The average indebted American household owes $15,355 on credit cards — but don’t expect people to openly admit carrying that kind of debt. According to a NerdWallet survey, 70% of Americans think there is more of a stigma surrounding credit card debt than any other type of debt.
NerdWallet commissioned an online survey, conducted by Harris Poll, of more than 2,000 adults. We asked about stigma, embarrassment and judgment around credit card debt and other types of debt, including student loans, mortgages and medical bills. Here’s what we found out about the psychology of debt in America:
- 35% say they would be most embarrassed to tell others they have credit card debt as opposed to 19% who are most embarrassed by any other type of debt.
- 43% of those with credit card debt would feel judged if family and friends knew how much credit card debt they have.
- 49% of Americans would be less interested in dating someone if they knew the person had credit card debt.
Credit card debt has emotional cost too
More than one-third of Americans (35%) would be most embarrassed to tell people they have credit card debt as opposed to any other type of debt.
Americans report more embarrassment about acknowledging credit card debt than all other types of debt. Because credit card debt is highly stigmatized — often referred to as “bad debt” — it’s unsurprising that Americans would feel the most shame about card balances, whether actual or hypothetical. Our survey revealed:
- Over a quarter (28%) of Americans whose household earns less than $50,000 a year responded that they would be most embarrassed to tell others about having credit card debt, while 4 in 10 earning $100,000 or more say the same thing.
- Two-thirds (65%) of parents with children under 18 at home say they would be embarrassed about acknowledging any type of debt, compared with half (50%) of people without children living in their home.
- Midwesterners (61%), a group that generally boasts high average credit scores and low debt balances, are most likely to be embarrassed about owning up to having any debt. Southerners (56%) are the next most likely to be embarrassed to tell others about having any type of debt, but they have the lowest average credit scores and the highest debt-to-income ratios in the country.
Sean McQuay, NerdWallet’s resident credit cards expert, says, “It’s no surprise that shame about debt isn’t necessarily productive in preventing or eradicating it. We see that both Midwesterners and Southerners have above-average shame of debt, but with very different results. Shame doesn’t guarantee success. The only way to pay off debt is to face it head on and make a plan to get rid of it.”
Those who judge also feel judged
More than 4 in 10 Americans with credit card debt (43%) say they would feel judged if their family members and friends knew how much credit card debt they owed.
Only a quarter (25%) of Americans say that they would judge a friend or family member for having credit card debt. But 32% of Americans with and without debt assume that they would be judged for the same thing. Our study found in several cases that the people most afraid of being judged themselves are more likely to judge others for having debt. This was especially true for millennials, particularly men:
- More than half of millennials with credit card debt (55%) say they would feel judged if friends and family knew how much debt they had; more than a quarter of millennials (27%) say they would judge a friend or family member for having credit card debt. All other age groups were less likely to feel judged or to judge.
- Men (44%) who have credit card debt report they would feel judged if family and friends knew how much credit card debt they have as compared with 41% of women who would feel that way. This gap was especially noticeable for millennial men with credit card debt: 65% report that they would feel judged, compared with 46% of millennial women. Millennial men were also more likely to judge family and friends for their credit card debt: 33% say they’d be judgmental, compared with 23% of millennial women.
“Many millennials came of age during the recession, which could explain their fear of credit cards and the potential debt that comes along with using them incorrectly,” McQuay says. “Because of this bias, it makes sense that millennials see credit card debt as something that should be judged. But, just like feeling shame about debt, judging someone’s debt is rather unproductive. It doesn’t solve the problem; it points fingers at it.”
Debt, the dating deal breaker
Almost half of Americans (49%) say they would be less interested in dating someone if they knew the person had credit card debt.
Only 25% of Americans say they’d judge loved ones for having credit card debt, but whether they’re willing to get romantically involved with someone in such a position is another story. Almost half of Americans say they would be less interested in dating someone if they knew the person had credit card debt. Here’s what our survey uncovered:
- Half of American women (51%) would be less interested in dating someone if they knew the person had credit card debt, compared with 46% of men.
- 62% of Americans 65 years or older would be less interested in dating someone if they knew the person had credit card debt, compared with 46% of millennials. Contrast this with the judgment statistics: 55% of millennials with credit card debt say they would feel judged by loved ones if they knew how much credit card debt they have, while only 26% of those 65 and older who have this debt would feel similarly judged.
“I think it’s interesting that the 65-plus age group appears more comfortable with their own debt while being more choosy about potential partners with debt,” McQuay says. “While older Americans probably aren’t judging younger people with debt, they don’t want that debt to become their problem via a romantic relationship.”
This survey was conducted online within the U.S. by Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet from Nov. 2-4, 2015, among 2,017 adults ages 18 and older, among whom 1,659 have a credit card. This online survey is not based on a probability sample, and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.