The only thing newlyweds Joy and Zach Yerrick have in excess is love.

Married almost a year, they still grin when they talk about each other. And they still joke about how they scrimp — packing their lunches, using pay-by-the-minute phones and planning date nights around coupons.

“Even when we splurge, we save,” said Joy.

The two met as students at North Central University in Minneapolis. Zach, the son of schoolteachers, graduated last spring and works at a social service agency. During college, he accumulated $20,000 in loans. Joy is the daughter of a factory worker father and an immigrant mother who cleans hospitals. She balances two retail jobs while pursuing a communications degree. She expects to graduate with twice her husband’s debt.

But since their marriage, they no longer consider debt “his” or “hers.”

“We’ve taken on the debt as ours,” said Zach. “It was a blessing that my parents helped me pay for college. I can’t put a negative feeling on Joy because she wasn’t so lucky.”

While many kinds of personal debt have been falling since 2007, student loan debt has been on the rise, IHS Global Insight said. The number of young people delaying marriage also is climbing. The median marrying age for men in 2011 was 28.7, 26.5 for women.

Zach, 24, and Joy, 22, bucked that trend. But they represent a new take on an old phenomenon: marrying into uneven debt.

“When it comes to school loans, often there’s one partner with a huge load and the other with little or none,” said Ruth Hayden, a St. Paul financial consultant and author. “Opposites do attract.”

Confident in the power of their bond, young couples may regard one partner’s debt as an obstacle to defeat together. But if that debt prevents them from achieving their goals, the romance can become depleted as years go by.

“Money is the No. 1 reason couples fight and the No. 1 reason they break up,” Hayden said. “Couples in their 20s and 30s think they’ll be fine, until they hit that brick wall and realize they can’t do what they want to do. They can’t get a mortgage or they can’t have a child. When choices are limited, resentment builds.”

Financial compatibility

Starting married life in a financial hole is the new normal.

According to a Pew Research Center survey released last fall, 40 percent of young households carry student loans, up from 26 percent in 2001.

Minnesota graduates carry more than their counterparts elsewhere. A 2011 survey by the Project on Student Debt ranked Minnesota as third in the nation in student debt, with two-thirds graduating with an average tally of $29,793 in loans.

That means that “millennials enter their family-building years carrying an unprecedented burden of debt,” said Kate Muhl, a consumer strategist with Iconoculture, a Minneapolis-based research firm.

Compounding that is the fact that so few couples talk about money matters before they wed.

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.”

Not-so-great expectations

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.