The Anti-Dowry: What Happens When You Bring A LOT of Student Debt Into a Marriage

Step 1: Return wedding gifts and sell store credit for cash.

Photo credit: Jean L., CC BY 2.0.

In 2012 I made three big changes — I got married, I moved from Chicago to Portland, Oregon, and I started (with my brand-new husband) to seriously tackle my $89,000 in student loan debt.

The debt, all government loans at 7 percent interest, was entirely from my graduate degree in the arts. I had been on Income-Based Repayment since I finished school in 2009, but the amount I paid was only covering the interest. (My husband completed a PhD in Physics nine days before our wedding in 2012. His graduate program paid him a salary to work in the graduate lab, so he was debt-free.)

I told my husband about my student loan debt right after we met and he didn’t faint or scream, which was a big plus. Before we got engaged I paid off $3,000 in credit card debt so, between us, we had no debt other than my student loans, aka THE ANTI-DOWRY.

After a lot of talking-slash-loan-calculating-while-watching-30-Rock, we locked in our model: combine finances and aggressively pay down the loans, then refinance to a lower interest rate and back off repayment for the remainder.

Our game plan was pretty basic — find the highest-paying jobs we could, in the lowest-cost-of-living city available. When my husband was offered a well-paid engineering job in Portland, we decided both criteria were met. While Portland was not the ideal city for my career as a writer and college professor, I knew I could still work and make money there. So he took the job.

Our game plan was pretty basic — find the highest-paying jobs we could, in the lowest-cost-of-living city available.

We both had reservations. Although Portland was just getting hot (and was more affordable then!), we didn’t know anyone in the city. We loved Chicago and could see a life for ourselves there, and we both had fulfilling (though low-paying) jobs in our respective fields. I was worried about prioritizing my husband’s career over my own, and he was worried that I would hate Portland and blame him for moving me there—but we both agreed to commit to three debt-destroying years in Portland.

This isn’t a how-to on how to pay back student loan debt. It’s the story of one marriage, a lot of debt, and how that shaped the early years of our life together in both negative and positive ways. Read on for very personal marriage and financial details!

Year One: Entering Crisis Mode

$89,000 at 7 percent interest is “scary territory” debt, where the interest can quickly start to spiral on top of the principal amount. Once I came off Income-Based Repayment, the minimum monthly payment jumped to $1,000/month, with $500 of that going straight to interest. I also owed over $3,000 in back interest from being on IBR, which my husband wiped out with the remainder of his grad school stipend savings three days after our wedding. Welcome to #loanlife, baby!

Luckily, we’re both goal-oriented people who like to see a lot of progress at once, so we quickly took a somewhat unsentimental first step. We returned most of our wedding gifts and sold the store credit for cash. We put all the money we received onto the principal of the loan, including $2,000 from my husband’s parents that was earmarked for a new mattress. In the first few weeks of our marriage, we knocked about $4,000 off the principal. It was an emotional choice (sorry wedding guests, we love you!), but we both knew that starting off strong would motivate us to keep going.

We returned most of our wedding gifts and sold the store credit for cash.

In Portland we got a two-bedroom apartment for less than our rent in Chicago, and continued to live like grad students. We held off on a honeymoon, cooked almost all our meals at home, and had a bare-bones entertainment budget. We canceled my husband’s phone plan, didn’t install cable, and bought only a couch for furniture — everything else we either moved from Chicago or found by the trash in our building (the day we found an abandoned matching coffee and dining table set was a gamechanger).

My husband excelled at his job, and I quickly found teaching and freelance work around the city. Portland had a great food scene, perfect summer weather, and lots of cheap or free activities to enjoy.

We hammered the loan all that first year — every freelance assignment, every cash gift, every dollar left in checking at the end of the month, went towards loan repayment. While this was obviously not “fun,” the way people traditionally use that word, for two Type-A maniacs it was strangely satisfying to see the numbers drop in big chunks that first year. We averaged $2,300/month, which was almost double what we were paying for rent.

We officially pulled back from the brink of six figures and went into the second year of marriage with the debt down to $63,000. We were doing the damn thing!

Year Two: Surging Ahead

We eased up for a few months at the start of Year Two in order to finally go on our honeymoon — a wonderful trip to Turkey that we paid for in cash. When we got home, however, the delayed-honeymoon period wore off pretty quickly.

For the next four months, despite our relatively high combined income, we had almost no extra money beyond bills and the loan payment amounts we had committed to. Even though we obviously could have made smaller payments, we didn’t. Mentally it felt like if we backed off for even one month, we would lose momentum altogether — and neither of us wanted to be the one to propose it. But having so little in savings was starting to worry both of us, especially as we moved into our thirties.

After taking a painful look at our budget, we decided the solution was to lower our fixed monthly costs. We got rid of a storage unit and moved from a two-bedroom apartment into a one-bedroom, cutting our costs by $500/month.

Having so little in savings was starting to worry both of us.

I felt a lot of guilt about how my loan was creating so much anxiety for us as couple. In addition to freelancing and working as a college professor, I picked up night shifts working at a friend’s fitness studio to make an additional $500/month. This combined $1,000/month gave us the breathing room to start focusing a bit more on retirement savings and building an emergency fund.

While we had maintained a positive, “we’re crushing it!” attitude in Year One, Year Two began to grind on us. We couldn’t host out-of-town guests in any sort of comfort in our one-bedroom, and the cheaper building had security issues. We said no to a lot of invitations that involved spending money, which made it hard to meet people and become close. We saw friends in our age group buying houses and making the choice to have kids, and we felt light-years away from being able to even consider those sorts of decisions. We checked the loan balance constantly and talked about it even more.

With the reduced expenses and increased money from my extra job, we finished Year Two with a balance of $44,000 left on the loan. We were halfway there financially, but emotionally it felt like we had further to go than ever.

Year Three: Fatigue and the ReFi

Our low moments in Year Two became full-on burnout in Year Three. We spent a decent amount of money flying back and forth to visit our families on the East Coast, which reminded us how far away we were and how much we missed them. Portland still didn’t feel like a long-term home to us, but the next step wasn’t clear. We had pushed so hard on the loan that we hadn’t given the same amount of attention to the other pieces of our future.

We had pushed so hard on the loan that we hadn’t given the same amount of attention to the other pieces of our future.

This year was especially challenging for my husband. His income was so much higher than it had been at any time in his life, but everything he earned was going right back out the door again. Although I understood why we moved to Portland on an intellectual level, I still resented that we were based in a city where I couldn’t find the career opportunities I wanted. I worked a lot, and made a good salary after tallying up all my 1099s and W2s, but I wasn’t sure that it was all adding up to an actual career. We started arguing more often, and not just about money.

But, just as we were reaching our breaking point, we reached the promised land: THE REFINANCE.

We had $35,500 on the loan when we refinanced. We had to take our interest rate down from 7 percent to under 4 percent for it to make sense to pull back on the frantic repayment pace. After looking at a few options we decided to go with SoFi, which is not for everyone. (You lose the ability to ever go on Income-Based Repayment again when you do it, which made me a little uncomfortable.) Due to our combined income, the process was surprisingly fast and easy — we were approved within two weeks for a five-year loan with an interest rate of 3.5 percent.

But there was a catch.

The debt was still entirely in my name up to this point. In order to refinance, my husband had to co-sign on the loan, since his income was more stable than mine. So while we had been treating the debt as “ours” since the beginning of our marriage, this was the first time it officially became “ours” legally. If I died, my lovely loans would no longer come to the grave with me. Luckily, there was an easy (albeit unromantic, a la “returning wedding gifts”) solution to this problem — get a life insurance policy on me for an amount large enough to pay off the loan.

After the refinance, we owed $35,000 at 3.5 percent interest. Our monthly payment was reduced from $1,000/month to $643/month with less than $100/month going to interest. With this change in the interest rate, the loan no longer had to be our top priority — we could finally take a deep breath.

And, after talking extensively about adding one new expense to make us feel like we had a higher quality of life, we unanimously agreed to splurge and get HBO.

Year Four: Looking to the Future

We pulled back on our loan payments shortly after the refinance, as per our original plan. After some tough discussions, we decided to commit to another year in Portland to save money and be able to consider a variety of next steps, like moving again and starting a family. We started envisioning what we called “Life Post Loan” (LPL). Even though we still had tens of thousands of dollars left, we began to plan a move to the East Coast.

Through these talks, I found out that my guilt about the loan was mirrored by my husband’s guilt about moving me to a city that had constrained my career. For both of us, attacking the debt at a faster-than-normal pace had helped to alleviate some of those negative feelings. But it was time to refocus our marriage around new goals for our LPL.

By the time we moved to New York in May of 2016, the debt was down from $89,000 to $25,964. We had retirement accounts. We had savings. We finally got a king-sized mattress for under $1,000 from Casper, using that coupon code we saw on the subway like the (older range) Millennials we are.

We pay the minimum on the loan every month now. I have it auto-debited from my checking account and check the balance once a month to confirm it went through. We’re both starting to relax and think about all of the things we couldn’t see with that big, hairy troll of a loan blocking our way.

I’m not going to try and spin a ton of student loan debt as a positive. But I will say that having this very scary, very unable-to-keep-a-secret amount of money that we owed made my husband and I much more open about finances than we would have been otherwise. It confirmed that we could have hard conversations with each other and that we would both compromise in the present for (hopefully) bigger things in the future.

Don’t get me wrong — we had a lot of fun in Portland! We made close friends, we lived in a city that we enjoyed and that was getting more and more popular every year — it turned out to be a wonderful place to start our married life. We know that getting a good-paying job in a low-cost-of-living area is an advantage and privilege, along with having advanced degrees and no major medical or emergency expenses during our big loan-paying years. Certainly, a lot went right for us.

I’m also well aware that if I were not married, my financial situation would be extremely different. Marriage made paying off large chunks of the loan easier, but didn’t make the process as a whole easy. My student loan debt became something that colored and affected the most important relationship in my life, which was never how I had envisioned my marriage starting.

If I could go back in time, I would have worked as much as possible during graduate school to defray the loans I took out. I do work exclusively in my field and have seen my degree directly translate into numerous opportunities for me for the past six years, so I can’t argue that the degree itself was the wrong choice. But I’m definitely not putting alumni donations in my budget yet.

Now that we’re in New York, our rent is almost three times as much as it was in Portland. We still try to cut monthly costs, and we still have that $643 monthly payment. But we’re closing in on twenty grand, and the end (March, 2020!) is in sight.

My husband and I have made a pact. After the loan is paid off, we’re going to save one month’s payment and do something completely and utterly frivolous with it to celebrate being student-debt-free. It took us a while to even figure out what our frivolous things would be; we were so accustomed to seeing frivolity as the enemy. I decided that I want to buy a giant truffle and shave it on literally everything we eat. My husband wants to commission a portrait of our bodies with dog heads to hang in our bathroom. Marriage is a compromise, so we’ll probably get a painting of our faces on a truffle.

Caitlin Kunkel is a comedy writer, director, and producer based in Brooklyn, NY. She teaches screenwriting and satire at The Second City Training Center and takes off her pants as soon as she gets home. Read more of her musings @KunkelTron or at the more professionally-named www.caitlinkunkel.com.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Change Series.

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