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Date my debt

As if the game of love weren't hard enough—now we have these damn student loans to worry about

  • Agnieszka Karoluk says her debt makes it tough to get out and date.
Agnieszka Karoluk says her debt makes it tough to get out and date. (RedEye illustration )
September 12, 2012|By Georgia Garvey, @gcgarvey | RedEye

Matthew Patrick says dating with student loan debt requires ingenuity, flexibility and planning. A good pasta dish recipe doesn't hurt, either.

"I've learned how to cook, which is a good thing," the 28-year-old Rogers Park resident said. "It's a lot about being creative and knowing how to work around the whole money situation."

Perhaps it helps people like Patrick to know that in that money situation, they're far from alone. A recent UPI news analysis of Federal Reserve data found that 19.1 percent of households had student loan debt in 2010. Just three years earlier, that number was 15.2 percent. The number is increasing, as is the average amount owed. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that Americans carry an average of more than $24,000 in student loans.

Those levels of debt can affect people's lives in a slew of ways, according to Julie Murphy Casserly, a certified financial planner and the author of "The Emotion Behind Money." They create worry, stress and fear. Loans also can make it harder to meet people, go out on dates and settle down, as some of those who have student loans told RedEye. Dating can be difficult if you can't afford to be sociable or if you've got a particularly large debt burden to shoulder.

Underlying some of those relationship problems, Murphy Casserly said, is the constant pressure.

"How are you supposed to live in the present moment," she asked, "if you're constantly forced to live in the past?"

Patrick, for example, graduated from college four years ago with about $38,000 in student loans. After a few years of dating friends of friends, he decided to branch out and try online dating, something that turned out to be much more expensive than he anticipated.

"That's when it starts getting tricky," he said. "You grab the check and hope the girl will be like, 'Oh let's split this.'"

Shiu Kai Tam graduated from U. of I. in 2009 and has about $15,000 of his student loans left to pay off.

While the 25-year-old Old Irving Park resident works, he finds his love life has pretty much fallen off a cliff.

"It's almost become nonexistent," he said with a laugh. "Dating costs money and it's expensive."

He also said that as a gay man, he finds it difficult to anticipate how much he'll need to pony up when it's time to get the check.

"It's even harder to figure out who's paying for what," he said. Assuming the other person picks up the tab, he's also concerned about giving the wrong impression on a date. "Are you expecting a hookup at the end of the night?"

Others, like Agnieszka Karoluk, 22, a geography major at DePaul University, said her debt load makes it tough to even get out and meet new people.

"I don't really go out too often because I know that's money that I could be saving," said Karoluk, who has about $140,000 in student loans. Letting potential boyfriends in on that fact can be tricky. "It's not the first thing I'll say to someone when I meet them. Like, 'Hi, I'm in a lot of debt.'"

Karoluk said she has been dating someone for a couple of months who understands her financial situation, but the pressure still is there. So much so that she's become involved in activism to draw attention toward student loan debt. Through working with Occupy Chicago, Karoluk has become a member of the Coalition Against Corporatization of Higher Education, a group that hopes to create free access to higher education.

Emily Anderson is a 30-year-old blogger who created thriftysocialworker.com after she walked across the graduate school stage with about $64,000 in student loans.

Anderson, who's now engaged, said she found a way to talk about the situation.

"Once I figured out how much I was in debt, it just kind of became a joke. I'm going to die $60,000 in debt so let's laugh about it," she said. But through economizing and planning, she's whittled that down, even managing to pay off $14,000 of her student loans in one year.

Murphy Casserly said people like Anderson, who've worked hard to reduce what they owe, might be frustrated to find out their partners' debts are higher than they anticipated or initially were told.

"It's like they're learning the lesson [of avoiding debt] the second time," she said, recalling a client who came into her office and said she had broken off a relationship with a man who was significantly in debt, saying "I just couldn't date this guy because I'm not willing to take on that $75,000 in debt."

It can be embarrassing to admit to big student loans, Anderson acknowledges, but that kind of honesty is important in relationships. Her advice for the indebted who are considering making a bigger romantic commitment?

"You just kind of have to take a deep breath and talk about it," she said. "Nothing good is going to come out of trying to avoid it and trying to avoid the subject. It's just going to come back and bite you later."

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