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During an engagement, couples often devote weeks to compatibility classes sponsored by their church or non-denominational wedding officiant. They would do well to address their compatibility when it comes to finances, said Louise Rogness, a family law attorney at Rogness and Field of Oakdale.
“A prenuptial agreement that spells out who accrued the debt and who it belongs to is a good idea, but couples resist pre-nups as being too negative to pursue,” she said. “People are afraid to bring it up and just hope they won’t ever face it.”
A school loan incurred before marriage belongs to the person who took it. But from a practical standpoint, paying one partner’s debt comes off the top of the couple’s income. That obligation can create tension among in-laws, who may have opposing philosophies about the higher-ed tab.
“Parents who worked their butts off to save [for college] think poorly of parents who did not,” Hayden said. “But parents who didn’t pay for college think parents who do are spoiling their kids.”
When they talk about their future, Joy and Zach Yerrick dream of traveling, owning a home, becoming parents, pursuing graduate degrees. But they wonder if they will attain any of it.
“You expect it to be tight when you’re starting out,” said Zach. “But honestly, I don’t see how it ever will be anything other than this. Debt is setting us up to live this way.”
“We have to go to college to get a good job, then we have to work our whole lives to pay for it,” said Joy. “My parents were stretched thin because they didn’t go to college. We’re stretched because we did. We’re seeing the cost of the dream.”
Ultimately, Ruth Hayden said, a couple’s ability to survive the stress of one-sided debt comes down to their commitment to their marriage.
“They have to be very clear. They have to say to each other, ‘This will not break us up. This will not,’ ” Hayden said. “They have to work hard and work together. Otherwise, this debt will be the wall they can’t scale.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based broadcaster, podcaster and freelance writer.