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Can being frugal save your marriage?

Couples who accrue consumer debt are much more likely to divorce, research shows, no matter how much they make.

By Teresa Mears Jun 7, 2010 3:04PM

Are couples who rack up a lot of consumer debt more likely to divorce?


They indeed are, according to research by Jeffrey Dew, an assistant professor at Utah State University, who found that couples with no assets are 70% more likely to divorce than couples who had just $10,000 in assets.


A recession, or any financial hardship, can be a treacherous time for a relationship. In these times, Sharon Anne Waldrop wrote at, "financial infidelity is the new adultery."


If you needed another reason to live below your means and avoid consumer debt, be warned that the fate of your relationship is intertwined with the state of your finances. Cheating with your credit card can be as corrosive as cheating with another man or woman.


Those who stay out of debt have stronger marriages, Dew wrote in "The State of Our Unions," a report on marriage in the U.S. His part of the report was titled "Bank on it: Thrifty couples are the happiest":

Consumer debt fuels a sense of financial unease among couples, and increases the likelihood that they will fight over money matters; moreover, 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.

Dew found that newlyweds who accumulated substantial consumer debt became less happy in their marriages over time. On the other hand, those couples who paid off debt or never had any kept their marital quality higher. You can see his chart here.

Interestingly, the couples' education level and incomes didn't matter: Substantial debt hurt all the marriages.


While $10,000 seems like a relatively small amount to tip the scales between a happy marriage and a divorce, think about how many arguments could be avoided if couples had an emergency fund when they are hit by life's unavoidable setbacks: medical bills, car repairs, leaky roofs. All of those events are stressful, but they are much more stressful and likely to lead to arguments when there is no money to pay for them.


Disagreements about money are the No. 1 cause of marital conflict and the top reason for divorce during the first three years of marriage, Brad Klontz, co-author of "Mind Over Money: Overcoming the Money Disorders that Threaten Our Financial Health," told Mint.

Money is taboo to many people and rarely do couples talk about it. Each partner has his or her own set of values about money and (chances are) slim that both have the same beliefs.

Perhaps some of you have seen the Canadian TV show "Til Debt Do Us Part" on CNBC where personal-finance writer Gail Vaz-Oxlade attempts to help couples whose relationships have been strained to the breaking point by debt, overspending, underemployment or other financial stresses.

She starts out by forcing the couples to live on cash only and to make up a budget -- together. She advocates strongly that both members of a couple take responsibility for family finances.

I'm a big believer in taking turns when it comes to the day-to-day money management: She does it from January to June, and he does it from July to December. That way, you both get the aggravation, the discipline and the sense of how easy or hard it is for the other. Doing a mid-year hand-over also creates a prime opportunity for you to have an in-depth look at how you are doing, where you're going, and what needs to be tweaked in the plan.

Couples need to talk about all these issues BEFORE they get married, she emphasizes.


If debt is such a big danger to marriage, why are we seeing fewer divorces in the recession?


Because people can't afford to divorce. Dew predicts a short spike in divorces after the economy recovers.


"The funny thing about divorce is you have to be able to afford it," he told USA Today. "Let's say you have a couple that is unhappy, but if they expect to live after the divorce from the proceeds of their home, in this housing market they are not going to be able to sell their home. People are less able to afford divorce."


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