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Burdened with Record Amount of Debt, Graduates Delay Marriage

A bride slips a ring on the finger of her new husband

A bride slips a ring on the finger of her new husband during a group Valentine's day wedding at the National Croquet Center on February 14, 2013 in West Palm Beach, Florida. Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

I now pronounce you in decades of debt.

Student loans have hit a record high of $1.2 trillion, putting a crimp in The American Dream of owning a home and starting a family. And it’s affecting the broader economy too.

“People cannot participate in the American dream because of student debt,” said Natalia Abrams, executive director and co-founder of StudentDebtCrisis.org.

Cody Hounanian, 23, graduated from University of California, Los Angeles last year with about $30,000 in debt. He worked part-time at an In-N-Out Burger restaurant near campus throughout college and now works full-time as a manager at Whole Foods in his hometown of Santa Clarita, Calif. He is in the process of applying to law school.

How Bad is the Student Debt Crush? 1:39

He’s not married, doesn’t expect to be anytime soon and puts part of the blame on the burden of student debt.

“I’m sure there are people who say, ‘I don’t want to have a husband or a wife who is $100,000 in debt,’ but I think the real problem is more indirect. There’s almost not enough time to go out and start a family,” he said. “It’s an aspect that people forget. Planning and investing: forming relationships get in the way of that.”

“I don’t want to sound materialistic, but there’s a financial aspect,” he said. “In finding someone, there has to be a cash flow in order to take someone out.”

Abrams said that even people with decent-paying jobs are delaying that walk down the aisle because of debt. “If you owe $100,000 to $150,000 in student loans, you’re paying $1,000 to $1,500 a month. It’s cost-prohibitive,” she said.

“Everything from saving for a home to saving for retirement is completely off the table,” Abrams said.

Student debt isn’t the only reason young people are putting off marriage, of course. Women are putting significantly more time into earning advanced degrees. And jobs for less-educated Americans have withered, causing a longer search for a career that can provide a middle-class lifestyle.

Never Married

While there is no specific data on student debt-related delays to marriage, a recent study by the Pew Research Center shows that a record number of Americans have never married. The study found the median age at first marriage is now 27 for women and 29 for men. In 1960, the median age was 20 for women and 23 for men.

Student loan experts say indebtedness is weighing heavily in the young adults’ decisions to get married, buy homes, and save for retirement, however.

Heather Jarvis, an attorney in Wilmington, N.C., who specializes in student loans and student loan education, said she considered her student debt when getting married and merging finances with her husband.

“Getting married actually reduced the loan payment assistance benefits from my law school. My debt became more squarely on my shoulders upon marriage,” said Jarvis.

According to the Internal Revenue Service student loan interest deduction regulations, graduates may not claim tax deductions on their qualified student loans if they are married and file separately from their spouse. If a married couple chooses to file jointly for a student loan interest deduction, they cannot be claimed as dependents on someone else’s tax return.

Students saddled with debt as loan rate spike looms 4:24

Debt burdens “do limit students and graduates’ choices, influencing their timing,” she said.

Jarvis, who graduated from Duke University School of Law in 1998 with $125,000 in student debt, just recently finished repaying her private loans. She now has to pay off her federal loan debt from law school, which is about $30,000 – just above the current national average for undergraduate borrowers.

“People are delaying marriage, looking for more fulfilling partners, delaying childbearing. This demographic is people in their late 20’s, and most demographers would agree with that,” said Dr. Robert Bozick, a sociologist at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, Calif. Bozick published a study in June that found student loan repayment affected marriage timing for women, though less so in men.

As college tuition rises, Bozick said, it’s likely that “we are going to see more non-traditional lifestyles” than in generations past, emphasizing the “greater levels of debt.” He has found more young people have changed how they weigh whether or not they’re going to disrupt their careers for marriage, when in previous years, it was often the reverse.

Dr. Bozick himself earned his master’s degree from the University of Maryland, College Park, in 2001, and his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University in 2005. He has not yet finished repaying his student loans.