Love me, Love my Debt? No way, Poll Says

By Martin

Single, attractive, successful professional looking for everlasting love. Must adore animals, walks in the park. Please respond with a list of all debts and your credit report. No report, no reply.

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That's the type of singles ad we'd really place, if we were honest. According to a new survey, attitudes regarding debt loom large over any relationship, and that's especially true for women.

With Valentine's Day approaching, the scientific survey of 1,005 adults found most Americans consider heavy debt a major turnoff in a relationship. In fact, finding out your partner kept big credit card debt a secret, or lied about being able to pay routine bills, is enough for most to end a relationship.

Most Americans also believe that sharing the same attitudes about managing money is the single most important factor in a relationship.

Credit counselors and family therapists are not surprised. They say their real-life experiences mesh with and confirm the survey's findings.

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"Nothing breaks Cupid's bow like an argument over money," said Melinda Opperman, senior vice president of Springboard, a nonprofit, nationwide credit counseling and financial education organization. "Our counseling sessions reveal that money is a source of conflict for many couples ... Differences in values make for conflict."

Such conflict can be chronic and, ultimately, destructive to a relationship.

"Yes, even more than sex, money is often used by couples as a wedge, negotiating tool and weapon to manipulate and control a situation," said Barbara Udell, a family and individual therapist and counselor who holds degrees in social work and other disciplines. "It can be very powerful ammunition.

"If you don't get this right, it can be the death knell of a relationship," Udell said.

Key findings

Among the survey's findings:

  • Expect women to be quicker to cut off a relationship over money and debt issues. About 70% of women would break it off if they found out their partner had lied about their ability to pay routine bills. That's the same percentage of women who would stop seeing someone with a criminal history. Two out of three women find secret credit card debt a relationship deal-killer, and 55% would cut it off if they found out a partner was heavily in debt.
  • When asked the same questions, men are somewhat more tolerant of financial wrongdoing: Slight majorities would terminate a relationship over lying about bill paying or secret credit card debt, and just 37% say heavy debt is reason enough to call it off.
  • By comparison, cheating is still the ultimate sin in relationships, with 84% listing it as a good reason for the big chill. At the other end of the spectrum, getting fired from a job would cause just 16% to bid a beau adieu.
  • Nearly 53% of Americans believe "a partner with debt is a turnoff." More women (57%) feel this way than men, but nearly 48% of men also would look askance at a relationship with an indebted partner.
  • Want me to love you? Show me your credit score: 57% of women agree strongly or somewhat strongly with that sentiment, along with more than 47% of men. The specific statement they were asked to evaluate: "If you were about to get seriously involved with someone, you would want to know your partner's credit score."
  • Agreeing about money is fundamental to relationships. A solid 68% of all respondents agreed with this statement: "Sharing the same attitudes toward managing money is the most important factor in a relationship."
  • But that monetary nirvana is hard to find: 73% of those surveyed believe that couples argue most often about money.
  • About six in 10 Americans, including 62% of women and 53% of men, would have less trust in someone if they found out that the prospective partner was in serious debt. Three-quarters of all respondents wouldn't pool money with a financially irresponsible partner.
  • But wait, we can fix you -- or at least we think we can. About seven in 10% of Americans (69%) say it is OK to insist that a partner change his or her spending habits. On this matter, men and women essentially agree, with 70% of men and 68% of women thinking they should try to influence a partner's money decisions.

The scientific poll was conducted for between Jan. 11 and 13, 2013, by GfK Roper. Pollsters interviewed 1,005 women and men from various parts of the country through random-digit dialing. Typically, they were asked if they strongly agree, somewhat agree, strongly disagree or somewhat disagree with a wide range of statements regarding debt and money, and how that impacts their relationships.

Get your money act together

Regardless of who you are and where you live, this is the bottom line, experts agree: Get your financial affairs in order and be sure to tell the truth about them if you want your romantic relationship to develop, thrive and survive.

"Money matters and debt issues are the No. 1 reasons for divorce, child and spousal abuse, stress, addictions and low productivity on the job ... ," said David Jones, president of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies, which represents 32 nonprofit credit counseling companies.

"We find that today's consumer is more aware than ever that good credit and high bureau scores are essential for successful family life," he said. "I am not at all surprised that someone might consider credit issues when deciding whether to enter a relationship. That is in line with current consumer behaviors."

"With respect to 'fixing' a partner's spending habits and attitudes toward debt, it is critical that the subject be addressed openly and honestly," Jones said. "Habits are hard to change, but the future of a strong family relationship may depend on it. The more responsible partner should make every effort to resolve credit and debt issues that threaten the relationship."

Opperman agreed, saying it is more than worth a try.

"Actions speak louder than words, and when your loved one sees you living below your means, reducing debt and saving for a rainy day, he or she will know how much you care about your overall financial health as a couple," she said. "If your relationship is your first priority, you'll both have to be willing to negotiate."

Money woes? Let's talk

All the experts agree on one point: Openness is a key to successful relationships.

"Do whatever it takes to maintain financial openness and balance between you and your partner," Udell said, "and be sure to remove some of the emotions that are prevalent when it comes to money management."

"Most people assume, incorrectly, that the person they love thinks exactly the same way they do about money and has the same financial goals," said Opperman, the credit counselor. "It's important for couples to communicate early on in their relationship about their behaviors and attitudes toward money matters. Financing a lifestyle with heavy debt may be fine for one person. However, it creates financial worries and fears in the other person."

Poll methodology: The survey was conducted from Jan. 11-13, 2013, by GfK Roper, a division of GfK Custom Research North America, on behalf of Random digit dialing phone interviews were completed with 1,005 adults (440 men and 565 women). The raw data were 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 margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points for the full sample.

See related: 6 ways romance ruins finances