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More Depressing News About College Debt

Of all the news about the ballooning college debt in this country–now said to top a trillion dollars–none has depressed me more than this piece in last week’s Wall Street Journal. It’s perhaps not surprising but all of that debt is influencing other life decisions young adults are making. Sure, we joke about how 20-somethings move back to Mom and Dad’s basement to save money. But these are people who are putting off marriage and having kids  in order to pay off loans. Here’s the start of the piece:

   Between the ages of 18 and 22, Jodi Romine took out $74,000 in student loans to help finance her business-management degree at Kent State University in Ohio. What seemed like a good investment will delay her career, her marriage and decision to have children.
Ms. Romine’s $900-a-month loan payments eat up 60% of the paycheck she earns as a bank teller in Beaufort, S.C., the best job she could get after graduating in 2008. Her fiancé Dean Hawkins, 31, spends 40% of his paycheck on student loans. They each work more than 60 hours a week. He teaches as well as coaches high-school baseball and football teams, studies in a full-time master’s degree program, and moonlights weekends as a server at a restaurant. Ms. Romine, now 26, also works a second job, as a waitress. She is making all her loan payments on time.
They can’t buy a house, visit their families in Ohio as often as they would like or spend money on dates. Plans to marry or have children are on hold, says Ms. Romine. “I’m just looking for some way to manage my finances.”

It seems that the financial concerns about college debt have added to what in my opinion was an already problematic attitude among young people–that in order to get married you had to already be financially set. This is a result in part of more people thinking of marriage as a kind of final step on the path to adulthood and the fact that premarital cohabitation is an option instead. Part of delaying marriage for financial reasons, I’m sure, is the ridiculous price tag of weddings. Part of it is the sense that you only get married if and when you want to have kids (and maybe not then either).

Maybe I am romanticizing but I think that getting married in one’s early to mid-20s is not a bad idea even if you don’t plan to have kids for a while. And even if you can’t have a lavish wedding and even if you have to live on a smaller budget for a while, at least you’ll be in it together for the long haul. Instead, it seems that putting off marriage for financial reasons leaves individuals feeling as though nothing in their life is stable–not their finances or their living situations or their relationships.

Maybe Ms. Romine wouldn’t be thrilled with her life if everything were the same but she and her husband were married. Still,  I can’t help but think she would be a little happier. Maybe when their 20th anniversary comes around they can splurge for a big party. And they’ll have nice stories to tell their grandkids about the early days of their struggles. (And maybe by then we’ll have figured out a way to get government out of the student-loan business and let people who declare bankruptcy have their loans forgiven just as other debts are.)

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