Add this to the list of awkward questions you reserve for potential dates and mates:
So, how about those student loans?
About 37 million Americans are weighed down by college debt, according to a recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Twenty-seven percent of those students and ex-students also have past-due balances.
The loans, whether they are his, hers or collectively his-and-hers, can be toxic for budding romances or new marriages.
When Allison Marek, 26, finishes the graduate school of social work at the University of Houston next spring, she will be roughly $60,000 in debt.
"I was brought up believing that you have to have your own stuff together -- you have to be stable financially and emotionally -- before you can engage in a serious relationship and get married," says Marek, who is single. "Student loans are one reason women are so focused on their careers today. They have to be to pay off their debt."
Timothy Hanna, 25, owes $24,000 in student loan debt, and he expects to pay it down at a rate of $400 a month for the next five years.
Today Hanna works for a valve-distributing company and lives on a budget. That means he watches movies on video, not in first-run theaters. He carefully monitors his food and gas bills. And he's only now moving out of his parents' home and into his own apartment.
"My view on dating is that it all comes down to communication," Hanna says. "If a girl doesn't want to date me simply because I'm on a budget and can't afford a steak restaurant every week or going out all the time, so be it. When I find someone to date seriously, I'll be open and honest with her about my situation. If she can't handle that, then I don't need her."
Tony Norris, 29, is several steps closer to his-and-her student loan debt.
He owes $68,000 for undergraduate and graduate degrees and his steady girlfriend, who has no debt, wants to go back to school.
Norris, who works for an engineering and construction-services firm, plans to help her financially.
"I think it is becoming more of the norm for people to come out of school with some debt under their names," he says.
"Luckily, we are both pretty thrifty and have found ways to do the things that we like to do together while sticking to a budget. ... Do we splurge every once in a while? Of course, but I think that's OK, too."
Young people struggling to juggle relationships and debt is, unfortunately, "more common than not," says Jessica Horton of Money Management International, a nonprofit, full-service, credit-counseling agency.
"The key is to open all lines of communication, lay all cards on the table and keep an open mind."
Loans can be consolidated or adjusted, she says. Some can even be dramatically reduced for grads working in low-income areas in medicine, teaching and social services.
While singles struggle, the problems with debt inevitably get more complicated for couples.
"Money," says Julia Babcock, director of the Center for Couples Therapy at the University of Houston, "is the No. 1 thing that people argue about."
Debts equal stress
Josh Sorensen, 29, acknowledges that the loans are the No. 1 stress in his marriage, and that he and his wife, Mary, struggle to keep up with their education tab. Together, it's $60,000.
"It's probably smart not to marry anyone with a lot of debt," Sorensen says. "But, you can't help who you love and honestly, there would be very few fish left to pick from in the sea if you followed that advice."
Perhaps the most sobering comments come from Kristina Cashion-Cunningham, 33, who says she has student loan debt in the six-figure range, and the weight of it sometimes reduces her to tears.
Fortunately, her husband has no debt, but she feels guilty that loans are the reason they hesitate to have a second child and can't afford to save for retirement.
Cashion-Cunningham had expected to earn a six-figure salary as a lawyer, but that hasn't happened.
"My husband, an eternal optimist, feels like it is what it is. Because there is nothing I can do about my debt -- other than pay it off -- my husband doesn't stress about it or let it impact our relationship."
That's a healthy attitude, says Babcock, also an associate professor of psychology.
Those who are paying off their loans in a responsible manner should probably pat themselves on the back instead of feeling guilty, she says.
"Don't bring distress into the marriage. It doesn't help."
Babcock adds that while student loans can be challenging for couples, at least they are an investment in the future.
Things could be worse, she says.
"Spending or gambling debts are just money lost."
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