Your Finance: How couples can manage lopsided school debt

The average 2012 graduate finished with $29,400 in The average 2012 graduate finished with $29,400 in debt, according to a study by the Institute for College Access & Success, an advocacy and research group. The institute also found that almost 30 percent of 2012 grads emerged debt-free. Photo Credit: iStock

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Young marriage is lovely, but it has always carried its own challenges of adjustment and maturation.

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 by the Institute for College Access & Success, an advocacy and research group. The institute also 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. Commit to not using the debt as a wedge next time you disagree about something else.

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Don't necessarily aimto pay off the debt as quickly as possible. Instead, discuss your family goals and your cash flow. 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.

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.

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.

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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, couples should 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. By filing jointly, they may pay less in taxes and more in loan payments.

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