Trust me, I get how unbelievably complicated the answer is — despite the question’s very straightforward construction. Because when it comes to dumping someone over their debt, you’re dealing with the intersection of personal finance and personal relationships — two areas that are equally wrought with anxiety, confusion and simmering resentment.
Online loan marketplace LendEDU recently surveyed 1,000 people with at least $5,000 in credit card debt, and about one in six people (or 17.2 percent, to be exact) reported getting dumped by a significant other at some point in their lives because of their individual debt loads.
The next logical question, then, is what is the debt threshold when dealing with a romantic partner?
I had hoped to give you at least a ballpark figure, but absolutely no one wanted to give me a straight answer. In fact, some were aghast I had the audacity to ask such a thing.
I do understand the hesitance. Virtually nothing makes people more uncomfortable than talking about money. Even people who have no trouble openly discussing their sex lives get bashful about money matters.
Plus, as Stella J. points out, there are so many factors to consider:
- What kind of debt is it — credit card, student loan, car, mortgage?
- Does that make a difference anyway?
- Are they diligently paying it down, or are they flippant about the whole thing?
- How much do you love them, really?
- Oh, and how’s the sex?
Striking out on Twitter, I turned to the popular Reddit forums r/relationships and r/personalfinance, and sure enough, both are chock-full of posts from people hand-wringing about their significant other’s debt. For instance:
A man wondering if he has an ethical responsibility to pay off his future’s wife $50,000 in student-loan debt, only to learn that if he does marry her, he will be legally obligated for that debt. (And oh yeah, student-loan debt never goes away until you pay it.)
A woman asking if it’s stupid to pay off the $15,000 her boyfriend owes in credit card debt. (Answer: Yes, paying off your boyfriend’s without addressing his spending habits is indeed very stupid!)
An out-of-work man who spent half his savings paying down his wife’s various debts.
A woman considering marrying a man who has a whopping $1.5 million in debt across various mortgages.
People urging a man to seriously reconsider marrying a woman with $110,00 in a student-loan debt.
A truly harrowing story about a man contemplating divorce after seven years of enabling his wife’s overspending.
It’s telling that the most popular posts in this vein are from the financially responsible person in the relationship who doesn’t have debt, but who spends an inordinate amount of their time stressing about their partner’s debt and how to approach the subject with them. Unfortunately, many of these people made the fundamental error of not hashing out all of their financial problems before getting married (or taking the relationship to the next level), putting them in the unenviable position of not being able to easily walk away from, say, a partner who’s saddled with $30,000 in credit card debt because her startup failed.
Some of these people are also victims of “financial infidelity,” when a spouse straight-up lies to their partner about their finances, such as the woman whose husband secretly racked up $83,000 in credit card debt, or the man whose wife spent $50,000 in unnecessary loans.
Judging from these responses, people start to worry about their partner’s student-loan debt at about $30,000, although that’s much more forgivable than credit card debt. For credit cards, $10,000 seems to be the point at which people begin to seriously question their partner’s financial habits.
The fundamental issue when evaluating a partner’s debt, though, isn’t the debt itself, regardless of how substantial it is — it’s the underlying behavior that accumulated the debt in the first place.
If the debt is due to the person attending law, business or medical school, and they stand to make a substantial income in the future — as well as have a detailed plan to quickly pay off their loans — the debt is far more palatable. That’s not so much of a debt, anyway, it’s an investment in oneself that yields higher earnings in the future.
Or if the person has a mortgage, diligently pays down the principal and the property is expected to appreciate, that, too, can be Sexy Debt.
But if the person has $25,000 in credit card debt due to frivolous overspending, like this person right here, the debt is just a symptom of the disease that is poor money management. And correcting a lifetime of bad spending habits is far tougher to rectify than paying off a figure — no matter how large — on a credit card statement.