Quick show of hands: Who actually enjoys discussing money with their significant other? I'm hearing crickets. Whether you openly discuss it or not, however, it’s a subject that can’t exactly be avoided forever — from deciding who picks up the tab on your first date to discussing the budget for your impending summer getaway, finances inevitably play a role in your love life life. Which begs the question: When should you talk about student loan debt on dates? Do you bring it up early on, or wait until you’re sharing a lease or a bank account?
Needless to say, student loan debt can be a tricky topic to navigate. Just ask Amber Pike and Matt Barnett, who were forced to tackle the subject on Love is Blind after they got engaged. When Pike admitted that she was unemployed, had $20,000 in debt, and was still paying off a credit card she used to purchase makeup, Barnett looked troubled. Marrying someone with debt can impact your future plans as a couple, from getting pre-approved for a mortgage on a house to starting a family. That said, nearly 70% of students from the class of 2018 took out loans to pay for school, according to the Federal Reserve — so if you’re still paying yours off, keep in mind that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. More likely than not, your dates are in the same boat.
Despite how common it is to take out student loans, however, it remains a relatively taboo topic. In fact, in a 2019 Harris poll of over 1,000 U.S. adults, over one-third of Americans cited student loan debt as the most uncomfortable financial topic to talk about. According to Pricilla Martinez, CEO of Regroop Online Life Coaching, it may feel especially awkward to bring up in the early phases of dating someone new, when you’re still trying to put your best foot forward and hide your so-called “flaws.”
“If you’re at the point in your relationship where you’re trying to decide if your partner is someone you can see a life with, the last thing you want to do is give them a reason to bail,” she tells Elite Daily. “However, you can see this as an opportunity to be fully accepted for who you are.”
Every dating situation is unique, but as a general rule, experts say the best time to have the talk about student loan debt is whenever you start talking more seriously about the future. Rachel DeAlto, relationship expert and chief dating expert for Match, recommends bringing it up before you move in together. Once you start talking about taking this step, you'll naturally begin discussing finances — like your monthly bills, as well as how you’ll share the burden of paying for groceries and utility bills — so the subject of debt won't feel so forced.
For some, being upfront about their student loan debt is a proactive decision. Luke, a 33-year-old practicing doctor, had two different conversations with his current wife — the first of which happened early on in their (then long-distance) relationship, once he sensed that things were getting serious, and the second of which went down before he proposed.
“I have almost $400,000 in medical student loan debt, but I also have income security and I’m part of a Public Service Loan Forgiveness program,” he says. “I was basically saying — I need to make sure you’re OK with the fact that we’ll be sharing this debt, and that needs to take priority over leisure activities. How someone budgets is a reflection of how responsible they are. So, for me, it was about trying to figure out: Are we on the same page financially?”
For others, the topic of student loan debt just comes up unexpectedly. That was the case for Mariah, 31, who had been dating her current partner for about a year when the financial strain of a series of weddings forced her to come clean about her situation. Her boyfriend was invited to multiple destination weddings, and she decided to seize the opportunity to explain why making those trips was not realistic for her. While she says she didn’t feel the need to discuss exact numbers, she was open and honest about the monthly payment she needed to make.
"I'm a millennial, I'm a female, and I picked a profession that's not super lucrative,” she explains. “I’ve always paid my own rent, and I paid for my entire college experience. If I could go back I would probably do things differently, but I needed him to know that this is just the situation I'm in and the lifestyle that I'm able to live."
If you're feeling insecure about your student loan debt, you may be hesitant to bring it up. In that case, Martinez suggests being honest about your fears while also giving your partner the benefit of the doubt.
“Give them a chance to be supportive and understanding.,” she says. “How they react to the news is also important information for you on how they communicate and navigate difficult conversations.”
Both Martinez and DeAlto also strongly advise digging into why you’re feeling uncomfortable about approaching this topic. Are you worried that your partner will disapprove or judge you for it? Or do you have concerns that their feelings about the relationship will change? Knowing where this fear comes from may help you to overcome it more easily. If you regret going back to school for your master's or attending an expensive university, owning up to those choices will allow you to present this information with honesty and confidence.
“If you feel that these choices were a mistake, then you’re going to present them that way to your partner,” she explains. “We’re all on different paths. Don’t misrepresent yourself, because you risk your partner feeling betrayed when they find out down the road. Instead, embrace where you are. You can own up to the mistakes you feel you’ve made, but the most important thing is to highlight the lessons you’ve learned.”
While it may feel a little awk to give the person you’re dating a glimpse into the debt you’re dealing with, experts say this convo could actually bring you closer.
“We have so much shame around money challenges, and working through that can do wonders for you individually and as a partner,” explains DeAlto.
In fact, Martinez recommends using this topic as a jumping-off point — an opportunity to discuss your individual and shared financial goals.
The only way to know for sure whether or not you’re a solid match with someone is to lay your cards out on the table, and allow them to see the full picture. No matter the circumstances surrounding your student loan debt or how you feel about it, know that talking about it with someone you're dating can be an excellent exercise in assessing your long-term compatibility. Your student loan debt does not define you in any way, but it does play a role in your budget and lifestyle going forward. The right person for you will not only accept you as-is — debt and all — but will cheer you on as you chip away at it.
Pricilla Martinez, life coach
Rachel DeAlto, relationship expert