While hundreds of thousands of Americans prepare to say “I do” this summer, a new NerdWallet study reveals that there’s more than cake and confetti waiting at the end of the aisle. NerdWallet commissioned an online survey, conducted by Harris Poll, of over 2,000 adults (see methodology below). We asked about debt and how it affects their relationships.
Of those in serious partnerships — married, in a civil union or living with a partner — who combine at least some of their finances, we found:
- 35% of adults brought credit card debt into the relationship — beating out student loans, auto loans, medical and mortgage debt.
- 42% of adult men brought credit card debt to the relationship, compared with 29% of women.
- 45% of millennial adults (ages 18-34) acknowledge bringing credit card debt into the relationship.
- 25% of couples with at least one partner bringing credit card debt into the relationship reported it having a negative effect on the relationship, such as not being able to do the things they planned.
You, me, and credit card debt makes three
Our poll found that over one-third of adults (35%) who at least partially combine finances with a partner brought credit card debt into the relationship. Since 91% of adults who are married, in a civil union or living with a partner say they at least partially combine finances, that credit card debt is usually becoming yours, mine and ours.
There also appears to be a gender divide in who’s doing the heavy spending on the plastic. Forty-two percent of adult men reported bringing credit card debt to the relationship; 29% of women did.
The average amount of credit card debt adults in our study report bringing into the relationship is $4,100. If both partners were to enter the relationship with the average credit card debt, these unions may have a total, on average, of $8,200 in credit card debt combined from the start of the relationship.
This surpasses the average American household credit card debt figure, which stands at $7,327 as of June 2015, according to a NerdWallet analysis. “That’s a significant debt load, enough to put a strain on any relationship,” says Kevin Yuann, general manager of credit cards at NerdWallet. “Add in the cost of a wedding, student loans and expenses of being a family, you are facing an uphill battle to happily ever after.”
» MORE: How to pay off debt
Young, in love … and crippled by debt
Almost half (45%) of millennial adults who at least partially combine finances report entering into their current relationship with credit card debt.
And that’s not all; millennials are dragging other types of debt into their relationship, too:
- 38% bring auto loan debt
- 36% bring student loan debt
- 27% contribute medical debt
“Many millennials are still recovering from the recession, and the job market they graduated into,” says Jason Dorsey, millennials researcher and strategist at the Center for Generational Kinetics, a research and consulting firm specializing in uncovering generational consumer trends.
Dorsey says this partially explains why so many millennials are carrying debt, especially older millennials. People who are now in their early 30s entered the workforce when the economy was at its lowest point, when jobs were scarce and salaries were depressed.
Although the economy has since recovered, its effects linger. “When millennials enter into long-term relationships … we find that the financial conversation is a very tough one,” Dorsey says.
When finances and relationships clash
Credit card debt and other financial issues can cause rifts between partners. Twenty-five percent of couples with at least one partner bringing credit card debt to the relationship said that it had a negative effect, with 16% saying they weren’t able to do something they’d planned on, like buying a home or going on vacation. A full 5% said it almost spelled the demise of the relationship, with one partner or another considering leaving because of the debt.
The good news is that there are steps you and your partner can take to alleviate some of the stress that debt brings to a relationship:
Time for a heart to heart. Before taking a relationship to the next level, it pays to get really honest about your financial situation. “Prior to walking down the aisle to marital bliss, I recommend couples should have a date to discuss their individual financial status,” says Rod Griffin, director of public education at Experian, one of the three major credit bureaus in the U.S.
“All your financial records — savings, salaries, investments, real estate and especially your credit reports should be reviewed,” Griffin says. This will make each partner aware of where the other stands with money, and combing over a credit report will give you a sense of how much debt your sweetie is carrying. In short, you’ll be looking at the full picture before you leap.
Set clear expectations. Once each partner has the other’s complete financial picture, it’s time to set clear expectations about how debt should be dealt with. You’ll need to decide as a couple whether you’ll continue to tackle big balances individually or together.
Line up your dreams. The final step is making a plan for your financial future. Couples should “work together to create a financial arrangement that feels healthy to both parties,” says Dr. Anita Gadhia-Smith, a psychotherapist practicing in the Washington, D.C., area. Conflict about finances is common in her work with couples, Gadhia-Smith says. She advises romantic partners to create a spending plan that “strikes a balance between responsibility and freedom,” meaning that the couple is working together toward financial goals, but each partner still has leeway to spend as he or she sees fit.
And don’t think of financial planning as a once-and-done task. Priorities and interests change over time, so keep the lines of communication constantly open. Follow this prescription, and debt won’t be your romantic undoing.
This survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet from June 1-3, 2015, among 2,026 adults ages 18 and older, among which 1,061 combine at least some finances with their spouse/partner. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Infographic by Dora Pintek. Image via iStock.