How My Debt-Free Boyfriend & I Are Dealing With My $150,000 Debt

dating

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

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  • Anon

    Have you considered putting off legally marrying him until the debt repayment kicks in? You could have a wedding ceremony and do the legal thing years later.

    But, also, I lived in NYC on 30k for 7 years while getting a phd and still managed to save for retirement. Honestly, with no debt and a doctor’s salary you two could live totally comfortably on your salary alone for 2-3 years, throw everything he makes – which I assume will be 100k+ – at your debt, and call it a day in pretty short order. I don’t think this is a particularly big problem for you.

  • Keisha

    If he’s in it for the long haul, has he proposed? If you were so close to breaking up (you mention that it was understood that if you didn’t move to cali you’d have broken up), how can you also be so close to this super defined future? I think it’s totally great and normal for serious couples to make these plans, but what’s the backup plan for if you two do break up over the next few years, despite the plans? You acknowledge that it’s a possibility but seem wary of exploring it. And I’m with Anon, maybe put off the legal married bit if you can (unless it’s wicked important to y’all)! Kudos to you for having these tough money/love talks with your man and best of luck!

    • Will

      I think it’s pretty clear what the backup plan is – If she doesn’t have to combine her salary with her boyfriend’s, then the law school will pay of all of her loans in 10 years.

    • meghan

      Hey Keisha! Thanks for reading/commenting! First off, that paragraph may not have been the best explanation. We weren’t “close to breaking up” because of doubts about our relationship or anything like that– just that we both felt that as wonderful as things were between us, seven full years of an LDR through med and law school respectively would be untenable. In order to justify choosing a CA school with likely more debt over an East Coast school with less, I wanted to be certain that we were in this for the long-term, and that accordingly, my boyfriend was comfortable with dealing with my proportionately higher debt as a couple. So it did mean a bunch of big conversations and definite answers about long-term commitment in making that decision. And the answer to all those things was unequivocally yes. We’re very much fully committed, though for other reasons not formally engaged (yet!).

      And as Will said– my backup plan in the event we break up (which, hopefully unlikely!) is that my law school’s loan repayment program will kick in and pay off my debt. I wouldn’t have made my boyfriend part of this financial discussion if we weren’t both personally sure we wanted to get married eventually, and as I said in the piece, I definitely wouldn’t have let someone else in on this if I wasn’t certain that if I had to, I could pay it off on my own in some way. Hope that makes sense!

      • Keisha

        Totally makes sense, best of luck to y’all! I love reading how people in serious relationships handle financial talks. There’s a big difference between what me and my boyfriend make so at first it was a daunting thing to bring up. With money you’re always worried about ~stepping on toes~ (or egos). I find it gets easier though and the financial transparency is so good for relationships. Thanks for sharing how you handle it!

  • hey_queen

    I see a lot of women saddling themselves with what I consider unecessary guilt. If you want to pursue a lower paying career, that doesn’t make you a “kept” woman or lessen your worth. And to be completely honest, if you’re educated and want to be a kept woman, why is that a huge issue? I don’t understand the push against having your significant other/husband help to pay down your debt. What’s the evil in that?

    • Mj D’Arco

      it’s anti feminist! (eye roll)

  • blanca

    I can relate to your situation. My boyfriend of over three years is 100% debt free, but I am not. I’m carrying about $80,000 in student loans. I currently earn $28,000/year and he earns about $60,000/year. Our short term solution is to move in together once our separate leases end next summer. He intends on paying for the vast majority of our living expenses, so long as I can focus on putting the vast majority of my income towards paying down debt. We’re putting off legal marriage, due to the revised PAYE plan some of my federal loans are on, which takes full household income into account. We don’t want his income to affect my payment plan or share debt repayment in any way. However — his way of “helping” is by covering my major living expenses like rent, utilities, and groceries.

  • Tom

    As a Stanford Law alum getting married to a Stanford Med alum, we have a similar story. And similar debt loads. And frankly, a similarly high level of privilege. And since we’re both gay men, I acknowledge we don’t have the (valid!) concern about reinforcing outdated gender roles. (By the way, you’ll love Rhode’s Gender Law and Policy class.)

    But you’ll have plenty of options. You could take a couple of $35,000 summer associate positions at law firms, and reduce your debt accordingly. (It may also reduce your financial aid.) There are external scholarships — I got a $20,000 one which helped a lot. It’s not onerous to work 10-15 hours a week as a 2L and 3L, and campus jobs pay $20-30/hour. You could delay marriage. Or it’s really not unreasonable to take that BigLaw salary for awhile, get what I found to be incredible experience, and I found it easy to keep lifestyle inflation somewhat in check with a partner still in medical school/residency. (And a BigLaw job can be more easily secured around your partner’s residency, which he may or may not have very much control over — get ready for Match Day!)

    And, after all, “partnership” implies that you two are in it together. You don’t have the privilege of a family who can or will pay for graduate school, and he does. He’s sharing some of his privilege with you by taking your debt on as part of the relationship. And that’s what partnership is about.

    • Lauren

      NYU law current student here — for some of the loan assistance programs, including NYU’s, if you do take a corporate summer position, you have to put a certain percentage of the $30k towards your next year’s tuition, or else the loan assistance program won’t cover that part of it. I spent a half hour on the phone with our financial aid office making them go over the fine print with me to make sure I didn’t mess it up. I did end up going the $180k corporate route, because I decided that I wouldn’t be able to devote myself fully to public service like I want to with the stress of money hanging over my head. I wanted to get my own affairs sorted and pay down my debt before taking the salary cut and going public interest. But I did spent a LOT of time thinking about doing the loan repayment program. Good luck for your 1L year!!

    • meghan

      Tom (and @disqus_rpy4OrfFSI:disqus) thanks for these perspectives–it’s always so helpful to hear from people with similar situations! Tom, like you said, I’ve been doing a lot of searching into potential ways to ameliorate the debt in school, whether it’s looking for other external scholarships or TA-ing/working on campus. Unfortunately, as Lauren brought up, earning money in school (through SA positions and the like) does seem to have a pretty big impact on your financial aid award, so it’s definitely a bit of a tricky trade-off between doing what I can to bring that debt down without otherwise putting my financial aid at too much risk!

      And yes, Match Day is a whole new beast that I’m really not looking forward to dealing with– so the potential benefits of a corporate job definitely extend past the $$ in that situation as well. Thanks for reading!

  • Anon Commenter

    I really enjoy the articles you write Meghan, they are all well thought out.

    But you (and other recent authors) could be way less self-deprecating. ( @ “And somehow, he loves me anyway.”) I’ve noticed a trend of writers, who happen to be in relationships with partners who make more than they do and feel guilty about it.

    While I know that’s not what these writers probably think, it all comes off as being grateful that someone would still choose to be with them despite the debt/lower income. And that to me, is somewhat sad?

    Anecdotally, pretty much all of the guys I’ve dated preferred to make more money than I do. Whenever I’ve made more money (more than half of the time), it created a bit of friction.

    And with my current bf, while I bring (slightly) less earning power to the table, I bring a lot of support and emotional labor to the table that he benefits from – even if its not quantifiable in terms of money.

    • meghan

      Thanks Anon. I think you’ve got it exactly right– pretty often, it is a mix of guilt and gratefulness for me because I’ve seen (or heard of) so many other cases where major debt has been a dealbreaker in a relationship. Even in our case, I’ve had friends remark on multiple occasions how great my boyfriend is for putting up with the amount of debt I have. (and he is!) You’re right that feeling this way is absolutely sad, and still something I’m working to get over. What makes it hard for me is that sometimes it feels like society is very much out there to shame you for the debt you’ve accrued– either questioning your choices, or talking about how you could avoid taking on debt by doing XX– just look at some of the comments on previous TFD pieces I’ve written 🙂 It’s at a point where being in a lot of debt is frequently seen as a moral failing, even if there’s a great reason for taking it on in the first place. Even on TFD– there was an article at some point that talked about why the author refused to marry anyone with student debt, and reading it really stuck with me for all the wrong reasons; mostly that so much of the reasoning was stuff I’ve worried, at one point or another, that my boyfriend (or his family) has thought about me, even if that’s not the case.

      Of course everyone is within their rights to end a relationship over an amount of debt they aren’t comfortable with, but the societal stigma against people in debt is also a real thing. I am incredibly grateful that it hasn’t impacted my relationship, but I’m also very conscious that if I ever had to date again, it might come up as a problem. You’re totally right that there are so many aspects of a relationship that can’t be quantified in $$, and I try as much as I can to concentrate on that– but it’s still definitely something I deal with every day!

  • Jessica

    I would really love to have this problem: “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.” My dream is to work for a non-profit, but in my field that requires a lot of experience, in fact every entry-level job asks for 2-3 years of experience 😐 My boyfriend and I talk about money and our future often, but he bought our condo and pays $1000 compared to me paying $700 per month towards the mortgage. If my school was willing to give me free money to do the job I love, I would jump at that chance! Marriage doesn’t need to happen when you are young…I would gladly wait at least 5-10 years to marry the man I love if it meant being happily employed and having my school pay down my debts. My school could care less if I have a job, and I’m on my third round of OSAP repayment assistance because I don’t earn enough money to pay back my loans. With my current earning potential, it is going to take me 6-8 years to pay off my $60,000 student dept…and in one year my boyfriend plans to buy an income property. This article kind of makes me mad because you are so lucky to have the options that you do. You can be a common-law couple, work a job you love, buy a house, and start a family while your school pays down your debt.

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