ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Two-thirds of college graduates now leave school in debt, an average of about $25,000, but many owe a lot more than that. That burden can affect career choices, living arrangements and another key part of young adult life, dating and marriage.
NPR's Jennifer Ludden explains.
JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: A few years ago, Rachel Bingham grew serious with a guy she met online. After four months of emailing and phoning, he came for a visit and then he broke up with her. Among his reasons, her $80,000 in student loan debt.
RACHEL BINGHAM: He said it scared him, that it just really made him anxious and he just did not want to take on my responsibility and I had never asked him to.
LUDDEN: Bingham's an art teacher in Maine and says she's been very responsible, diligently making her loan payments.
BINGHAM: I was really floored at the time because I just didn't consider that as a reason for someone to not be with someone else. I felt it was very shallow.
LUDDEN: Bingham is now engaged to a man who's not scared off by her debt, but it turns out her ex was far from alone. At Nerve.com, a pop culture dating website, Caitlin Caven writes the advice column, Miss Information. She heard recently from a woman wary of a serious relationship because her boyfriend has $150,000 in debt, mostly student loans. Caven reads from the letter.
CAITLIN CAVEN: He was explaining his money stress to me and I started crying because I saw the future I want falling away.
LUDDEN: The woman agonized that she was being selfish and was embarrassed to feel this way. Caven assured her she was doing right to take a hard look at things. She suggested a responsible approach to repayment was more important than the boyfriend's actual admittedly staggering amount of debt. Caven says readers also weighed in.
CAVEN: There were a lot of people saying, dump him, get out. And then there was a lot of backlash saying, hey, like, that's unfair. You guys are clearly not thinking about how student debt works in this country. So many people are in debt like that that you just can't get rid of a good relationship because of it.
LUDDEN: Caven advised the woman to keep her finances separate and consider a pre-nup. When NPR asked about this issue on her Facebook page, many couples said they've avoided legal marriage so one partner wouldn't be liable for another's student loan debt. In fact, responsibility for student loans does not transfer to a spouse, but practically speaking...
BILL DRISCOLL: Well, once you're married, you're basically responsible for it at some level.
LUDDEN: Bill Driscoll is a financial planner in Massachusetts. He sees the impact of student loan debt on his 30-something clients.
DRISCOLL: It's causing uncertainty and tension because it's an impediment to them moving forward on a lot of fronts.
LUDDEN: Like having a child or saving for college, saving for retirement and the biggie, buying a house.
DRISCOLL: If they go to buy a home and they've got 65,000 of student debt, that is going to undermine a lot of the possibilities for getting financing.
LUDDEN: Driscoll says half his clients don't see eye-to-eye when it comes to spending versus saving, so he advises hashing out a compromise plan. Mostly, he says, talk about financial problems early, but that can be hard to do.
CRAIG PFEISTER: I just usually wait until it comes up and I kind of clench my teeth and bring it up to them.
LUDDEN: Craig Pfeister is a 29-year-old craftsman in Denver. He makes guitars. He also has north of a 100 grand in student loans and has grown used to the reaction that gets from dates.
PFEISTER: Generally, it starts with a awkward look, sort of like, what have I gotten myself into?
LUDDEN: Pfeister has realized he's more comfortable dating women who also have lots of student debt.
PFEISTER: We can kind of laugh about it that, like, we're both kind of owned by Sallie Mae or if they already have in their mind, they'll have this debt for their entire life and they hear mine. It's just, oh, you, too?
LUDDEN: And if he ends up marrying more debt, sure, it would add to his financial stress, but he says the stigma would not be just on him.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.