Most People Would Break Up With Someone Over a Hidden Debt — Would You?

  • By Quentin Fottrell, MarketWatch
  • August 13, 2015

Size does matter — especially when it comes to someone’s bank account.

Two-thirds of people in a relationship say they would consider breaking up with their partner if he/she had hidden a debt, according to a survey of more than 1,100 people carried out by market research firm YouGov on behalf of life insurance company Haven Life. When asked, “Imagine you found out that your partner/spouse had a debt you were previously unaware of. What amount of debt would make you think twice about the relationship?” — 70 percent of people said they would consider breaking up with him/her for a hidden debt totaling $5,000 on average. And one in five respondents said they have secret debt their partner doesn’t know about — some good, some bad.

hidden debt
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Other surveys also point to “financial infidelity.” Roughly one in five Americans who are in a relationship admit they have spent $500 or more without their partner’s knowledge, according to a survey of more than 800 people released in January by credit-card comparison site CreditCards.com, and one-third of people who have a joint account admit to have hidden a purchase, bank account, statement, bill, or cash from their partner or spouse, another survey of more than 2,000 people released last year by the National Endowment for Financial Education, a nonprofit financial advisory organization.

Such deception might explain why frugal people might seem more attractive. One 2013 study found that people found the same photograph of a person more attractive when they’re told that he/she is a saver rather than a spender, according to “A Penny Saved Is a Partner Earned: The Romantic Appeal of Savers,” co-authored by Jenny Olson, a Ph.D. candidate at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, and Scott Rick, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Michigan. “Money is a complicated subject for couples and often becomes an issue of power and control,” says Fran Walfish, a psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, California.

Some people only find out after the relationship has ended. Paula Langguth Ryan, principal at Odenton, Md.-based Compassionate Mediators, which helps negotiate settlements with creditor, once had a client whose husband had opened numerous credit card accounts in her name as well as his, using a post office box to receive and pay bills; her client only discovered the deception when the marriage was dissolved and she tried to get a loan to buy a car and realized that there were judgments in her name. “This kind of deception is very common and happens more often than most people would think,” she says.

Ryan advises people to disclose all their financial secrets before getting into a serious relationship and/or getting married. She advises a client to tell her fiancé that she had recently declared bankruptcy. “They got married and lived happily ever after — so far,” Ryan says. “Finances can be such an emotionally charged subject, we sometimes want to hide them. I recently had another client whose husband maxed out their credit cards in an attempt to save his business. She has a trust fund and he figured that she would bail him out, but that wasn’t the case. She would have divorced him if it wasn’t for their two children.”

It doesn’t always end badly, however. Two weeks before Christmas of 2004, Kandy Hildebrandt opened a letter addressed to her husband, Russ, at his request. The letter revealed that her husband had a personal loan of $17,500. Russ also had 11 credit cards totaling $89,000 in debt. “He handled the personal finances,” she says. “I knew we had several credit cards, but I was unaware of the extent of our debt.” The finance charges on the credit cards alone were $1,593 a month — double their $750 monthly rent in New Richmond, Wis. But they stuck together and, last year, paid off their last debt. “Women fear divorce and save money to prepare for self-reliance while men feel entitled because historically they are the larger bread winners,” Walfish says.

This article originally appeared on MarketWatch.com and is reprinted by permission from Marketwatch.com, ©2015 Dow Jones & Co. Inc. All rights reserved.

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