Debt a Big Problem for Marriages

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What are the most devastating words spoken in a marriage? (Multiple choice):

A) “I’m seeing someone else.”

B) “I totaled the car.”

C) “I just put $36,000 on our Visa Card for the Lexus you wouldn’t buy me.”

If you chose C, you’ve identified the ultimate marital nightmare: Debt betrayal.

Even if you’re spouse isn’t cheating on you, cheating on you financially can ruin a marriage, wreck it bitterly, and faster than a car accident.

It’s the perfect storm: An estimated 80% of all Americans are in debt,  and half of all marriages end in divorce.

If these two distressing trends sound unrelated, they’re not: Money problems account for an estimated 22% of all U.S. divorces. Millions of Americans take sacred vows to stay together forever…till debt do us part.

“Debt can act as a corrosive agent in marriage,” W. Bradford Wilcox, a Sociology Professor at the University of Virginia said in an interview with “Debt causes stress in the moment, fear for the future.”

Wilcox is the director of the National Marriage Project at UVA and has done several reports on marriage and money problems.

“High levels of credit card debt play havoc in the lives of newly married couples,” Wilcox said.  “Debt is associated with less time spent together, more fighting, and significantly lower levels of marital happiness.”

What Can I Do If My Spouse Runs Up Secret Credit Card Debt?

Here’s the thumbnail answer to the terrifying question: What do I do when my spouse dumps a fat 30 grand on our credit cards behind my back?

  • Seek marriage counseling: Trust is shattered, an even bigger problem than debt.
  • Consider getting personal financial planning therapy, a new field.
  • Establish a household budget, and stick to it.
  • Keep talking, and always tell the truth, especially when it’s difficult.
  • Consider free debt counseling to learn about your options.
  • Research joint debt management plans for couples.

Let’s take a closer look at these solutions for married couples in debt.

» Learn More: Am I Responsible for My Spouse’s Credit Card Debt?

Get Help for Your Mind, Marriage and Checkbook

This is why people say, “Bartender, give me a double.” You’ve got, in fact, triple trouble.

First, you can’t trust your spouse. Even if there isn’t another man or woman involved, if they’ve violated the sacred marriage pact to flush thousands of your joint dollars for a secret, uncontrollable passion, what other betrayals are they capable of?

Shame, anger, divorce come quickly to mind. You have to face and deal with these emotions, or they’ll bite you.

Second, when you pay the bills and there’s that new monthly $399 car-payment check you have to write. Aaargh. You could use a shrink, or “Bartender, give me a triple,” just for that.

Third, what the heck do you do about this complex problem?

No one seems qualified to help you. A marriage counselor will discuss your deepest emotions, your sex life, your nasty habit of not capping the toothpaste … but what do they know about debt issues?

A financial planner can help you set up a budget, but they don’t feel comfortable talking about emotions, says Sonya Britt-Lutter, an Associate Professor of Personal Financial Planning at Kansas State University.

Professors like Britt-Lutter, who has a Master’s Degree in family therapy and a Ph.D., in financial planning, have evolved a new practice that bridges the two worlds. It’s called financial therapy. They are a blend of psychologists who are trained in financial planning, or financial planners with counseling degrees.

If you can’t find one of these dual-degree professionals, your trusted therapist may well recommend a financial planner she works with, or vice-versa.

Money problems are never just money problems, Professor Britt-Lutter says. They’re often signs of deeper issues that can be ironed out if you get help.

Restate Your Vows: Trust and Cash Are King.

A therapist (or two) will help you learn and commit to these new vows. But there will be complex issues here. First, your spouse will have to face his or her spending problems. Maybe it’s drugs, gambling, alcohol, or another addiction.  Maybe the couple has overspent on a big showy empty house they can’t afford, and one of them ended an argument by overspending on furniture to fill it up?

You’ll need to face what experts call your spending personalities. Are you a “spender” who compulsively buys big, flashy things? A “saver” who turns off the lights in every room? A “shopper” who can’t stop?

You’ll need coaching on how to curb spending and manage a household budget together.

This is a team sport, not a solo effort. The marriage will never work unless you live up to the new vows to communicate, compromise, and work together.

Bad attitudes about money and about each other can spoil a marriage.

“When a husband thinks his wife spends too much money, whether it’s reality or perception, financial and marriage problems follow,” according to research by professors at Brigham Young University who worked with Professor Britt-Lutter.

In the cases of a spouse who secretly spends tens of thousands of couple dollars, Richard Walter, a renowned forensic psychologist in Pennsylvania, recommends setting up separate accounts that each spouse is responsible for, as well as a common household account.

Recognize the Many Debt Traps in a Marriage.

It doesn’t matter if your rich or poor, debt can break your marriage into little pieces.

Credit card debt is “an equal-opportunity marriage destroyer,” says Jeffrey Dew, a Utah State University professor in the Department of Family, Consumer, and Human Development whose research examines the impact of debt on marriage.

Debt hurts a marriage on a number of levels, he says.

“This financial unease casts a pall over marriages in general, raising the likelihood that couples will argue over issues other than money and decreasing the time they spend with one another,” Professor Dew said in a report on consumer debt’s impact on marriage.

“It does not matter if couples are rich or poor, working class or middle class. If they accrue substantial debt, it puts a strain on their marriage.”

Our go-go, spend-spend consumer society is part of the problem. But only if you listen to its seductive call.

“As a society we’re spending a lot more materially than earlier generations of Americans,” says UVA Professor Wilcox. Married couples too often make the plunge into a house “on average much bigger than it was 40 years ago.”

Commit to Thrift and a Happy, Debt-Free Marriage.

Believe you can accomplish it. We live in a cynical, spend-happy age. But you can learn to control both your cynicism and your spending. Many people do, and have happy marriages.

Look for role models in your friends, family, and older generations who knew the value of trust, and thrift.

“Bank on it,” says Professor Dew. “Thrifty couples are the happiest.”

Relearn the ethic that small is beautiful.

Millennials in particular could benefit from this old Benjamin Franklin lesson of thrift.

Experts call them “Generation Debt.” They’re marrying less than previous generations of Americans for a variety of cultural reasons. Being in debt is one of them.

“Debt not only stresses marriages, it prevents people from marrying,” Professor Wilcox said. “It limits the ability of people to marry when they want to get marry. They’re worried about paying off debt, and once married debt is a real stressor. Debt gets you coming and going.”

Dew’s research shows that “newlywed couples who take on substantial consumer debt become less happy in their marriages over time.”

In contrast, “newlywed couples who paid off any consumer debt they brought into their marriage or acquired early in their marriage had lower declines in their marital quality over time. “

Consider Free Credit Counseling

Your therapist, your financial planner, or your financial therapist will all cost you. But you can get debt counseling for free.

If you’re debt situation is urgent, a debt counselor may be able to help you start fresh.

Be wary of profiteers and scam artists. Make sure your credit counselor works for a legitimate nonprofit organization accredited by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC).

Ask about the options for debt relief. A debt management plan can give you a much lower interest rate on credit card debt and lower monthly payments. Debt settlement can reduce the amount owed, but with some big risks. A debt consolidation loan can bundle a half dozen credit card debts into one, lower, monthly payment and better interest rate.

It’s not easy. It may take a few years. All have risks and rewards you’ll have to weigh.

But if you get debt free, then you can build assets.

And “assets…sweeten and solidify the ties between spouses,” Professor Dew says. “Assets minimize any sense of financial unease that couples feel, with the result that they experience less conflict.”

Sweeten and solidify the ties.

They’re words to live by.

And they can’t be bought with a credit card.

About The Author

Joey Johnston

Joey Johnston has more than 30 years of experience as a journalist with the Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times. He has won a dozen national writing awards and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Sports Illustrated and People Magazine. He started writing for InCharge Debt Solutions in 2016.


  1. Brigham Young University. (August 2017). Stop thinking your wife is bad with money. Retrieved from
  2. McWhinney, James E. (September 2017). Top 6 Marriage-Killing Money Issues. Retrieved from
  3. Wilcox, W. Bradford, Editor. The State of Our Unions 2009, Marriage in America, Money and Marriage.” Retrieved from
  4. Institute for Divorce Financial Analysts. If you think that incompatibility, infidelity, and money issues can lead a couple straight to divorce, you might just be right. Retrieved from