A New Study Found More Couples Are Delaying Marriage Due to Crushing Student Debt

Marriage—not your loan payments—is supposed to last forever

Updated 12/18/18
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Raise your hand if you have crushing student loan debt that you’re trying not to think about right now. Even newly elected New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has outstanding loans from her time at Boston University, from which she graduated seven years ago. "Oh heck yes, I'm definitely still paying these off," she told Elite Daily earlier this year.

Beyond how truly terrifying it is that Americans owe a whopping $1.5 trillion in student loans, it’s still somewhat unclear how the financial burden associated with getting a college degree impacts the day-to-day lives of young adults. That’s why a team of researchers decided to investigate the link between student loan debt and the way people navigate their romantic relationships. After all, for many of us this debt isn’t going away anytime soon without a miracle.

According to the researchers’ findings, which were published recently in a study in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues, having student debt could impact whether a person decides to live with their significant other before marriage or just do the damn thing and get hitched.

It’s a well-known fact that many couples are choosing to live together before they get married. “Cohabitation,” according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “is currently the most common first co-residential union among young adults.” But could it be that people are making this choice in part because they owe so much money to the federal government and are trying to save where they can?

To better understand the relationship between having student loan debt and the likelihood of getting married, the study’s authors looked at the data of two generations of young adults. The cohorts grew up roughly 20 years apart and participated in the 1979 and 1997 National Longitudinal Study of Youth (NLSY), respectively.

Not surprisingly, researchers found that the number of people who married by the time they turned 34 had decreased between the two generations; Almost 70 percent of the young adults in the NLSY79 group were married by 34, while over half of the NLSY97 group had still yet to marry by that age. They also found that more people in the younger cohort had more student debt compared to the older group.

After breaking down the data, the authors found that “as average loan balances and the proportion of college-going young adults with debt increased, student loan debt became more of an impediment to marital transitions in young adulthood, at least for young women.” Young women, they explained, were about 2 percent less likely to tie the knot in a given year for a 1 percent change in student loan debt.

In other words, debilitating student loan debt could potentially become “an economic barrier to marriage,” the study states.

It’s possible that women today are living with their partners before marriage in order to save money, pay down debts, and maybe even be better situated to set aside funds for their dream wedding. It’s also worth pointing out that people who live together, unlike married couples, don’t assume each other’s student loan burdens. (Sorry, future husband!)

But, the study’s authors point out, cohabitation, for whatever reason, ultimately “delays marriage, and may result in more non-marital births or fewer marriages, if couples or one partner comes to see shared living as an acceptable alternative to marriage.”

Fenaba Addo, an assistant professor of consumer science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and lead author on the study, elaborated: “As student loan debt has increased over time, the prerequisites for marriage have changed and expectations for weddings have increased,” she tells Brides. “Young adults are expected to be financial stable and secure and the expectations for a lavish affair mean more.” Yet, she continues, “more young adults are having to put off their special day, or increasingly only the financially better off can do so.”

“If you want marry sooner than later,” Addo says, “then you might want to consider if paying off one’s student debt is something that you can financially wait and tackle post-vows together as a married couple rather than separately as individuals.”

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