By the end of this year, six years after completing my undergraduate degree and just a few months after completing my masters, my student loans will be paid off. This accomplishment is thanks to both support from my parents and consistent loan repayment while I earned my masters for free by working for the university.
Though I’m thrilled to be in this debt-free position, there is one caveat: my boyfriend’s six-figure student debt. His situation is not uncommon; millennials today have 300% more student debt than their parents did. But that doesn’t make it feel any less terrifying and debilitating. With monthly payments hovering around $800 that barely seem to chip a pebble off his mountain of debt, it’s hard for him not to feel crushed under the weight of this burden.
Because we plan to get engaged this year, his debt has become a very real part of my financial future — a future I hadn’t planned for before meeting him. It has taken the length of our two-year relationship for me to organize my thoughts and adjust my expectations. Here are some ways my boyfriend and I have made peace with this reality:
1. Talk it out
This particular piece of wisdom has been doled out over and over again because it’s seriously good advice. The first step in coming to terms with any struggle is to talk openly about it. Money is a touchy subject, and it is especially touchy for my boyfriend, who felt both ashamed and embarrassed about his debt. When he elaborated on his feelings, I was able to assuage his fears and grow closer to him because of it. Once his pent-up emotions were no longer simmering under the surface, we were able to talk practically about how we will manage his debt in the present and future. Since then, we continue to check-in and talk honestly about what our budgets look like and how we can help each other.
2. Crunch the numbers
Once you are in a place where your partner is comfortable sharing the specifics of their income and expenses with you (and vice versa), it’s time to paint yourselves a clear picture. For us, that meant creating a budget spreadsheet that details exactly what we earn and what we pay for each month. We also create individual budgets for major events, such as our upcoming move, vacations and holidays. We decided where we need to save and where we are willing to splurge, which may change as we get older. For now, we have cut costs in areas like cable (in favor of internet-only), rent, and clothing (okay, that one is mostly for me). We are willing to splurge on things like much-needed new furniture and short trips throughout the year. Once our budget and priorities were written down in black and white, we immediately felt more secure knowing that we have a thoughtful plan of attack.
3. Spend with intention
Turns out, a budget is only effective if you actually stick to it. For me, this means being intentional about how and where I spend my money, which is an important financial lesson regardless of how much debt you have. I practice this by limiting my impulse purchases, frequently cooking at home instead of going out, and maintaining running wish lists of things I want but don’t need right now. I’ve found that if I mentally shop before I actually shop, it saves me an enormous amount of time and money. For instance, each Sunday, I draft a grocery list that includes only the exact items I need for that week. By thinking through precisely what meals I plan to make and when I plan to eat them, I don’t end up buying food I’ll never consume (which is also money I’ll never get back). The same goes for non-food items, like home décor and clothing. I make lists of what I want and/or need and purchase those things slowly, as my budget allows.
4. Get on with your life
After you lay everything bare, it’s time to start living. At the end of the day, your financial situation is what it is (unless you suddenly win the lottery). No amount of dwelling, stewing, or perseverating will change your reality, nor will it make you feel any better. Be kind to yourself, trust that you have done what you can do, and congratulate yourself for putting on your grown-up pants. Don’t throw caution to the wind and rip up your budget in a manic fit of whimsy, but don’t deny yourself simple pleasures just because you feel like you can’t possibly spare a cent as you pay down your debt. At the risk of sounding like a cliché, you only get one chance to live your life. Don’t waste years of it punishing yourself because a broken system saddled you with student debt.
5. Keep dreaming
Don’t let big debt hinder your big dreams. Several times a week, my boyfriend and I theorize about what our future will look like. We imagine the trips we will take, the house we will live in and the careers we will have. We let our wildest dreams become possible within those sacred conversations, without fear of how much we will be able to afford or how long it will take to save. I’m a firm believer that if you want something enough, you will inevitably do what it takes to achieve it. So give yourself permission to imagine your future, without sacrificing your happiness in the present.
Samantha Tischler is a twenty-something writer and event planner in Cleveland. She spends her free time eating pasta, petting cats, and self-diagnosing via WebMD.
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