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Joint Accounts

Can I Talk My Son Out of Paying His Girlfriend’s Debt?

How to advise an adult child who’s about to make a money mistake

An illustration of a couple drawn upside down and discussing an issue, while the mother tries to reach them but can’t.
An illustration of a couple drawn upside down and discussing an issue, while the mother tries to reach them but can’t.
Illustration: Laurie Rollitt

Dear Joint Accounts,

My adult son and his girlfriend recently moved in together. They’re hinting at marriage and their relationship seems serious, but everyone is doubtful that it will last, because they also fight a lot and talk about breaking up.

Basically, they seem to be making impulsive decisions that aren’t very well thought out — the latest being that they want to put my son’s student loan on hold while they pay hers off. This means my son will only be paying the minimum amount on his loan while he helps his girlfriend pay hers off faster. The thing is, if they break up, I doubt the favor will be returned. How do I tell my son this is a terrible idea?

Sincerely,

Concerned Mom

II can understand why you’re concerned, and it sounds like you’re right to be: Your son seems to be making financial decisions based on emotion, not logic. He’s effectively investing in someone else’s future at the expense of his own. The longer he postpones paying his loan, the more expensive that loan will be. And if he and his girlfriend break up, all those extra dollars in interest he racked up to invest in her future won’t matter.

Even if they stay together, it doesn’t seem fair for him to sacrifice his own financial health to improve hers. There’s little reason to combine debt goals at this point, especially if the relationship is rocky. That’s not to say she’s the enemy here — it just sounds like they’re not considering this from every angle.

But your son is an adult. Chances are, he doesn’t want unsolicited advice, even if he needs it, so expect that this conversation will be awkward, and handle it with care.

Make sure he knows you trust and respect him, and admire his generosity, but point out that he needs to protect himself financially, too.

First and foremost, try to talk to him alone, especially if you suspect your son has a hard time making decisions without his girlfriend’s input. (Plus, you don’t want her to feel like she’s the target.) Try not to sound judgey.

Instead, approach him from a place of concern. Make sure he knows you trust and respect him, and admire his generosity, but point out that he needs to protect himself financially, too. Sometimes, specifics and numbers can break through in a way that more abstract concerns can’t — so, if you can, give him a sense of the consequences of his plan by putting a dollar amount on the amount of extra debt he’d be saddled with.

Your son might be more receptive if you can offer solutions to the problems you’re pointing out. For example, you could help him strategize a system for sharing finances with his girlfriend that’s more fair to both of them. If they live together, they can agree on a percentage for each of them to contribute to household expenses. Ideally, that would be 50/50, but if there’s some lopsidedness to their lifestyles or financial states — say, if she earns considerably less and he prefers to live in a bigger space — then maybe they have a different split. The important thing is that they both feel comfortable with their respective financial contributions.

Baked into this system should be a plan for each of them to separately pay off their loans. If they do eventually get married and combine their finances, they should have a serious discussion about how to handle debt in their marriage, and they should probably talk to a financial planner about it. You could suggest this, too, as a way of showing him that you aren’t bringing this up simply because you think they’re going to split.

Still, no matter how carefully you couch your concerns, there’s still a good chance your son will get angry or defensive. All you can do is put the facts out there and hope that he takes your feedback into consideration for his own good. As a parent, it’s only natural to want to reroute your kid when you see them going down a financially precarious path. Ultimately, though, he’s no longer a child. You have to come to terms with him making these decisions for himself.

Kristin Wong is a journalist and freelance writer. She’s written for the New York Times, ELLE, The Cut, and Glamour.

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