A graphic of a couple on a wedding cake chained to debt.

Talking about your student loans isn’t likely to be top of mind if you’re planning a wedding. But if you or your spouse-to-be have college debt, it’s an important conversation to have before you walk down the aisle.

Marriage can trigger changes to your student loan payments and affect your eligibility for some valuable tax breaks, says Betsy Mayotte, president of the Institute of Student Loan Advisors, a nonprofit that provides free one-on-one counseling for student borrowers.

Having sizable student debt can also have an impact on your financial goals for the future, another reason it's important to have a frank conversation.

More on Student Debt

“You might be caught off guard if you don’t know your spouse has a lot of debt and you don’t discuss how you’ll budget for the payments,” says Mayotte.

Of course, getting married can help you better manage student loan payments too. If your household income is higher as a couple, you might be able to pay off your loans faster. 

“The name of the game is paying the least amount over time,” says Mayotte. “If your payment goes up, that may be a good thing, assuming it’s affordable."

Here are the three main things to know about how getting married could affect your student loans.  

Your Payments May Go Up–or Down

If you have federal student loans and are in an income-based repayment plan, which adjusts your payment based on how much you earn, your monthly bill may change depending on how much you and your spouse earn and the way you file your taxes.

If you are married and file your taxes jointly–which the vast majority of couples do–your payment will be based on your combined adjusted gross income (AGI). So, if getting married means you’ll have a higher AGI, your student loan payments are likely to go up.

Income isn’t the only factor used to calculate your payment though. If your spouse also has student loans and you file your taxes together, you may both see your monthly payments drop to account for the additional debt, even if you make more money together.

Depending on which income-based repayment plan you are in (there are four types), you could take your spouse’s income out of the equation by filing separate federal income tax returns. If you are in the Pay As You Earn (PAYE), Income-Based Repayment (IBR), or Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR) plan and you file your taxes separately from your spouse, payment is based only on your individual income.

There's one exception: For married borrowers in the Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE) program, payments are based on the couple’s combined adjusted gross income and total loan debt, whether or not you file your taxes jointly.  

You Could Lose Valuable Tax Breaks

Even if filing separately gives you a lower payment, it might not be worth it. If you choose to file your taxes individually, you’ll miss out on a host of tax credits and deductions that joint filers receive. They include the earned income tax credit, the American Opportunity Credit and Lifetime Learning Credit for higher education expenses, the student loan interest deduction, the adoption tax credit, and the child and dependent care tax credit.

If you are married and filing separately, you will also have less flexibility when it comes to tax strategies. You must both claim the standard deduction or must both itemize your deductions. A married person can’t use the standard deduction if his or her spouse is itemizing.

There’s no one right answer to whether to file separately or jointly when you’re married. You have to balance the benefits of the tax breaks you get by filing together with your ability to handle a potentially higher student loan payment.

Start by figuring out how your monthly payments could change. Use the Department of Education’s student loan repayment estimator to calculate your payments under different income scenarios. And talk with a professional tax planner to see what tax breaks you might be giving up.  

It May Be Harder to Reach Financial Goals

Starting life together in debt can strain your relationship and prevent you from reaching longer-term financial goals. Americans have a record $1.4 trillion in outstanding student loans, and many say that they are struggling with their finances because of it.

A 2016 Consumer Reports nationally representative survey found that 44 percent of people who took out loans to pay for college had to cut back on day-to-day living expenses to pay their loans. Thirty seven percent delayed saving for retirement, 28 percent delayed buying a house, and 12 percent even delayed marriage.

Before you run into problems, have a money talk with your partner. Once you know where you stand, you can look for ways to ease up any potential financial pressure. If you or your spouse are not already in an income-based repayment plan, enrolling in one may make your payments more affordable as a couple.

If you can step up payments on your combined income, make sure you request that the loan servicer allocate the additional money to your highest-rate loans. Use this sample letter from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to instruct the loan servicer on what to do with the extra payment.

If you do run into trouble paying your student loans after you're married, know that one spouse isn’t legally responsible for the student debt of the other unless they co-signed for it. However, in some states, loans you take out after you get married are considered jointly owned community property, and creditors could go after you if your spouse stops paying.