According to the old saying, you shouldn't talk about religion or politics in polite company. Add one more to the list of conversational taboos: Credit card debt. That's the topic people are least likely to want to talk about with someone they just met.
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The only other topic that makes people hold their tongues that much? Details of their love lives. Americans are more comfortable talking about politics, their religious views and their ages than they are talking about how much debt they carry on their credit cards, according to a new poll conducted for CreditCards.com.
The poll also found Americans less willing to talk about their debt than they were five years ago, when the recession was just beginning to take shape. About 85% of Americans said they are reluctant to chat about their credit card debt with someone they first met, compared to 80% who gave the same answer in an identical poll conducted in 2008.
"Before the recession, consumers were encouraged to carry debt, and spending was seen almost as a patriotic thing to do to stimulate the economy," said Michael Solomon, professor of marketing and director of the Center for Consumer Research at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. "Obviously, the recession was a wake-up call. Credit card debt isn't as accepted now; it carries more of a stigma."
The recession, which began at the end of 2008, saw consumers sharply curtail credit card spending. The overall amount of credit card debt dropped 8.8% in 2009 and 7.6% in 2010, before leveling out in subsequent years, according to the Federal Reserve. In February, Americans owed $848 billion in revolving debt (almost all in the form of credit card debt).
In the CreditCards.com poll, conducted March 28-30 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications, 34% of respondents said they carry a balance, and 15% reported not having any credit cards.
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The telephone poll included a representative sample of 1,005 American adults (see poll methodology), and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. Participants were asked, "how likely you would be to talk openly to someone you've just met about this topic?" and given a series of topics. They were asked to say whether they were very likely, somewhat likely, somewhat unlikely, or very unlikely to discuss a topic.
Combining the "somewhat unlikely" and "very unlikely" responses, these are most-taboo topics:
- The amount of your credit card debt (85% very unlikely or somewhat unlikely to discuss).
- Details of your love life (84%).
- Your salary (80%).
- The amount you pay for your monthly mortgage or rent (71%).
- Your health problems (71%).
- Your weight (50%).
- The death of a loved one (49%)
- Your political views (49%).
- Your views about religion (41%).
Causing the least consternation were: talking to a stranger about your age (28%); the price of a tank of gas (18%); and the weather (11%).
Debt perceived as personal failure
Larry Compeau, professor of consumer behavior at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., said he's not surprised that several of the most-unmentionable topics relate to money. America's Protestant work ethic culture means that much of our identity is tied up in how we're doing financially, Compeau says, so not being able to provide for your family or pay the bills can cause feelings of embarrassment and shame.
Compeau recently saw that firsthand, when he conducted in-depth interviews for a research project with consumers who had suffered major debt problems. "One person I interviewed was deeply religious and said he talked to his pastor about everything, including his wife's infidelity," Compeau said. "But when he ran into financial problems, he wasn't comfortable sharing that with his pastor."
Part of the problem, Compeau said, is that even though there are legitimate reasons people go into debt (medical bills, job loss), the American culture tends to assume that if you're having financial trouble, it's your own fault and you have some kind of character flaw.
Credit counselors say that perception is what prevents many of their clients from seeking help sooner. Not only are they unwilling to talk about their debt with strangers, a growing number are hiding financial problems from their spouses, family members and friends, says Michael McAuliffe, president of Family Credit Management, a Chicago-based nonprofit consumer credit counseling agency. They'll have bills sent to P.O. boxes or to a different address, and they may not take steps to fix the problem because they're working so hard trying to keep up appearances.
"Clients would tell us they were spending $100 to go out on a Saturday night because they didn't want to tell their friends what was going on," McAuliffe says. "On the other hand, I've seen relationships damaged because clients don't want to say anything to their friends, so they just keep turning down invitations and avoiding them."
Credit counselors say they're not surprised that credit card debt is more taboo than it was five years ago, when more people carried a balance. "It's easier to open up when you know that everybody else is in the same boat," says Bruce McClary, spokesman for ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions, a nonprofit consumer credit counseling service. "Now, we've got people coming in who talk about how their relatives and friends and neighbors are going back to work and are back on their feet, and they're wondering, 'What's wrong with me?'"
Younger people more open
The poll found that the older you are, the more reluctant you may be to talk about your credit card debt. About 87% of those ages 50 to 64 said they were uncomfortable with the topic, compared to 79% of those ages 18 to 24.
Younger respondents were also more willing to chat about most of the other taboo topics, including their rent/mortgage payment, their salaries and the details of their love lives.
Their greater openness may be because younger Americans grew up with texting, blogging, social media and other tools that encourage users to provide a certain amount of personal information, so they're more comfortable with topics once considered private, Solomon said. "In my experience, young people today will discuss anything," he said. "I see this with my students. The concept of privacy as I know it as a baby boomer, the notion that there is a private self and a core of information that's not disclosed, really doesn't exist anymore."
In addition, Solomon notes, many Americans age 18 to 24 have never known what it's like to not be in debt, and most of their peers are also in debt. A January 2013 Ohio State University study found that young people are racking up debt at a much higher rate than older generations, and they're also paying it off more slowly. "To them, having credit card debt is just status quo," Solomon says.
Other survey results
Other notable findings from the poll include:
- Women were more uncomfortable talking about card debt, with 88% saying they were uncomfortable, compared to 81% of men. McClary said that may be because lingering gender stereotypes judge women more harshly for racking up debt. He pointed to a 2012 research study that found that young women who graduate with debt are less likely to marry than women who graduate debt-free, while men's debt load has no impact on their marital prospects.
- Credit card debt is a less-taboo topic in the northeastern part of the US. Only 76% of respondents in that region weren't willing to talk about their debt, compared to 85%, 86% and 89% in the Midwest, South and West respectively.
- Americans age 50 to 64 were more likely to carry a balance (39%) than younger age groups. That aligns with the findings of a different study earlier this year by Demos, a New York-based research policy organization, that found older Americans carrying a higher debt load than younger consumers for the first time.
- Even those who don't carry a balance said they were reluctant to discuss the topic of credit card debt (83%).
Talking about your debt
Credit counselors and financial experts say it's important to talk about your debt, if not with strangers, then with a spouse or friend. "If you can't find someone to talk to, go to a nonprofit credit counseling agency that can take an objective look at your situation and offer advice on solutions," McClary said. "The hardest thing is to try to tackle it without telling anyone, without any support."
Carrie Smith, a small-business accountant in Dallas, said initially she was embarrassed to tell others about the $14,000 in debt she carried. "I would think, 'What kind of accountant am I that my finances are so messed up?'"
A tough divorce that drained her savings persuaded her to get serious about tackling her debt, but it wasn't until she started sharing her efforts publicly in her blog, carefulcents.com, that she began to have success. "It helped hold me accountable," she said. "I got really positive comments and feedback from readers who gave me the kick I needed."
Smith got a second job at H&R Block and gave up cable TV, movies, her gym membership and other luxuries to cut her living expenses down to two-thirds of her income. A year later, she had paid back every penny of debt.
"Even if you don't start a blog, I think it's really important to find a group of people who relate to you financially and share with them," Smith said. "They will support you, share ideas with you and that will make it easier for you to reach your goal."
The survey was conducted from March 28-30, 2013, by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications, a division of GfK Custom Research North America on behalf of CreditCards.com, via random digit dialing phone interviews with 1,005 interview subjects. Interviewees were approximately split between males and females ages 18 and over. The raw data was then weighted by a custom designed computer program that automatically developed a weighting factor for each respondent, employing five variables: age, sex, education, race and geographic region. The total margin of error on weighted data for the full sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points.