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How Debt Can Affect a Relationship

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Consumer debt levels are reaching record highs among U.S. consumers — but is this having an emotional toll?

According to Fidelity Investments’ latest Couples & Money study, more than half of the couples surveyed carried debt into their relationship — and for those that did, 4 in 10 admitted it had a negative impact.

The study, which has been conducted since 2007, tests the agreement between married partners on communication and knowledge of finances. The latest study uncovers several disconnects related to managing and paying off debt.

For couples who brought debt into the relationship, almost half (49%) contradict each other on whose responsibility it is to pay off that debt. Encouragingly, though, respondents are more likely to feel responsible for taking on their other half’s debt (55%) rather than expecting their partner to pay off theirs (33%).

According to Alexandra Taussig, senior vice president of lifetime client engagement at Fidelity, dealing with debt is one of the biggest stressors in day-to-day life.

“Working as a team to put a financial action plan in place to address debt can help couples get out from under this burden, and as importantly bring more peace of mind to your household and relationship,” Taussig said in a statement. “It’s not the debt you bring into the relationship that matters, but how you work together to handle your debt over the long run.”

The study contains several insights regarding the impact debt can have on a relationship, and the value of working together to overcome debt challenges.

For example, the study finds that couples who identified “paying off debt” as a concern are more likely to have a host of other financial issues, which include communicating poorly, arguing more frequently and having difficulty starting conversations about money.

The study shows that 46% of the couples who are concerned about debt agree that money is their biggest relationship challenge — by comparison, only 16% of couples who are not concerned about debt say the same thing.

The study also finds that 67% of the couples who are concerned about debt say they argue about money, which is more than the 41% of couples who do not worry about debt.

Aside from debt, the study revealed other misunderstandings and knowledge gaps. This runs the gamut from simple disconnects — one in five can’t agree how long they’ve been together — to more serious issues: One in seven couldn’t accurately report their other half’s employment status.

Another disconnect between couples revolves around retirement. The study finds that more than four in 10 couples disagree when asked about what age they plan to retire.

The study also finds that more than half (54%) differ on how much should be saved by the time they reach retirement to maintain their current lifestyle. Nearly half (49%) said they have “no idea” how much should be saved for retirement — including 46% of baby boomers, which is “a generation swiftly approaching (or already in) retirement,” according to Fidelity.

According to Taussig, “openly discussing financial matters helps people feel more confident, more closely aligned and better equipped to take on the future. Working together, couples can help each other build financial confidence in their ability to manage, should the day come they have to do it on their own.”

The 2018 Fidelity Investments Couples & Money Study analyzed retirement and financial expectations and preparedness among 1,662 couples (or 3,324 individuals). Respondents were at least 22 years old, married or in a long-term committed relationship and living with their respective partner, and have a minimum household income of $75,000 or at least $100,000 in investable assets.

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