’m making the payment on time — what else is there to discuss?”

It sounds like it’s time to sit down and revisit your financial goals as a family — or make some goals, if you haven’t gotten that far together. I usually recommend having this kind of conversation over sandwiches, but… maybe wine. Your call.

And please, do not corner your husband after you’ve both had a long day at work and have run out of energy to have thoughtful conversations. Save this kind of discussion for your best waking hours together.

This isn’t a question of whether you should give your money to your husband. It’s a question of whether you want to work together to achieve a shared goal.

I recently spoke with a woman who once thought that her debt was her debt and that her husband’s debt belonged to him, even though they were sharing the rest of their lives together.

It was only after she paid off her own student loans that she realized helping her husband become debt-free wasn’t just a win for one person — it would be a win for their long-term happiness and peace of mind. They had to work as equal partners to get there, regardless of who was contributing the bulk of the debt payments.

You can’t do anything in the interest of “us” if you’re not already on the same financial page. What do you want your family’s life to be like in five years? In 10? Start there, and then decide — together — what you want to do to reach those goals.

The inbox is open. Submit a question or send your worries to [email protected], and I’ll see what I can do to help.

Disclaimer: Chosen questions and featured answers will appear in The Penny Hoarder’s “Dear Penny” column. I won’t be able to answer every single letter (I can only type so fast!). We reserve the right to edit and publish your questions. Don’t worry — your identity will remain anonymous. I don’t have a psychology, accounting, finance or legal degree, so my advice is for general informational purposes only. I do, however, promise to give you honest advice based on my own insights and real-life experiences.

Lisa Rowan is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.