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Q&A: Am I supposed to help my partner pay back his student loans?

Hey, it’s Doug! Welcome back for the sixth issue of The Joint Account. Heather has temporarily let me out of my room. This week, let’s tackle a topic we have personal experience with: debt!


Well, the party’s over. My husband had to resume his student loan payments. I want to be supportive, but am I supposed to help him pay them back?


Let’s first take a look at what’s happening here. In March 2020, the federal government paused student loan repayments and set interest rates to zero for millions of federal student loan borrowers. This means that many Americans have never had to make a single loan payment since graduating from their respective programs. Now, interest has resumed on these loans and payments will come due again for the first time in more than three years. According to the Education Data Initiative, the average monthly payment is expected to be around $503, which is kind of a big deal.

If you got married or entered into a serious relationship with a borrower during the student loan hiatus, you probably caught a break from having The Convo until now. Student loan repayment can be a confusing and emotionally charged topic when standing alone and only gets more complicated when strategizing with a partner.

Legally speaking, no; you are not responsible for student loan debt that your partner incurred prior to getting married. Unless you co-signed their loan, the liability remains an individual one. But I have a feeling most people know this and aren’t asking whether you must. You are asking whether you should help your loved one deal with this new significant expense.

I want to acknowledge how much this sucks. Unless you are a super-high earner, come from generational wealth, or have some sort of savior complex, it’s completely reasonable to harbor some negative feelings around the prospect of assisting with pre-marital student loan debt. You didn’t make the decision but are now stuck with its consequences.

However, student loan debt isn’t really the same as consumer debt, because it’s an investment in someone’s earning potential. You are entitled to disagree with your partner about whether the investment was a good one, but one way or another, your relationship will feel its impact.

You already know that I believe couples should structure their finances as a team: all major or recurring expenses should be paid from your joint bank account. Student loan payments certainly fall into this bucket. I don’t just take this stance from a gushy, what’s mine is yours, for richer or poorer standpoint. Primarily, I take it from a practical standpoint.

If you’re going to treat student loan payments as individual expenses, how will you treat other individually incurred, career-centered expenses? What if you want to obtain a new professional license–will that be carved out, too? What if that new professional license increases your earning capacity, shifting the income dynamic of your household? Will you hold that income for yourself because you paid for the license out of your individual funds? Can you see how ridiculous this is?

Where does it really begin and end?

Young or newly married couples have the easiest time earmarking funds or itemizing expenses, because they’re used to handling their finances separately and have less commingled responsibilities. But I’m here to tell you, that changes. It’s not as simple as isolating the loan balance and monthly payments to one person. The costs of your household will become increasingly intertwined over time. Whether you’re buying a home, having a child, dealing with an unexpected medical issue, or managing an emergency expense, your principles over divvying up these expenses will become looser and looser. I’ve seen it happen time and time again.

Committed partners become more financially responsible for each other over time. Resisting those efforts impedes opportunities to build trust and equity in your relationship. Together, you’ll ride out good times and bad. Folding this responsibility into your collective lives is an awesome demonstration of your willingness to do just that.

Send us your couples-n-money questions for the next Q&A: [email protected].


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Do you have a money question you’d like answered in a future issue? We know you do…

Source call for the book: Does your significant other come from money and you don’t? How does that impact your relationship?

We’re going there. Please email [email protected]. Being anon is okay, but we’d like to speak with both of you!

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The content shared in The Joint Account does not constitute financial, legal, or any other professional advice. Readers should consult with their respective professionals for specific advice tailored to their situation.