She ain't got money, honey.
February 21, 2010 9:03 PM   Subscribe

How does someone's debt burden affect your interest in them romantically?

I'm interested in how people view a possible partner's debt when dating. I've been particularly hesitant to go back to school because I find the idea of student debt so crushing to living the kind of life I did. I finally did go back to school for something very practical and hopefully financially worthwhile (health-related), but I'm still very conscious of the debt I've accumulated and I'll be looking to pay it off as quickly as I can.

Recently went on a date with someone who I found interesting and attractive, but she told me how much debt she incurred in a PhD program (>$100k) and how she'll probably never totally pay it off.

One of the reasons I chose the field I chose was because of the flexibility that it will afford me to move around, take time off and have a variety of experiences. I would have loved to have done an MFA or something like that but didn't because I felt like in the end the debt would have stopped me from doing the kind of work I wanted to do. I feel pretty good about that decision.

I've had this feeling before where I am interested in someone, but their having a huge debt burden is really a turn-off to me.

My question is: do you think that's a rational judgement? How would you handle that? I'm looking for a life partner, not a fling, so while I am putting the cart before the horse to some degree, I'm more interested in not going down a road romantically with someone who I really feel is not going to work for me. That said, I'm also wondering if I'll find something about everyone not to like, and I should just live for the day and forget the gigantic elephant of debt in the room.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (37 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
My initial reaction was that student loan debt isn't the same as running up $100K on credit cards buying shoes. It's an investment.

I thought about that a little bit and then realized that PhD could be in something like Vogon poetry where there would be little hope of ever paying it back, and I don't think you're too far off the mark not wanting to pursue that.

Then I thought, you went on one date with this person and you're already planning your (not) future together? Aren't you 1.) getting a little ahead of yourself and 2.) kind of full of yourself thinking that she's not going to reject you at some point?
posted by MegoSteve at 9:11 PM on February 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

I don't think it's a rational judgment, but people have different priorities. There's nothing wrong with thinking financial stability is a good thing in a relationship. It's one of the biggies for a lot of folks.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:13 PM on February 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't think you're string ahead of yourself. $100k for a PhD suggests she wasn't funded so it's not really in demand. I wouldn't go after that unless her parents have money or you're hopelessly in love.
posted by anniecat at 9:15 PM on February 21, 2010

thinking, not string
posted by anniecat at 9:16 PM on February 21, 2010

There are people out there who just don't care about debt and don't find it stressful and there are people out there for whom debt is a huge issue.

If it matters enough that when you meet someone the turn-off aspect of the debt outweighs the person's personality and looks, then there you are. Move on. Money is one of the more common reasons couples end relationships, so based on that you'd be smarter to work on finding someone whose values match yours. I certainly wouldn't feel guilty about it.

But you know you can't live by rules on this stuff - 6 months from now you could fall in love with the most wonderful person who has $150k of debt and find yourself not caring. Who knows.

posted by Salmonberry at 9:17 PM on February 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

To me, it's very rational to not want to be life partners with someone because they have a lot of debt. Obviously, it'll impact your quality of life going forward.

That said, as MegoSteve posted, there are different kinds of debt. For me it comes down to financial responsibility. IMHO, it's (usually) irresponsible to be in severe credit card debt. Student loans, mortgage, not so much. If you're interested in personal preferences even moderate financial irresponsibility might not be a deal breaker for me as long as we were going to keep all our money separate.

As for your date's situation... you know about the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, right? Between income-based repayment and loan forgiveness, she might not even have to pay all that much back before it's completely forgiven in a certain number of years anyhow.
posted by Ashley801 at 9:17 PM on February 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Plan your desired lifestyle first. Romantic partner who shares your values and goals comes second.
posted by jbenben at 9:18 PM on February 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think most everyone in a college-normative environment, which is my social group and probably yours, expects prospective partners to have some college debt. Having debt is not a turn off in and of itself to most people in this socioeconomic group. It's as normal as going to college.

However, what would be a turnoff, in term of debt, is bad debt. Living beyond one's means, living off credit cards, what I'd consider irresponsible debt. A PhD program with $100K+ in debt is a ton of money, but if this person had a reasonable income, lived comfortably, and made payments every month, what's so terrible about that?

As a data point, I finished paying off my undergrad a few years after graduating. I recently bought my first home - a mortgage is debt! My loan is well over $100K, like your date's education loans. My significant other has been paying off undergraduate debt since before I met him, and will be for quite some time. Despite our different financial dossiers, we both live a similar lifestyle and agree that making payments are as important as other monthly bills. It's something we consider part of our shared values.
posted by juniperesque at 9:20 PM on February 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

I met a PhD who is quite a bit in debt, pays more than her mortgage payments per month and is 39. I would say it dpeends on yoru perspective of money and taking wise financial decisions if you both decide to hook up for the long-term i.e. married. Living together won't merge your credit histories but marrying will I believe.

This is a conversation that you would be a necessity to have if you were going in for the long term with the other person. Debts can be paid off, they just need jobs that help them.

I read up on the harvard business review blog about a clinical psych phd who was working at a mental health community center and was satisfied with the work at the job but not the pay so she helped someone else make money and then got a job using the sales skills. Then she gave that position a title allowing her to transfer over into the business world.

I suppose it's the attitude towards money that would dampen my romantic interest in another not necessarily their debt load as much.
posted by iNfo.Pump at 9:22 PM on February 21, 2010

I think somebody's maturity, sense of responsibility, and handling of finances says a lot more than how much debt they actually have (and to some extend, how they got it). For me, it's a big deal breaker. As someone who worked really hard to be financially responsible (even though I do have substantial, but manageable and monitored, debt) and found myself intertwining a life with somebody else who didn't share complementary priorities and approach towards money, I asked myself, "If someone is falling off a cliff (sad though it be), how closely do I want to be tied to them?"

There's debt and then there's destruction.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:27 PM on February 21, 2010 [5 favorites]

On the topic of debt I totally agree with juniperesque. Just like anything, context is everything - education is good debt. Living beyond your means is not. I kind of feel that you feel like debt for an education that doesn't pay in the long run is the same as living beyond your means. You sound kind of judgmental about her decision, but she had her reasons the same as you have yours. Give it some time to get to know her, and maybe in the future you'll feel like you love who she is and what made her who she is, no matter the cost; that she deserves everything she wants and should go as far as she can in life, no matter how long it takes to pay off.
posted by amethysts at 9:32 PM on February 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm looking for a life partner, not a fling, so while I am putting the cart before the horse to some degree, I'm more interested in not going down a road romantically with someone who I really feel is not going to work for me.

Well educated PhDs who are both attractive, interesting and interested in you are probably a rare commodity. Two people and you're looking at ~$50k a piece. $50k is what a sports car? If you're looking for a "life partner" that's $2,500 a year over 20 years. I think that $2,500 is a pretty good value for an interesting and attractive person.
posted by geoff. at 9:34 PM on February 21, 2010 [13 favorites]

Depends. Lots of people have a modicum of college loan debt or professional school debt.

If I heard someone was in $100k of debt from a PhD program, I would question his or her judgment. Someone with $150k of debt from med school? well, in that case, as long as they have a plan for paying it off, that's not unwieldy given their salaries.

Someone who ruined his or her credit because of problems with credit card debt? That points to the possibility of poor judgment and an inability to handle money.

It's all about how debt reflects someone's attitude towards money and their ability to think long-term, and one of the main issues that cause relationships/marriages to collapse is differences in attitudes towards money and stress about money.
posted by deanc at 9:35 PM on February 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

It doesn't, unless they racked up their debt by getting wasted and playing $100,000 hands in Vegas. Most people look at educational debt as an investment. Borrowing for school is not the same as empty profligacy, unless you're going to school to learn something totally useless, that you have no interest in, that you will never make use of in your future life, and that you're just doing so you can, you know, hang out on campus or whatever.

I think you may be fixating on this unhealthily. If you want to get all evolutionary-behavorist about things (and I think this way of looking at things is also really unhealthy, but it provides a nice counterpoint to your particular thought process), one could even say that there's a significant signaling value associated with an advanced degree. It proves to a potential mate that you're more than passably clever, that you're persistent, that you're generally well-socialized, and that you have some non-trivial skills at your disposal that you can use to gain stable employment and generate a steady income.

I think the right way to look at this whole issue is: a lot of people don't consider their balance sheet the end-all-be-all of their existence, and as long as they're on a path where they've got a fighting chance of breaking even over time, I don't think you should judge them harshly for borrowing to fund their schooling.
posted by killdevil at 9:35 PM on February 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

To me, the words "I went 100k in debt to get my PhD" translate to "I don't think strategically or realistically". This would be a huge turnoff for me. There are two possible explanations for such a situation as far as I can see (please correct me if I'm wrong!):

-the course of study chosen is not one where there is a lot of demand for professors right now, so there's no incentive for universities to pay graduate students (bad strategy)
-the person in question was not actually that strong in the field, so while a promising grad student would be paid to get a PhD, this person wasn't and decided to go to grad school anyway (unrealistic thinker)

It sounds to me like we have similar perspectives on this, and that you feel like you're being an ass for considering this debt when you consider her as a romantic prospect because it feels materialistic. However, as I see it, the debt (along with her seemingly trivializing pronouncements about it) is a symptom of a worldview that you fundamentally do not share with this person, not just a superficial trait.
posted by crinklebat at 9:37 PM on February 21, 2010 [10 favorites]

Recently went on a date with someone who I found interesting and attractive, but she told me how much debt she incurred in a PhD program (>$100k) and how she'll probably never totally pay it off.

I think the "I'll probably never pay it off" attitude it more worrying than the debt. Debt is worrying, but as long as it was taken on responsibly and there's a plan for paying it off it's not so bad.

Getting together with someone who has really different ideas about fiscal responsibility than you do seems like a good foundation for a lot of resentment and fighting down the line.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:42 PM on February 21, 2010 [4 favorites]

Most people look at educational debt as an investment

Considering how poorly most people do when they choose to invest, does it go without saying that one is not going to look at the validity of the investment?

Frankly IMHO the answer is "it depends." Someone with a ton of college debt that has obviously never considered the ROI and that shows poor decisionmaking skills and a weak grasp of financial responsibility. For many people, and many couples, these are lifetime problems that cause a great deal of strife and pain.

For someone to have racked up $100k in college debt who is not, say, a med student or something equivalent [some hard science] is incredibly irresponsible and a red flag.
posted by rr at 9:51 PM on February 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Well educated PhDs who are both attractive, interesting and interested in you are probably a rare commodity.

Well educated people are a not-so-rare commodity; a PhD is an indicative marker. I guess if you *have* to have a partner with a PhD, that's critical, but otherwise, meh.

Certainly for a long-term relationship it's not unreasonable to consider how debt would affect a life together. $100,000 is a lot of debt; it may well make a difference to where you can live, whether you can buy a house, and how much of your life will, in effect, be spent servicing someone else's debt. Moreover, I'm with the other folks here who are questioning whether it was smart debt, and what that implies about future behaviour.
posted by rodgerd at 9:52 PM on February 21, 2010

Speaking as a single man who is entirely debt free, here is my opinion: Student loan debt isn't the same as credit card debt or debt due to financial stupidity.

Student load debt is an investment in the future.
Credit card debt is extending and increasing payments on the past.
They're not the same.

It's important to consider the investment part of student loan debt. If someone racks up over $100,000 in debt while earning a degree that will help them land a high income job, I understand completely and wouldn't be phased. I might even be impressed because I'm not sure I'd have the courage to do that. On the other hand, if someone racks up that much debt while chasing a degree that won't enable them to pay off the debt they undertook, I'd think they were foolish and I probably wouldn't pursue dating because I wouldn't want to potentially inherit half of that debt if dating led to a relationship that led to marriage.

Granted, that's one big IF - but why date someone if you don't think there's at least a chance it could last?

I guess it comes down to the reason you're dating in the first place. If you're just looking for dates, then who cares. If you're looking for a potential partner... a future wife, perhaps? ...that debt comes with her whether she likes it or not.
posted by 2oh1 at 9:53 PM on February 21, 2010

"My question is: do you think that's a rational judgement?"

I don't say this as a snark: Whether others think it's a rational judgment is irrelevant. You have to use your own value system when deciding these things.
posted by 2oh1 at 9:57 PM on February 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't care. I know what it's like to start on an expensive advanced degree program and then have a hard time getting out of it, and racking up debt in the process. The culture of academia very strongly encourages one to believe that it is better to suffer and borrow more money and do anything rather than quit without the degree. It is hard to get your head outside of that. Especially hard if you made the decision to go into it when still quite young. People make all kinds of bad decisions in their 20's, and our culture tends to tell us that going back to school is such a good thing, and so many people are taking out huge student loans, that the implications just don't seem real until the bills come due, years later. Tons of programs seem to be entirely out of touch with the decades-long financial burdens they are putting on their students by expecting them to borrow money. They have no incentive to care, sometimes quite the opposite. If you are a small humanities department and you can have a class of NO new graduate students (thus risking your funding and your program's very existence), or you can have a class of 3 new graduate students who are borrowing tens of thousands for a degree in a field where there are no jobs anymore, are you really going to tell them not to do it? Are you really going to warn them they'll graduate with huge debts and practically no job prospects?

Personally I don't have $100K debt but I have some, and I'd say I learned a lot even if my degree's not useful for employment in the field, which it is not. Before grad school I had no debt and could tend to be kind of a snob and insufferable know-it-all, and afterward I had debt but learned a lot about humility, and how to listen, and how to be respectful, and that the rules applied to me too. So if I were to meet some wonderful guy and he says sorry I'm no longer interested because you have debt from school.. then that's what happens, though I wouldn't say the same to him if he had debt.

Far as thinking strategically or realistically.. well, everyone does the best they can, and a lot of recent law school and business school graduates on the job market are probably wondering what their strategic thinking (and it was!) has gotten them into now.. and a lot of homeowners are $100K and more underwater, easily.
posted by citron at 10:22 PM on February 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

$100K in graduate school debt is typically what it costs to buy a vanity PhD. If it weren't a problem for the foreseeable future, it wouldn't be a present debt.

Walk quickly, quietly, resolutely and determinedly towards the relationship exit, and under no circumstances, conditions, or cries or offers, look back.
posted by paulsc at 10:26 PM on February 21, 2010

Then I thought, you went on one date with this person and you're already planning your (not) future together? Aren't you 1.) getting a little ahead of yourself and 2.) kind of full of yourself thinking that she's not going to reject you at some point?

Don't listen to this kind of advice. It's perfectly sensible to think about what kind of future you might theoretically have with someone from the get go. There'd be fewer divorces and much less time wasted in dead-end relationships if more people thought this way. And the second point is bizarre — of course you should think about whether you want to be with this person regardless of the possibility that she might not want to be with you at some point. She's not the only one who gets to make a choice.

A partner's 100K in debt will have a huge impact on your life together. You will have to limit your other expenditures accordingly, which could cut into other things you might want to do, like travel, home buying and babymaking. You'll need to have a higher household income in order to make the payments — which may mean one or both of you having to take a higher-paid boring job over a lower-paid but more rewarding job. And her or your unemployment could be a much more serious problem for the two of you than otherwise. Even if she makes the payments entirely out of her income it will mean she has less to contribute to your life together, which means you either have to accept that the two of you will have a lower standard of living than otherwise or you'll have to pony up more in order to live the life you want — will you resent that? Another thing to consider is this person's ability to handle money in general. Does she live within her means? Does she have credit card debt on top of the student debt? Is she likely to make enough to carry this debt easily or does she live a life of pinching and scraping?

Not saying "run like the wind" here. Maybe you will decide you really want to be with this person and it's worth it to you to help her carry her debt in order to do so. And there's nothing wrong with that. But it's a good idea to have your eyes open and consider these things, the same as she should consider any drawbacks to dating you (i.e., your bedwetting, evil mother, video game addiction, or what have you).
posted by orange swan at 2:20 AM on February 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

To my mind, the question you should ask yourself is whether you're looking to fall in love with someone or if you're shopping for a partner... They are two very different things.
posted by Chairboy at 2:52 AM on February 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

In any serious relationship, factors other than sex become more significant after the first several months or years. One is money. A couple needs to be financially compatible if they are to last.
posted by megatherium at 3:29 AM on February 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

$100K in graduate school debt is typically what it costs to buy a vanity PhD.


There are enough funded PhDs to fill every available academic job with plenty left over. Not getting funding means that you are not (yet) qualified enough to compete. Sensible people in this situation either improve their applications and re-apply another year, or find something else they're better suited for. Going ahead anyway and taking out mortgage-sized debt for grad school would indicate (to me, anyway) a kind of arrogant inflexibility and an unwillingness to deal with the cold hard realities of life. I'd beware.
posted by philokalia at 5:04 AM on February 22, 2010 [6 favorites]

Hey, look -- as a data point, I have a dear friend who is not 100K in debt from her PhD program but very near it. She also had several great fellowships as a doctoral student (but went into debt thanks to some bad medical luck and some bad research luck), and is now a hotshot up-and-coming prof in a tenure-track position who (so everyone agrees) has a very bright career ahead of her.

In short, I disagree with those above who claim that this amount of debt says anything negative about your date's abilities or prospects.

However, it does say that your date thinks that some risks are worth going into debt for. If you disagree with that, then you've got a fundamental philosophical difference that does have the potential to make a long-term relationship quite difficult.
posted by artemisia at 5:53 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't do consumer debt. Period.

When I met my fiance, he had more than $50,000 in student loan debt. But his parents were unable to help him with college at all, so he didn't have much choice. He is gainfully employed, and has been paying the debt back at something like triple the minimum payments. So his debt load hasn't bothered me.

I think you need to take into consideration more than the total amount, but also how the debt was incurred and the attitude towards paying it off.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:07 AM on February 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

Not getting funding means that you are not (yet) qualified enough to compete. Sensible people in this situation either improve their applications and re-apply another year, or find something else they're better suited for.

Yes indeed. When my son (now a first-year PhD student) first expressed a desire for grad school, I told him he was on his own financially for that and would have to arrange loans or whatever. His response was, "Loans?? Mom, anyone who can't get funded for doctoral study should not be pursuing it." He did what was necessary to make himself a good candidate, got accepted with full funding (+ living stipend) by two different schools, and is racking up NO debt whatsoever.

Personally, I would be concerned with what kind of job or job intentions a prospective partner with education debts has. If the person has a PhD in some arcane field such as 15th century Icelandic poetry, is employed as a bookstore clerk, and has no expectation of improving the income-to-debt ratio, that would be a definite dealbreaker for me (despite my utmost respect for dedication to intellectual pursuits). But, YMMV.
posted by RRgal at 6:33 AM on February 22, 2010

I have a decent (not huge, nowhere near $100k) amount of debt from life circumstances (credit card bill due to lack of health insurance and need to buy expensive meds, student loans) and my partner is both debt-free and extremely meticulous about money. And yeah, my debt has been an issue for him, but most important hasn't been that I owe money, but that I take it seriously and am responsibly paying it off. It's taken time to demonstrate that (obviously, it's not something he's really going to "take my word" for), and he's been totally hesitant to discuss *marriage* until I showed that I really do take responsibility for my finances - but in the end, he loves me enough to make it work.

If I weren't paying back my debts or racked up more debt, that would be a deal breaker. If I got a new credit card at this point, I could pretty much expect to be looking for a new place to live as he would interpret this as my being reckless and not taking my current debts seriously.

It's not the debt, it's the person involved and how they're handling it.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:43 AM on February 22, 2010

If it is a question now, it will be a constant argument during dating/marriage. Don't do it. Find someone financially compatable with you. Money is the biggest reason for a breakup/divorce.
posted by stormpooper at 7:23 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just throwing in my 2 cents. While 100k seems like a lot of debt, it is possible that her program was located in an expensive city or she had to do field work in an expensive location.

Could be vanity but maybe not.
posted by k8t at 7:31 AM on February 22, 2010

depends on what kind of PhD. If it's in something kinda useless, then it's not a very sound investment. If she's contributing to humanity with her academic efforts (even if not receiving much monetary compensation) then it's okay.
posted by Neekee at 7:57 AM on February 22, 2010

1) Give everyone three dates.

2) If there are dealbreakers you find out about in that time, or if you just don't like them, then move on.

You want a free lifestyle where you're not tied down so much. So go for someone who has similar values and has made decisions that will allow them to live the way you (both) want to live. Just because what you care about revolves (sort of) around money doesn't make you superficial or bad, and even if it did, who cares - it's your life, lead it how you want, and find someone to do that with you in a way where you're complimentary.
posted by lorrer at 9:00 AM on February 22, 2010

Not getting funding means that you are not (yet) qualified enough to compete. Sensible people in this situation either improve their applications and re-apply another year, or find something else they're better suited for.

This is completely true, but it is not something that programs will tell you. I'm just saying. My program didn't tell me, my friends didn't understand, nobody I knew to ask for advice (and I did ask) was aware of the implications of not getting funding. I found out the hard way that I wasn't qualified enough to continue on that path. I wish they had told me, but it was the nature of the place that professors were too polite to be that frank about it, and having secure tenured jobs themselves, fairly out of touch with the realities that new graduates were facing.

As for this discussion of "vanity" PhD's.. I'm sure that happens, but my experience was that the long, arduous process of doing all the work to finish a PhD program is a hell of a lot of effort for vanity's sake. What I saw was more along the lines of misplaced idealism and sincere, intense interest in the subject, without fully understanding that these two things can't make new jobs in the field appear out of thin air. There are people who just love literature (or philosophy, or history, etc.) and sincerely want to spend their lives teaching and researching in the field, and are strongly qualified to do it, extremely talented at it, and would willingly do this work for a lifetime and for nothing more lavish than a lower than average middle class salary and benefits. And they care enough about this ideal that they don't want to believe the odds are stacked against them.
posted by citron at 2:06 PM on February 22, 2010 [6 favorites]

When you ask about the rationality of your bias, I think it's fairly obvious given the fact that you haven't justified it in any meaningful way (beyond saying "she'll never fully pay it off") that it is irrational. I think you should do some introspecting beyond base materialism as to why you find it to be a turn-off, because you seem to be confusing the worth of a person with the net worth of a person and that's pretty shallow.
posted by tybeet at 10:47 AM on February 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have personal knowledge of a girl with about $100K of debt, who got into a serious relationship with a guy. The guy loved her, but the guy's *family* very specifically did penalize her severely for the debt load. Specifically, the thinking was that why should he ultimately pay for her bad planning. This was exacerbated by a coming inheritance to the guy.

I think everyone eventually got over it because the girl was genuinely a sweetheart, but I'll definitely say it was something people were painfully aware of.
posted by effugas at 1:13 PM on February 24, 2010

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