A few days ago, over at The Hairpin, blogger A Married Dude fielded a question from a reader whose husband refused to help her shoulder any of her considerable student loan debt. One hundred thousand dollars in the hole after law school, she said that her husband didn’t feel obligated to help because the debt was incurred before their marriage. While she’s quick to admit that her husband is a great partner in every other area of their relationship, his attitude toward their finances is deeply frustrating:

We contribute jointly to household expenses and provide for our child, but anything extra he earns goes straight into his secret bank account, whereas every cent I earn goes toward the loans with little personal money left for me. Every time I want to take a trip or buy new appliances or whatnot, he says “if you didn’t have those loans, we could.” I cannot get him to understand that those loans are what enable me to earn $90k a year and therefore he benefits from them, too. I asked him if he’d rather I was a barista making $9/hour and he responded that at least I wouldn’t have the loans. Is he being a big jerk, or does he have a right to not want to be responsible for student debt I took on before we knew each other?

What a sticky wicket. Since every couple approaches finances differently, it’s likely the answer to this question would vary from couple to couple. While it’s true that any debt incurred before the marriage shouldn’t necessarily become a shared responsibility afterward, it’s also true that, if a couple wants to progress financially, joining their resources, then sharing in the payment of a past debt would help them to achieve financial independence quicker.

Essentially, A Married Dude agrees–but he also suggests that the husband here is being unsupportive and emotionally manipulative:

It’s insensitive for your husband to resent the burden of your student loans while refusing to help you pay them. If marriage is a partnership, he’s being a shitty partner. If I refuse to help you carry your bags, I ought to at least stop moaning about how slowly you walk. … I don’t give a shit what married people do with their money. I hate it when people are jerks to those who depend on them. Whether you agreed to this arrangement or not, you’re no longer content to carry the burden of your educational loans by yourself. Your husband has the right not to help you, if he so chooses; but, if he loves you and he’s not an utter jerk, he has the obligation to show that he cares.

His entire response to the reader’s query is worthy of a read.

What do you think? If a couple benefits from one partner’s education, should both partners contribute to repaying her educational debt? Should references to a spouse’s pre-marital student loan debt be off-limits in discussions of post-marital financial strain? Should couples who agree to certain terms regarding pre-marital debt be able to renegotiate those terms after marriage? Is not helping someone pay off their debt a way to maintain financial independence within a marriage?

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  • AshRam

    Reading these comments compels me to leave one of my own. Some individuals on here take this article as an opportunity to reassert their individual status. Yes, there does seem to be some underlying financial issues this couple may need to discuss. A marriage is a partnership and ideally, a couple should discuss how they intend to manage their financial obligations before becoming a MARRIED UNIT.

    The fact of the matter is, whether one’s spouse is helping you pay off your student loans or not, in economic terms you BOTH are NOT experiencing your optimal level of financial security. The money she uses to pay her student loans is in fact NOT being contributed to the overall household at this time. SO for all you people out there who are only thinking in terms of “what his is his and what’s hers is hers,” you are missing the total picture. Whether he is helping to pay or not the household as a whole is not reaching its full potential. And when she does pay off that student loan by herself, is her husband going to expect for her to put all of that money into the household that she had been using to pay for an education they BOTH benefit from.

    In the African American community, we need to understand that educational debt is sometimes a necessary evil. Of course you should avoid debt at all costs, particularly unnecessary debt. But higher education- particularly beyond the college degree- is not cheap. Unfortunately a Bachelor’s degree is not enough to cut it all of the time in today’s world and we need to understand that.

    Finally, we need to think in terms of asset building. Wealth building. If we as a community are going to succeed and establish ourselves- set up economic security for our future generations- we need to understand that financial acuity is key. Married couples have an opportunity to build wealth. To do and accomplish more with joined assets. Marriage is supposed to be a partnership. How can we get anywhere if we don’t work together?

    • grateful

      they can’t hear you..

  • gwaan gyal

    This sounds like a status marriage…married just to say you are married.

    100k is a lot of debt. Aside from this being an oddd partnership, this shows the different attitudes that men and women have towards money. Yes, he sounds like a meanie/stingy guy, but he is also saving for a rainy day. If she isn’t living an expensive lifestyle (and if this is her only debt) then she should be able to pay it off in no time on a 90k salary..yes you may have to buy less shoes and fraps or even live in a small apartment. It all comes down to what’s important to her. Lving like a high paid attorney with looming debt..or live an inexpensive lifestyle and get rid of the debt sooner.

    I wouldnt expect my husband to help pay off my debt..but I would expect him to pay most (if not all) of the rent/mortgage if he has a considerable more amout of disposable income than I do. At the same time, I wouldnt feel comfy getting married/buying a house/having a child before paying off student loans.

  • Picabo

    I can’t help but wonder how the comments here would look if the genders were reversed.

    Would we celebrate her right to her own secret account (which, if she knows about it, isn’t secret)? Would we be saying he should man up and pay his debt? Would we be telling her that she has a right to insulate herself from that amount of pre-marital debt?

    I’m betting that he told her, pre-marriage, that he had no intention of helping pay her debt because, if he did agree to help with it, I’m pretty sure that she would have mentioned it. This seems to me like she agreed and then changed her mind on him after saying “I do”.

    My take is that she’s the one being the jerk here.

  • Robbie

    If you got students loans or any type of debts before getting married than you should not expect me to help you pay for them if we get married. Actually, I refuse to marry anyone that has unpaid debts. You want to be responsible than pay your debts FIRTS before thinking about getting married and having children. Once the kids arrive, we all know where the money will be going. If I was able to go to school debt free why you could not have done the same.

    I have a friend in that situation, she married a man that went to medical school to become a doctor. He works as a physician assistant and makes good money. My friend is complaining all the tme that she is poorer today than when she was single. Basically whatever money she has goes into paying her husband’s debts. It puts too much stress on someone else that has been playing by the rules and remaining debts free. How selfish is that to expect them to help you pay your loans no matter what she thinks, she has to pay.

  • Ryan Lundy

    What if your wife dropped out of her bachelors program opting for an associates instead and still does not work and no one is benefiting from her education? She still has 32K in loans that she and her mother took out way before we met. Her mom can’t/won’t pay, then what? Should I pay when I’m the only one working and we’re barely scrapping by paycheck to paycheck? She is almost out of deferments.