To Politics and Religion, Add a Taboo on Credit Card Debt

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Forget politics and religion. When it comes to talking with people we've just met, a new study finds that the most uncomfortable topic of discussion is how much we owe in credit card debt.

About 85 percent of people surveyed on behalf of said they'd be somewhat or very unlikely to discuss credit card debt with someone they'd just met.

That makes credit card woes more taboo than any other topic the respondents were asked about, including their salaries, mortgage payments, weight, health problems and love life details.

Politics and religion are often considered to be the most taboo topics to bring up with people you don't know well or don't want to offend. But the survey found that nearly 50 percent of those surveyed would be somewhat or very likely to bring up their political views with a relative stranger, while nearly 60 percent were likely to bring up their religious views.

By comparison, only about 12 percent said they'd be likely to bring up the amount they owe on their credit cards.

That's not surprising given the uncomfortable, and often contradictory, relationship many of us have with credit cards, said Lucia Dunn, an economics professor at Ohio State University who has studied Americans' attitudes about debt extensively.

"Credit card debt, you know, does have a stigma," Dunn said. "It implies a lack of self-control."

That's unlike other types of debt, such as mortgages, which many still see as a good investment despite the recent housing crisis.

We may judge others harshly for having credit card debt, but millions of Americans use credit cards to cover everything from an unexpected car repair to a family vacation.

It wasn't always so common. Americans come from a long history, going all the way back to the days of Benjamin Franklin, of valuing austerity and staying out of debt.

But especially in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Dunn noted that it became much more acceptable – and easy – to take on credit card debt.

Americans are currently carrying about $848 billion in revolving debt, which is mostly made up of credit card debt, according to the Federal Reserve. That's down from a high of more than $1 trillion in 2008, as the nation was falling deeply into recession.

The ensuing financial crisis caused some Americans to willingly get a better handle on their credit card debt, while others found their credit lines cut off and were not able to take on as much credit card debt as they had in the past.

Some Americans who were not able to get rid of their credit card debt during that period likely are still struggling with it, according to separate research Dunn has conducted. The weak economy and tight job market also may have left some with little choice but to rely on credit cards to get by.

Another reason people may be reluctant to talk about credit card debt is that it's one of the most stressful kinds of debt, second only to payday loans according to Dunn's research.

She suspects that's partly because of the techniques that debt collectors sometimes use to get people to repay credit card debt.

Unlike car loans or mortgages, credit card debt isn't secured by a thing that the bank can simply repossess. That means collectors are left trying to persuade people to give them the cash, in some cases through repeated phone calls and other types of contact.

The survey of 1,000 people was conducted in March by GfK Custom Research. It has a 3 percent margin of error.