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Living with credit

When it comes to marriage, how much debt is too much?

Kelly Dilworth

Would you call off your wedding if you just found out your partner was deeply in debt? How about if he missed a couple of credit card payments and now has a black mark on his credit report?

It’s an uncomfortable question, and the answer you get depends on the person you ask — and the depth of the financial damage, according to a recent study by TD Ameritrade.

According to the study:

  • Women are a lot less forgiving than men when it comes to major financial problems, such as bankruptcy and foreclosure. Asked if bankruptcy would cause them to call off or postpone their wedding, 42 percent of women said it would definitely be a deal-breaker. Only 24 percent of men said the same. Thirty-two percent of women also said they’d bolt if their partner lost a house to foreclosure. Of men, just 21 percent agree.
  • Women are also more likely than men to think twice about walking down the aisle if their partner’s ability to financially contribute appears compromised. For example, 31 percent of women said that they would call off or postpone their wedding if their partner was unemployed. But just 17 percent of men were willing to make the same call.
  • Savings also matter more to women. Twenty percent of women say that if their partner didn’t have enough saved for retirement, that would be a serious cause for alarm. Just 6 percent of men felt the same.
  • Run-of-the-mill debt appears to be less of an issue for both genders. About an equal number of men and women (21 percent and 23 percent, respectively) say that high credit card debt would cause them to think twice about marriage. However, just 9 percent of men and 15 percent of women say that bad credit would scare them off. Meanwhile, only 4 percent of men and 6 percent of women think student loan debt would be a serious enough issue to rethink marriage.

Serious financial baggage is a messy topic, and it can be difficult to honestly discuss it. However, financial experts say that couples need to talk openly about their finances well before they exchange vows. “One of the most common challenges newlyweds face is how to merge their finances,” Carrie Braxdale, managing director of investor services at TD Ameritrade, said in a statement. “We know that more people are getting married later in life, and as a result, they are bringing more financial history into the marriage — from credit card debt and student loans, to 401(k)s and other investments. This makes it even more important for couples to have the money discussions before they walk down the aisle.”

Curious, I did an informal survey of a few of my officemates who work in personal finance and so are extra sensitive to these kinds of things. Some said they’d steamroll ahead, no matter what financial hiccups were hidden in their partner’s closet. Others were more hesitant, particularly when it came to bigger financial issues, such as missed child support payments or significant debt.

“It depends,” said my colleague and senior writer Connie Prater. “There’s a hiccup and then there’s pneumonia.” If your partner has a low credit score, then you can work together to rebuild it, she explained. However, if they just declared bankruptcy, then that can severely crimp your lifestyle for years to come.

“A lot of it is about character,” added managing editor Julie Sherrier. “Take a recently divorced person who got the rotten end of the divorce stick — it doesn’t mean they’re fiscally irresponsible. It’s the truly fiscally irresponsible people who you should do a double-take on.”

I recently became engaged myself, and struggle with my own answer to the question. My partner and I traded credit scores and personal debt figures well before we became engaged. And I knew from our first date that he was the kind of guy who saved every receipt he had and entered the receipts into Quicken. But after spending a decade in school getting his doctorate, he also has a significant amount of student loan debt and very little saved up for retirement.

It’s not a deal-breaker for me (my own retirement savings aren’t something to brag about either). However, I’m well aware that unless we win the lottery, our finances will always be precarious. And that’s scary for us both.

The romantic in me knows that I would walk down that aisle no matter what financial challenges we may face. I’m also confident that we’ll manage our uncertain future just fine. However, I don’t blame the more practical-minded fiances who admit that a partner’s blemished finances are a serious enough issue to at least postpone their wedding — if not call the whole thing off.

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