My boyfriend and I are pretty well-matched, financially. We don’t overspend on credit cards, we both have similar credit scores, and in general, our long-term financial priorities are pretty consistent. There’s one major difference, though. Over the next three years, I’m taking on $150,000 in debt to attend law school. My boyfriend, despite being in medical school at the same time, has no debt. And somehow, he loves me anyway.
In many ways, this situation was the best decision for us as a couple. My boyfriend was a med student in San Francisco when I applied. Having already been in a long-distance relationship for three years, we were both fairly certain that unless I ended up in California, we’d break up. My first-choice school (Stanford) was also the best program I got into, and that, coupled with the prospect of being in the same place as my boyfriend, justified choosing it—both professionally and personally—over higher scholarship offers from East Coast schools.
It helped that my boyfriend made clear from very early on that he was in this for the long haul, even if me coming to California meant dealing with a higher debt burden. Despite his support, it’s hard not to feel guilty about the position I’m putting us in — particularly when a lot of my debt is, in some way, selfish debt. I chose this program — and this level of debt — partially because it’s great for the field I want to be in, but also because I knew I’d be happier living in California, where I have friends, family, and my SO (not to mention perpetual sunshine…ugh, the East Coast and its god-awful winters).
I know that — after I graduate — I could do what most top law school graduates do: take a corporate job, start at a $180K salary, and aggressively pay down my debt in a few years. Instead, I’ll be looking for an entry-level position in the public interest fields I’m passionate about, where salaries are more in the range of $50K to 60K a year. And by the nature of the work I’ll be doing, my chosen career path will always keep us in pricey cities like New York or DC, instead of moving somewhere affordable where paying the debt off might be easier. Most of these tradeoffs are choices that make me happy — both professionally and personally — over choices to minimize debt.
There are rationalizations, of course. The first rationalization is that I’m certain I’ll do more good in the world this way than I would by going the corporate firm route; the second is that my chosen school has the best loan repayment program of any of the schools that I was accepted into. As long as I work in the public interest field and make below a certain salary (90K), my law school will, on a 10-year schedule, repay all my loans, including undergraduate and joint-degree debt. And these repayments are completely independent of the federal loan repayment program, which takes a lot of uncertainty out of the equation.
The catch? Once you get married, your spouse’s income is combined with your income, which means that as soon my boyfriend finishes residency and starts making a doctor’s salary, the program support will end. I’ll be staring down thousands of dollars in loan payments per month while still earning the same, relatively low salary as before. This means that, no matter what, there will come a time in a few years where my boyfriend will end up — directly or not — paying off my debt. Hypothetically, even if my loan payments came 100% out of my own salary (not his), that still means I’m not contributing a big pool of money to our shared expenses. And the egalitarian in me seriously balks at the idea of vacations I don’t pay for, meals out I can’t go Dutch on, and renting an apartment I couldn’t afford on my own.
My boyfriend and I are lucky, much more than most. We don’t need to worry all that much about the pragmatics of paying off my debt. I’m taking on this debt to be at a top program with excellent job placement records which, in my opinion, is worth it. And, in terms of the actual debt, either my school will pay it off or my boyfriend’s stable, high-earning job will help me pay it off without sacrificing too much of my quality of life. That’s an incredible privilege most people don’t have. Even more personally, I know I am incredibly lucky that my boyfriend still wants a future with me when so many others would balk at setting up a life with someone who’s about to go into as much debt as I am.
The real issue is: as much as I rationalize it, I feel tremendous guilt that my choice to do what I love means that I’ll need my boyfriend’s help to pay my debt off. I feel guilt, no matter how supportive he is of the idea.
I’ve always worked to stand on my own feet, financially, because I learned really early that funding your own life means you aren’t accountable to anyone else for your life choices. My independence is a huge source of personal pride — whether it was paying for the bulk of my Ivy League college tuition through hustling for scholarships and part-time work, or scrimping like crazy to fund my own twice-a-year travel without ever incurring an overdraft.
The consequence of my financial independence is that I make no apologies for how I spend my money. And my boyfriend, despite always having had more money than me, is fundamentally a very frugal person at heart — the sort of person who likes taking trips abroad, but prefers hole-in-the-wall street dining to fancy restaurants, the guy who uses the last moldy head of broccoli in his fridge instead of giving up and throwing it out (like I would). And while we’re fundamentally both good with managing our respective finances, I feel like I’m generally the one who spends more on stuff, whether it’s buying clothes more often or wanting to eat out more frequently.
Between graduating college a few years ago and now, earning my own salary (even a small one) gave me a level of agency over my money I’d never experienced before. Yes, it was an incentive to save money and spend less on crap, but it also gave me a life where I didn’t need to justify my financial decisions to anyone. So, if my decisions meant saving up for a pre-law-school backpacking trip or treating myself to a nice dinner out after a tough week at work, my money was my own; the times that I diverged from my boyfriend’s frugal spending mentality, I never felt guilty, or that I owed him an explanation for my money.
There’s a certain freedom that comes with being an equal financial contributor to your relationship: the ability to invest or save or spend your money the way you see fit without apologies. This freedom changes when you are not only being out-earned (by four or five times) by your partner, but also when you’re the one bringing all the debt into the marriage. As loving, as supportive, as wonderful as my boyfriend is, I can’t imagine the same ease in buying myself the new suit I’ve been eyeing or justifying a Seamless lunch over a packed meal. Even if those purchases are things we can afford, those indulgences are taking away from money that could have gone to paying my loans off.
My spending guilt extends to other things, too. All these adult decisions — a big wedding, our first house, having kids — they’re all going to be farther out of our reach because of my debt hanging over our heads. Part of the reason my boyfriend’s family is paying for his medical education is specifically because they didn’t want the sort of debt most medical students have to weigh down his choices. But, by marrying me, he’ll have that weight anyway. Moreover, my debt is a direct consequence of my following my dreams over being “pragmatic” —something that’s made easier because of my partner’s stable, guaranteed source of income.
My dependence on my boyfriend’s future income inhibits him from taking risks and pursuing his passions in his own way. He loves flying planes and policy work, but taking a sabbatical to pursue either may not be a possibility because of the constraints my debt puts on him. He wants kids a lot more than I do, but the reality is he might not be able to take a step back from work to stay home with them (as he’s sometimes discussed wanting to do) if he’s the primary bread-winner. It’s hard for two people to follow their dreams in one relationship, but even harder when one of them brings a mortgage’s worth of debt into the relationship.
At the end of the day, perhaps the only constructive way to deal with these fears is to be honest about them. I don’t worry that I’ll ever be “sponsored” by my husband. But in some sense, my ability to pursue a career I love over one that pays my bills is something that feels distinctly “un-feminist” to me. Working in social justice is frequently (ironically) a financial privilege because it remains a field where it’s socially acceptable for salaries to be low. In order to both stay in the field and maintain a decent standard of living in a city like New York or DC, it helps — enormously — to have a partner whose salary can pay the bills.
But still. There’s something to be said for the fact that my boyfriend and I are both at top programs in our respective fields, that we graduated from the same Ivy League, that we’ve both spent near-equal (exorbitant) amounts of money on our education…despite all those things, he’ll almost always make a lot more money than I will. I’ll almost always have more debt. By default, if we have kids, I’ll be the one taking a step back from my career, because we can probably function without my salary, but not without his. I’m choosing the school I love and the field I’m passionate about without giving up any of my other life goals, like eventually owning an apartment, because my boyfriend’s salary will make those goals possible.
And yes, I rationalize this with the idea that even without my boyfriend in the picture, I’d have made all the same choices. I’m confident that even with no partner in the picture, I’d be able to pay off my loans myself because of the excellent loan repayment program at my chosen school (though owning the apartment would probably never happen). If I wasn’t entirely sure that I’d make the repayments happen on my own, I’d never let another person share the responsibility. And part of the reason my boyfriend is willing to take this on is that in every other respect, I’m good at managing my money, I generally make good financial choices, and I can be trusted to do so going down the line. And that mutual respect is a good place to be at when you’re on such an unequal footing.
Things can change. In three years, I could be writing a defensive piece about how choosing corporate law was the feminist choice for my relationship. But maybe not. I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that the price tag for “following my dreams” is $150,000. And while I’m confident that, if I had to, I could pay it on my own, the reality is that my boyfriend will probably end up paying it off, even if indirectly. And taking that financial help doesn’t make me less of a feminist, or a “kept woman,” or even financially-dependent.
I’m not confident our debit inequality is ever a dynamic I’ll be 100% comfortable with. But in the meantime, all I can really do is have a backup plan, be as self-reliant as possible in every other way, and be honest — with myself, with him, and with the people around me — about the privilege that enables my choices.
Meghan Koushik is a cheese enthusiast and law student in California. You can find her on Instagram.
Image via Unsplash