personal finance

‘I’m So in Debt That I’m Afraid to Date’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

I’m 27 and finished college a few years ago with about $40,000 in student loans. I got a job at Starbucks because I wanted to go to graduate school, and the company has a partnership program with a state university that helps pay for tuition. I’m working about 30 hours a week taking online classes on the side, earning credits towards a master’s degree in social work. I’m on track to finish next year.

My mom was kind enough to let me live with her after college so that I could save money, but I didn’t like being a burden on her, so last year I moved out and got an apartment of my own nearby in Queens. I can’t even afford internet, which is fine because I get free internet at work. But my apartment is so tiny and bare that I’m embarrassed to have anyone over. 

Which leads me to my problem. I’ve never been in a serious relationship, and right now it’s hard to even consider dating because I can’t afford it. I still owe about $30,000 (I stopped paying during the student-loan freeze), which is practically my annual take-home pay. It feels unfair to subject anyone to my lifestyle, which is extremely cheap. And now that loan payments are starting up again, I don’t have the resources to go to bars or restaurants. Dating me probably would not be fun. Who would want to date someone with so much debt?

I have some friends who are in a similar position, and we’ll hang out at their apartments or in the park and have cheap wine or beer. I’ve realized that they don’t have the same hang-ups that I do about dating. Most of them have partners or are on the apps. But I’m afraid that if I were to meet someone, I wouldn’t know how to deal with my money situation. How do I tell them that I’m broke? It seems like something I should warn somebody about but is also a buzzkill. I always figured I’d put off romantic relationships until I was more financially secure, but I don’t know when that will be, if ever. How do I find someone who’s okay with my situation and not be a burden to them?

You say you’re not in a position to offer a lot in a relationship. But the qualities that you describe as making you unfit — you have no internet or furniture, you follow a tight budget — could also be seen as attractive. They reflect discipline, a commitment to education, grit, and rigor. These are admirable traits!

What’s more, your hangups are not so different from everyone else’s — once I get x (a nicer apartment, better skin, a raise), then I will deserve love. So while you may think that you’re uniquely undateable, you’re actually quite normal. And so are your loans: The average federal student-loan debt is $37,338 per borrower, according to recent reports. So you can safely assume that other people you might be interested in — say, educated people in their 20s — are probably in the same boat as you.

But let’s focus on your excellent questions about how to bring up your finances with someone you’re interested in — especially if your finances are a source of anxiety or shame, as almost everyone’s are.

Your instinct to be honest is a good one, but before you blurt out hard numbers, it’s important to figure out how you can feel comfortable discussing financial matters with this person and vice versa. “Our society has all sorts of subconscious rules about money, and one of them is that you shouldn’t talk about it,” says Elana Feinsmith, a certified financial planner and financial therapist based in California. First, she suggests that you practice talking about money in a lower-stakes environment. Luckily, you have the perfect test group for this: your friends, who you mentioned are in a similar financial situation as you. Start by asking general questions about how they handle their finances. For example, how do they organize their spending? What do they feel good about spending on versus not? Even better: How do they talk about money with their significant others, and when did they bring it up? While you’re at it: Do they have any ideas for cheap dates?

Meanwhile, examine your own relationship with money and what shaped it. “For any couple to communicate well about money, they first need to understand their own backgrounds and emotions around it,” says Feinsmith. “Most people are deeply affected by how they were raised around money. Did you see a lot of conflict around it? Or did no one talk about it, ever?”

To do this with her clients, Feinsmith often starts by doing a money genogram — a method of charting your family’s history with money to see how it has affected your financial behavior. (If you want to try this yourself, here’s a helpful place to start.) Similarly, she recommends taking the KMSI-R questionnaire, which helps determine your “money script” — the financial patterns and beliefs that stem from your upbringing. “These tools can help people understand where they’re coming from with money,” says Feinsmith. “And the more you understand, the better prepared you are to talk about it and see whether someone else will be compatible.”

As for when to bring money up with someone you’re dating, there’s no hard-and-fast rule. Some people believe in asking about credit scores when they first meet someone, as a quick-and-dirty litmus test to find out whether someone is on the same page. (Of course, only people with high credit scores do this — I find it a little extreme myself.) Conversely, one of my best friends, who is incredibly neurotic about her finances, is happily married to someone who had significant debt when they met. He didn’t tell her about it until the relationship was getting serious, and at that point she knew him well enough to set aside her judgment, which may have been pretty harsh early on. I’d recommend you feel out these conversations and use your instincts — again, just keep in mind that for many young adults, student debt is normal.

When it comes to the actual talk, diffuse the tension by acknowledging your own discomfort: “This is something I’m worried to tell you about.” Or “I want to tell you something that’s difficult for me, and I really hope you’ll just listen at first.” I remember discovering this in my own relationship, and it was like a magic trick — when you tell someone that you’re feeling vulnerable, they’re a lot more likely to respond with openness and consideration.

And whether or not you would be a fun person to date doesn’t, and shouldn’t, depend on your finances. So you can’t bring someone home to watch Netflix because you can’t afford streaming services? Oh well, you’ll just have to talk to each other in a park somewhere, which many people would consider a great hang. I don’t mean to minimize your situation — I understand how anxiety-inducing it can be to put yourself in new situations when you don’t have financial stability, and being broke can dampen spontaneity. I remember going on dates in my 20s and worrying that the other person would pick a nice restaurant and then expect to split the bill. Still, you can control for these risks — have a plan B that you can afford, and if someone isn’t sensitive to it, that’s a red flag for you.

Ultimately, I think that you can approach your dating life more lightly. Try the apps. Ask your friends to introduce you to people you might like. Flirt with strangers. The best reason to date is that you want to — and the only way to know if you’re ready is to try it out for yourself.

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‘I’m So in Debt That I’m Afraid to Date’