Stern Advice - For richer or poorer, with student loans or without

NEW YORK Wed May 7, 2014 12:16pm EDT

NEW YORK May 7 (Reuters) - Young marriage is lovely, but it has always carried its own challenges of adjustment and maturation. But newlyweds of the millennial generation face another layer of stress: an unprecedented amount of student debt, and in particular, unequal loads of it.

The average 2012 graduate finished with $29,400 in debt, according to a study released Wednesday by the Institute for College Access & Success, an advocacy and research group. But there is still a divide among graduates. The institute found that almost 30 percent of 2012 grads emerged debt free.

That sets the stage for a lot of big-debt/no-debt romances, and if you don't think that can stress a fledgling love affair, you're more naive than most of those starry-eyed betrotheds.

But love and careful accounting can conquer all. Here is how to manage lopsided student debt.

- Don't fight about it. The most common cause of strife in marriage is money. Cut those arguments off at the pass by agreeing that the debt burden is shared and working on a budget that allows you to pay it off together over time. "Remember that you cannot divide and conquer in a relationship. You can't say 'that's your problem' to a spouse," says Jeff Harman, a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, consumer debt counselor. Commit to not using the debt as a wedge next time you're disagreeing about something else.

- Don't necessarily aim to pay off the debt as quickly as possible. Instead, discuss your family goals and your cash flow, Harman says. You may decide to stretch out low-interest college debt payments over a longer period to keep them as low as possible, while you save for a down payment on a house, buy a necessary car or pay off other higher-interest debt. Save on things you don't care as much about, like new spring clothes or lunches out, so that you'll have enough money for both the student loan payments and the winter snow-boarding weekend.

- Consider career counseling. Unequal debt can be a bigger problem when there is also disproportionate income leaning the same way. If one spouse is stuck with a lot of debt and a liberal arts diploma that isn't paying off in the job market, the couple can invest in a plan that will move that spouse to a higher-paying job, says Michael Eisenberg, a Los Angeles certified public accountant and financial planning specialist. That could mean a couple of additional courses, or simply a deep analysis of how existing skills can be repurposed towards a more lucrative career.

- Work with your parents. Some kindly and well-heeled parents may want to help you kill the debt early so you can buy a house or start giving them grandchildren. Others will turn pure snark, saying, "Why did you marry that deadbeat anyway?" Know your parents, and if they are the first type, work out a plan that will let them help you get ahead without depending upon them entirely, recommends Eisenberg.

If they are not nice to your debt-ridden spouse, don't let them join the student-loan conversation. They may still be able to help with gifts to the grandchildren or some such. In either case, cautions Eisenberg, parents shouldn't help unless they have their own needs and retirement budgets met.

- Learn the rules. When one spouse brings debt into a marriage, that debt remains exclusively his or hers, and not the debt of the spouse, even in joint property states, explains Persis Yu, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. Of course, couples who are planning a long-term future still have to pay off that debt together. But it does affect some situations: If the indebted spouse has a bad credit report and a low salary, the more solid spouse may end up having to apply for a mortgage alone. If the couple need the income of the indebted spouse to qualify for a loan, their first priority might be cleaning up that credit report and enough of that debt to get the loan.

- Do the taxes twice. There is one situation in which a couple's joint finances will affect their debt burdens. If an indebted spouse is trying to reduce monthly payments on federal student loans through an income-based repayment program, the feds will consider the income of both spouses in setting those payments - if they file a joint tax return.

In that situation, Yu recommends that couples figure out their taxes twice: as a couple filing jointly and as a couple filing separate returns. They should then compare their prospective loan payments under both scenarios and decide which one provides the best bottom line. (The U.S. Department of Education provides a repayment estimator: here)

By filing jointly, they may pay less in taxes and more in loan payments. "It means a lot of math for people but there a lot of ways to figure it out," she said. (Linda Stern is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are her own. The Stern Advice column appears weekly, and at additional times as warranted. Linda Stern can be reached at linda.stern@thomsonreuters.com; She tweets at www.twitter.com/lindastern .; Read more of her work at blogs.reuters.com/linda-stern; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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