Monday, 6 September 2010

Auntie Seraphic & "The Debtor"

Dear Auntie Seraphic,

I have a fair bit of debt from my student loans, and some residual debt left from some poor choices I made early in college regarding credit card use (sigh). I work for the Church, so my chances of raking in a large salary to pay it down are slim; I make my payments and the balances shrink, but at a small rate. There is no way in heaven I'll be debt-free before I turn 30. 35, if I'm lucky!

This NYT article made me twinge rather uncomfortably. If I marry, what is mine will be his and what's his is mine. The idea of saddling another person with my debts seems horrible and selfish. (Perhaps I'm projecting; a cousin of mine married a man with a lot of graduate school and credit-card debt, then ended up paying it off herself when he lost his job, and he divorced her soon afterward).

The article advises that the best time to mention one's financial solvency (or lack thereof) is around the eighth or tenth date; what would you say? My fear is that I'll meet a lovely man and fall in love with him, only to have him flee when I explain my situation. Or worse, he'd marry me anyway but his family would always whisper I were some sort of wretched gold-digger who married him for financial security instead of love. Yes, yes, I know that's ridiculous, given that this gentleman is currently hypothetical, but I do worry about it.

The Debtor

Dear Debtor,

Almost everyone I knew in grad school had student loans. I paid off one student loan before I got my M.Div., and now I am paying off my M.Div.-era student loan. My husband is still paying off a student loan. He pays off part of his every month, and I pay off part of mine every month. When mine is paid off, I'll start paying off his, too, or vice versa.

Chances are that any man you meet, if he has been to university, also has student loans. He might have more debt than you. Thinking of your cousin's ghastly story, you might want to ascertain that any man who interests you shares your responsible attitude towards paying down debt. Keep your ears open and notice if suitors flash around credit cards a little too extravagantly. Meanwhile, B.A. and I totalled up our debts when we first started talking about marriage. I think personal finances are not something you seriously delve into until the M word is in the air.

I agree that it is not a comfortable thought, having to tell a man how much debt you have. However, if he is in love with you, he will accept that your debt is something that comes with you. (Just as you will have to accept that his debts are something that come with him.) You can relieve his worries by insisting that you will continue to work to pay it off and that you will never run up a credit card debt again. You can also prove your reponsible attitude by consistently paying down your student loan, even to the extent of increasing your payment whenever you get a raise.

Your debts are nobody's business except yours and your husband's. His family should never know about them; they will not be their business. Goodness knows how much debt they might have themselves.

Finally, most homeowners have a debt to the bank until they are 50 or 60: it's called a mortgage. Most people these days cannot begin to afford a house without a mortgage, just as most students in the USA cannot afford four years of college without a student loan. Houses and education are both investments, and therefore loans taken out to obtain them are not shameful, although having to come up with payments every month can certainly be frightening.

Sadly, debt is something that almost everybody, including the government of the USA, has these days. It is terrible that in the contemporary West, debt is so much a part of daily life. I suspect we are dancing on the lip of a volcano.

And with that sobering thought, happy Labo/u/r Day!

Grace and peace,


theobromophile said...

Great question, lovely response. Absolutely agree that things between couples ought to be kept that way.

I suspect that easy access to divorce and financial support thereafter (alimony, child support, etc.) exacerbates this problem. Marrying for money is even easier when you don't have to stay married to that person - and, here in Massachusetts, can receive alimony for life. Also, the rise of cohabitation doesn't help much, either: a lot of people will think, Just live together and split the bills down the middle.

My pragmatic-ish advice: some second jobs - walking dogs, babysitting, etc - are very low-stress, don't take much time out of your day, and are a nice supplement to you paycheck. With credit-card interest rates being what they are, that couple hundred a month can really cut down on what you'll pay over your lifetime.

Now, American advice for the parents of girls about to go to college or graduate school, or those girls themselves (D., close your eyes since this isn't you): if you want six or ten kids and want to stay at home with them until the youngest is in high school, then do not take on fifty or a hundred thousand dollars of student loan debt. Go to a cheaper undergrad and get a master's from your dream school, work your way through, take a year off in the middle to earn money, go to McGill or Queen's or St. Andrews, get scholarships, or whatever you need to do if your parents aren't paying all of it. Please, just don't lock yourself onto the career-woman treadmill if that's not where you want to be - and debt is a one-way ticket onto that treadmill.

(Seraphic will probably disagree with this advice.)

Seraphic said...

No, I agree with this advice. Few legal things strike me as being more awful than being in debt for 100K at the age of 21. Foreign student fees at a famous Canadian university are less than fees at many a private American college.

(Just don't be surprised that there is no Canadian social hierarchy based on where we go to school. We could not really care less where people go to university. As far as we are concerned, Queen's=St.FX=York= Toronto=Guelph=McGill--although McGill, as the premier ENGLISH university of Quebec, is probably not getting the funding it deserves. I believe it still has "brand-name" cache in the USA, as nobody in the USA seems to check if the reality of "brand-name" schools measures up to the hype.)

The major drawback for American girls is that by spending four years in Canada you run the risk of falling in love with and marrying Canadians. This leads to homesicknesses and buying airline tickets at Christmastime.

fifi said...

I agree with theobromophile that one should count the cost ahead of time. Just make sure you are counting the actual amount that you are certain you will have to take out in loans, not the ticket price of the school. I put myself through, and actually have less than half the debt that my sisters have, because my more expensive, more well-known school was also better endowed. They could even hire people full time to look for grants and independent scholarships for their students. If you're putting yourself through school, don't underestimate the power of good grades... they lead to good scholarships, which lead to good internships, which lead to good jobs.

Speaking of jobs, why is Debtor worried about this before she's even met the man of her dreams? Seems like her singleness is the perfect time to actually do something about the problem: save money! A second job has already been suggested, and I second the motion. You can even get paid for what you love: singing for weddings, selling your crafts on Etsy, painting or yardwork, babysitting kids...

I buy my clothes at thrift stores and on clearance for laughably small sums. I make do with internet from the library and coffee shops rather than paying for it in my home (besides, it's nice to have someplace to go without that distraction). I make my morning coffee rather than buying it, and in the winter time, I wear tons of clothes and keep my heat low. It's surprising how many things are luxuries. Learning how to make food from scratch (or grow it), go without eating out at restaurants, find furniture and household wares at rummage sales, and make do with what you have is a skill that also comes in handy when you have that nice, big family to feed and clothe someday!

theobromophile said...

Seraphic: woo-hoo! I don't have to start my "But... if I had a dollar for every woman I know who took on $100,000 in law school loans but doesn't want to practise law for the next two years, let alone three decades, I wouldn't have my own loans!" rant. :)

Moving right along: love Fifi's ideas!

Also, let me offer this bit of optimism (?): loads of people come into marriage with much more baggage - ex-wives, ex-husbands, children born out of wedlock, children born to the exes, incurable STDs, infertility, anguish from abortion, callousness towards women and babies after an ex-girlfriend had an abortion, alcoholics in their families, alcoholism in their past.... Then there's the stuff that people don't inflict upon themselves; just read "Disabled and Determined"'s letter for an example of that!

Debt really sucks and is nerve-wracking, but can be paid down, and, as Seraphic pointed out, the student loans are an investment in you. Try giving that spin to herpes or an alcoholic father. Or, heck, in Massachusetts, a high-earning second spouse's income can be used to award alimony to the ex. At least a husband's salary would be going to your alma mater, not an ex-husband!