Money Talks: one spouse had student loans, the other paid it all off

Welcome to Money Talks, a new series in which we interview people about their relationships with money, their relationships with each other, and how those relationships inform one another.

Meet Caroline and Nick, a married couple in their 30s who live in a metropolitan city on the East Coast. Nick works in finance, and Caroline is self-employed. Their differing relationships with money (Nick’s family had it; Caroline grew up middle-class) came up early in their relationship. When Caroline graduated from grad school, she had $60,000 of student debt, and she proudly chipped away at it for years. Nick had none, and a few years into their relationship, he inherited eight figures — that’s multimillions — of family money. One month after their wedding, Nick paid off the remaining $21,000 of Caroline’s debt with a single payment.

It brought up a lot of complicated questions: Could Caroline still say that she paid her way through college if her husband actually paid for a third of it? What did it say about her as a wife if she accepted her husband’s offer to pay for her? When is it okay for your partner to step in and pay your student loan debt? And how would it affect their relationship — and her career — going forward?

Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Caroline: I come from a pretty squarely middle-class family and I had my first job before high school, so for me, my relationship with money was this idea that you work really, really hard and just scrape your way through. I worked pretty much a full-time job while I went to college, and I took out loans. I didn’t have that typical college experience because I was working so much.

Nick: I grew up in an upper-class family, but I had a pretty normal life. My parents were divorced when I was very little, so we grew up with my mom, and her family had no money. I never had to worry about anything, but it wasn’t by any means an extravagant, luxurious childhood. I feel like our kid is probably going to have a more luxurious childhood than I had, for sure. But I came into some family money when my grandfather passed away, and my grandmother passed away later on. So now I have a bit more money than I did growing up.

Caroline: I think one of the key differences is that my parents are also divorced, but in my parents’ divorce, we almost lost our house, my father went bankrupt, and I’ve been anxious about money since I was in middle school. Whereas, Nick, I think it’s fair to say that you never had to think about it. When I was applying to colleges, I was only applying to places where I had any shot at scholarships and financial aid. And that probably didn’t even cross your mind.

Nick: No, it didn’t.

Caroline: When we started dating, I’m sure he heard my personal narrative of, “I worked my way through school. I got my first job at 14.” That’s very much a pride point for me. But when we met, he was in grad school and I had a full-time job, so I initially assumed that I had more money, even though my student loan payments were $600 a month. I think I paid for our second date because I was like, “Oh, my god, he’s in grad school, I can’t make him pay for our date.” And I was making, like, $85,000 — it wasn’t like I was rolling in it!

Nick: In the beginning, we were splitting stuff. Part of dating and having money was always wanting to make sure that if I was dating somebody, it was for me and not money, so I liked that kind of egalitarian feel within the relationship. But once we moved in together, I certainly started covering more and more of the expenses.

Then once Caroline said she wanted to go out on her own instead of work at a fairly well-paying salary job, I wanted her to pursue that versus be unhappy in some job. I think at that point, I started paying more and more of the bills and letting her contribute what seemed appropriate or fair at the time. That was something I liked about her, too, at that point, that she wanted to contribute to our household together and our family now. She’s never just like, you owe me everything, you can pay for everything.

Caroline: Nick grew up with money, but it was nothing compared to the money he has now, and he certainly didn’t have control over any of that. I’ve never registered it in my brain as jealousy per se, but there has been a feeling. I think in any relationship, it’s kind of natural to want your partner to empathize with you, like, “This person gets me, this person knows what I’m going through or what I’ve been through,” and when it comes to money, we just do not have that common ground. That’s not Nick’s fault.

For instance, there have been times when college comes up, and he talks about studying abroad and partying with his friends and having an amazing time, and I’m like, “Must have been nice!” College was one of the most stressful periods of my life. I stressed about money on a daily basis. I was not partying; I was working. So I guess there might be a little bit of jealousy there.

But at the same time, and Nick says this too, I came out of college and my 20s really strong. I know my success is my own. I truly clawed my way through that period of my life, with no connections, almost no money, and lots of hustle. In a weird way, Nick sometimes seems — I don’t want to say jealous, but he respects that. He respects that nobody was doing me favors. In the world he grew up in, which I imagine is common in most or many wealthy circles, that’s how a lot of people get their success. Everybody’s pulling strings for each other.

Nick: There were a couple reasons [I decided to pay off Caroline’s student debt]. The first is because Caroline is spectacularly hardworking and if anybody deserved that, it was her. She had no off-switch when it came to work. And second, in our relationship, we were at a time where she was constantly working and constantly stressed about paying those bills even though she had enough money. If your partner is really stressed, that enters into the relationship as well. I thought it would also bring a bit more peace and harmony into our marriage.

Caroline: I wasn’t expecting [him to do it]. We talked about it before we got married and then he said that was something he wanted to do, and I was like, “Oh, wow, okay.” It was a little bit like this dream thing. I still had $21,000 left, and it would have taken me years at the rate that I was paying them off to keep doing that. A month after we got married, we just logged on to the site, he entered his card info, and literally paid it off in one click.

I was incredibly grateful for it, but it was also kind of surreal. I had been logging on to that website for nine years at that point, every month, trying to chip away. To see him be able to go on and in just one click make that number go to zero was, I don’t even know how to describe it. It was a relief. In one second, all that debt and all the stress and anxiety that went with it was gone.

But there is this other part, which is a really weird part — and I think this speaks to someone who’s had a complicated relationship with money — is this idea that part of my identity was gone. I felt, and I still sort of feel a couple years later, like I can’t say that I paid my way through school because actually, my husband paid off a third of my debt. Is that part of me gone?

To a certain degree, it is. And to a certain degree, it’s not. It doesn’t take away the fact that I used to stack all my classes in college on Tuesdays and Thursdays, 9 am to 9 pm, all day and night, so I could work the other days of the week. That doesn’t go away, but it’s very different to go from someone who felt like she paid her own way to, not only did someone pay the bills off for me, my husband paid them off for me.

[It’s changed] the way I feel about work.

Nick: You’re a little bit more selective. You were doing a lot of things you didn’t really like, or in retrospect, you probably wouldn’t have done had you not had student debt. And also I took over our health insurance.

Caroline: It wasn’t just the student loan debt. It was everything.

Nick: Combined, you had some kind of an inner psyche telling you, “I have to work, work, work,” even though you were accumulating savings. You weren’t living hand to mouth or anything, but you definitely felt like, “I have to be making money.” And I feel like after we got married, a couple things happened. I was paying more bills, but when I also paid off the student loan and the insurance, you definitely became more selective, like, “I’m going to do jobs that are meaningful.”

Caroline: If the situation were reversed, I would have done it in a heartbeat. I fell in love with Nick long before I knew he had money, long before I knew his family had money, and years before this sort of financial windfall came his way. When we met, there was nothing about him that made me think, “I’m going to marry this guy and he’s going to pay off all my bills.”

But I do worry about people finding out. I worry that people will view me as a Stepford type. I look at some of the people I went to school with — I went to an expensive private university, and I took out loans and got scholarships to go there — and some of my friends who had wealth had things handed to them. And now I feel like to a certain degree, I’m the one who’s had things handed to me.

Nick laughs sometimes because we’d be at events that were kind of fancy, and I would find a way to interject that I went to public school, that I wasn’t from this expensive city that we live in. That I was from this other place. I’m hardly from the school of hard knocks — I grew up in a very cute little suburb! My parents are lovely people! It’s just a shift in my identity, for sure.

If you have a compelling story about how money comes into play in one of your relationships — whether with a partner, a friend, a sibling, a coworker, or what have you — we want to hear about it! Email alanna.okun@vox.com and karen.turner@vox.com with a little about yourself.