Why Debt Destroys Marriages and How To Fight Back

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Debt is an increasingly heavy burden on Americans. About 40% of households carry consumer debt, which can include student loans and car payments as well as credit cards. On average, those who carry credit card debt owe somewhere around $5000-7000… often paying very high interest rates.

What Debt Can Do

Although debt can be a useful tool, it can also “bite back.” As a matter of fact, research shows that carrying consumer debt can definitely harm your marriage—especially if you and your spouse tend to fight about it. In a study of more than 4500 married couples, researchers saw that couples who took on more debt over time became more likely to split up. Couples with higher debt also fought more about money and reported lower marital satisfaction.

In a second study looking at newlyweds, researchers found that taking on credit card debt was linked to lower marriage satisfaction. Meanwhile, paying off debt was linked to increased satisfaction. And when new couples took on debt, they tended to fight more, spend less time with each other, and perceive unfairness in how money was handled in their marriage.

In fact, in general, fighting over money is a major cause of divorce. It may even be the “problem area” that predicts divorce most strongly, causing marriages to break up more often than conflict over in-laws, sex, chores, or other common trouble areas. (Couples who fight about money in angry, unproductive ways are at especially high risk.)

Avoid Taking on Debt

From these findings, it seems pretty safe to assume that consumer debt and the conflict it often creates are hazardous to your marriage’s health. To protect the health of your relationship, do what you can to avoid taking on this type of higher-interest debt. (It’s important to note that mortgage debt does not have the same effect.)

What Can We Do?

But what if you already have debt? Don’t give up hope. There are many ways you can responsibly work through your financial obligations over time. Here are some proven strategies to help you manage and pay off your debt:

--No new debt!

Maybe this goes without saying, but to get out of debt, you have to stop putting yourself into it! While there may be unavoidable exceptions, such as medical emergencies, do your very best to avoid any purchase or spending that you cannot afford. To help with this goal, maintain a small emergency fund.

--Itemize your spending and make a budget

Not sure where all the money is going? There are many programs, apps, and sites you can use to track and categorize your spending down to the penny. They’ll graph it all out for you. Once you get a sense of where you’re spending, you can draw up a reasonable budget.

--Cut unneeded expenses

Can you turn your thermostat up or down? Change your cell phone or cable plan? Adjust your style of grocery shopping? There are tons of ways to cut back on expenses and a wealth of sites and books out there to help.

--Negotiate a lower rate

Try calling up your credit card companies and asking for a lower interest rate. If you mention that you’re considering transferring your balance, they may offer you a better deal than you have now.

--Always pay the minimum, but preferably more

Whatever you do, don’t get yourself into more financial trouble by not paying the minimum due on consumer debts. However, be aware that if you ONLY pay the minimum, you won’t be making much of a dent in your debt. (Thanks to new laws, you can see just how long it will take you and how much it will cost you if you only pay this amount.)

--If needed, use credit counseling

Still struggling? Nonprofit credit counseling agencies such as the Consumer Credit Counseling Service offer helpful credit counseling (typically free) as well as debt management and debt settlement, for which they may charge a fee.

Nip Money Fights in the Bud

Even if you’ve avoided consumer debt or are on your way to eliminating it, you may still get in trouble when discussing finances and money with your spouse. This is often an emotional area, bringing up cultural and family differences, issues of independence, and past problems.

Get on the same page with your spouse by clearly spelling out your expectations. How do you budget? Who is in charge of paying the bills? What are your short- and long-term financial goals as a couple? (Things getting heated? Don’t forget to follow the 10 Rules for Constructive Conflict and to use these 9 Important Communication Skills.)

Finances can be a balancing act, and at times, most of us struggle. But you don’t have to let debt and fights about money eat away at the foundations of your marriage. Check out the resources below for additional tools.

More Resources

You And Your Credit series—from UF-IFAS EDIS

Consumer Debt Management Options—from UF-IFAS EDIS

Building a Spending Plan—from UF-IFAS EDIS

Powerpay—Free debt management tool from Utah State University

If you’re considering marriage but want to make sure you are as prepared as you can be, especially when it comes to tricky topics like finances, one great idea is premarital preparation classes. Not only are these classes fun, useful, and empowering, in the state of Florida, they may entitle you to a discount on your marriage license! The SMART Couples project is offering Before You Tie the Knot, a FREE, research-backed premarital preparation class taught by trained instructors, in Florida counties across the state. Sign up today!

By Carol Church, lead writer, SMART Couples, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, University of Florida

References

Dew, J. (2008). Debt change and marital satisfaction change in recently married couples. Family Relations, 57(1), 60-71.

Dew, J. (2011). The association between consumer debt and the likelihood of divorce. Journal of Family Economic Issues, 32, 554-564. doi: 10.1007/s10834-011-9274-z

Dew, J., Britt, S., & Huston, S. (2012). Examining the relationship between financial issues and divorce. Family Relations 61, 628-615. DOI:10.1111/j.1741-3729.2012.00715.x

Marshall, J. M., & Skogrand, L. (2010). Debt brought into marriage: The anti-dowry. Retrieved from http://extension.usu.edu/files/publications/publication/FL-2003-03.pdf

Williams, F. O. (2014). Average credit card debt statistics. Retrieved from http://www.creditcards.com/credit-card-news/average-credit_card_debt-1276.php