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?