In the U.S., Americans have acquired an estimated $921 billion in debt belonging to a current or ex-partner. And those assuming responsibility over a significant other's debt took on $23,238 on average.
That's according to a new survey from online comparison platform Finder. To determine the approximate amount of debt Americans have acquired on behalf of their partners, Finder asked over 2,000 U.S. adults ages 18 to 91 to share how much debt they've taken on from a past or current partner, why they took on that debt and what type of debt it is.
Women are more likely than men to take on their partner's debt, the survey says: 53% of women reported having done so versus 47% of men. However, the amount of debt assumed by men when covering for their partner financially is roughly 50% higher on average than the amount taken on by women. On average, men take on around $31,740 as a result of a romantic relationship, while women acquire just $15,681.
Men and women differ in the types of debt they're more likely to take on for their significant other, the study shows. Women more commonly assume a partner's debt if it's a result of divorce settlements, the death of a partner or purchases made in their name, such as co-signing a loan or sharing a credit card. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to shoulder their partner's debt if it results from purchases made via joint bank accounts, gambling problems or debt assumed through marriage.
While the data shows that women are more likely to take on debt for their significant other, it isn't clear why that may be. Since there isn't a huge split between the percentage of men and women who were willing to take on their partner's debt, experts say it could be a result of social norms or could just be coincidence.
"Some may argue that women have a predisposition towards caretaking, but equally, others may argue that men have predisposition towards rescuing. Both tendencies might lead one to assume debt for someone they care for," Priya Malani, founder of New York-based online financial services provider Stash Wealth, tells CNBC Make It.
Finder found that the No. 1 reason people end up acquiring their partner's debt is through marriage. About a third of respondents say that getting married caused them to assume the other person's debt.
The second most common cause is purchases made in their name due to a shared credit card with 31.27%, followed by purchases made via joint bank accounts (21.05%), divorce settlements (19.5%) and the death of a partner (5.57%).
When partners take on each other's debt, it most commonly comes from credit card spending, with 50.46% of respondents saying they paid off their significant other's credit cards.
In second place are car payments, with 24.15% of participants saying they covered their partner's auto loan bills, followed by student loans (20.12%), medical bills (18.89%) and personal loans (18.27%).
One in five Americans regret combining finances with their spouse or partner, and women are twice as likely to express their dissatisfaction regarding the way finances are managed in their relationship, according to a 2019 survey from MagnifyMoney. That means it's essential that you and your partner are on the same page financially.
While it might be difficult to say no to your partner if they need money, if assuming their debt could land you in a financially stressful situation, experts say you should weigh your options before agreeing to help.
"Of course you want to support a partner both emotionally and financially. However, you also need to evaluate how you are protected in these situations, particularly if you're unmarried and your break up wouldn't be a divorce with the legal dividing up of assets and debts," says Erin Lowry, author of "Broke Millennial Takes On Investing." "Are you financially capable of taking over a co-signed loan? If you loan your partner money, is it okay if it doesn't get paid back?"
Douglas Boneparth, a certified financial planner and president of Bone Fide Wealth, says there are a number of factors you should consider before taking on a partner's debt. "From credit scores to financial goals, it depends on what the partners want for themselves and what position they are currently in," he explains. "Taking on debt without first understanding how it would affect you or your household is a misstep in and of itself. If the decision is not an informed one, don't do it."
In order to cover your bases, and protect both you and your partner, make sure you both spend responsibly with credit cards, develop a plan for paying off your debt efficiently and be sure to have open, honest conversations about your collective finances.
This step is key, explains Ryan Marshall, a New Jersey-based certified financial planner. "When you are in a relationship and it is getting serious you should definitely have the money conversation," he says. "Since money problems are one of the biggest causes for divorce, it is not talked about enough prior to getting married.
"It's not the most romantic thing to talk about, but it is one of the more important topics couples should address."
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