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James* and I met three years ago, when we were both 24 living the post-college life in Austin, Texas. He was the perfect guy for me: tall, dark, lanky and a feminist to boot.
We fell in love fast, in large part because we had so many things in common. We’re both night owls, and we love reading. We spend our weekends hiking and cooking, and we’ve watched every episode of "New Girl" together.
Oh, and we both had a pile of student loan and credit card debt we were ignoring. We were open about owing money, but we didn’t get into the numbers — mainly because neither of us felt a pressing urge to do anything about it. In those early months, being together in the present seemed more important than addressing the financial future. Debt could wait, we figured.
My Debt Payoff Sprint
About five months into our relationship, that started to change. Things with James were wonderful, but I was broke, underemployed and unsure of what I was doing with my life. I worked two very part-time jobs, and my unstructured time started to consume me. When my deferment ended in August, my loan payments hit $300 a month.
I like to call the next two years my payoff sprint. I crushed a large amount of debt in a small amount of time. By my side the whole time was James. While he worked regular hours at an environmental nonprofit, I took on various side gigs. He'd give me foot rubs when I finally came home at night, knowing how hard I was working. He was also happy to swap expensive nights out with a home-cooked meal and Netflix.
When we had our first anniversary in 2015, I thought to myself, I could build something with this man. And secretly, I was hoping that my actions would inspire him to crush his own debt too.
Standing His Ground
But that’s not what happened. Seven months into our relationship, right after I’d paid off one of my loans, we were making scrambled eggs in my kitchen. I told him about the milestone, and after he congratulated me he remarked, "I’ll never do that. I’m taking my $50K to the grave."
My heart almost stopped. Fifty grand, and he’s in no rush to pay it down? I asked him about it. He explained that the $150 he forks over a month is enough for now, and that being debt-free by his mid-30s was acceptable for his life goals. He wants to build a career in the nonprofit world, spend some time traveling and eventually own a home. For him, his current payoff rate is not a barrier to those things.
I tried to motivate him to think differently, often by referencing some of our friends who had repaid their loans. One time I excitedly told him, “So-and-so paid off $25,000 in debt last year, saving herself almost $5,000 in interest. That’s a trip to Southeast Asia!” He replied, “Wow, good for her! It’s incredible she could do it,” leaving it at that.
It's been two years, and we've circled back to the payoff conversation many times. James is responsible about his debt. He pays what he has to. But he isn't interested in unloading all of it sooner rather than later, the way I was. Unfortunately, this is a point of tension in our relationship. My mindset is: "You can do it if you just focus!" His mindset is: "Just because my timeline is different doesn’t mean it’s worse."
We both love each other, and we’re committed to being together. Yet money is an umbrella issue, one that breaks up a lot of couples. Will this debt be a problem if we decide to get married? What does the future look like for two people so far apart on a financial issue?
Seeking Outside Help
With these questions lingering in my mind, I decided to speak to a counselor about my situation. Shellee Henson is a financial therapist who helps couples communicate about money. I hoped that her expertise would help ease my worries and strengthen my bond with James.
In a phone session, I told her our story. “Be open to his money style,” was Henson’s first piece of advice. “People decide what works for them and it becomes a rule. You have to let go of that with your partner. His style isn’t bad, it’s just different.” While it may seem obvious, that advice was valuable. Taking a step back and realizing that different is not synonymous with bad was critical for me.
I asked Henson the best way to discuss money with a partner, so I could talk to James about debt again without him thinking I was nagging him. She said she advises her clients to use "I" statements. For example, I should say to James, “I struggled with financial insecurity, and debt is reminiscent of that,” so that he knows where exactly my aversion to debt comes from.
Henson added that clarifying my mindset was critical. “Explain why debt means so much to you, and how it fits into long-term goals," she said. It’s a matter of making sure each partner knows how the other deals with debt, and finding the point where they can both be comfortable with their different styles.
I tried Henson’s advice a few weeks ago, bringing up debt with James as we were washing dishes after dinner. I explained what kind of future I want to build with my money, and I shared that debt makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. James shared that he values living in the present, and doesn’t want to think only of the future. Again, we found ourselves aligned on long-term goals, but differing on short-term actions to get there.
Facing Our Financial Future
These days, we're both still sticking to our own ways of handling debt, and I'm fine with that. We always give each other a chance to explain our own feelings, and we've set a precedent for revisiting the issue in the future.
It comes down to this: While James and I are totally open about money, we’re simply in different places. He knows where I stand, and too much focus on it makes him feel anxious. We both know that this is something we’ll need to compromise on if we're really going to spend forever together. Neither one of us wants to break up, but neither one of us wants to change our money mindset.
For now, we don’t combine finances, and we’re each working toward our own goals. We’re in a healthy, happy relationship, and we communicate well. When the day comes to sit down and decide exactly what our future is, I'm confident that we’ll be able to talk it through and come to the right compromise.
*Name has been changed