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Credit card debt a top taboo topic of conversation, poll shows

There’s only one topic Americans dislike discussing more than credit card debt


A new poll finds there’s only one topic Americans find more distressing to discuss than credit card debt: their love lives. And many Americans would rather converse about that notoriously divisive duo – politics and religion – than dish about their debt.

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Do you cringe when the topic of credit card debt comes up at a family feast, by the water cooler at work or over drinks with pals?

If so, a new poll reveals that you’re in good company.

The poll from found there’s only one topic Americans find more distressing to discuss than credit card debt: their love lives. And many Americans would rather converse about that notoriously divisive duo – politics and religion – than dish about their debt.

On average, almost half of Americans (47 percent) feel uncomfortable discussing their credit card debt while more than half (58 percent) are uncomfortable talking about the details of their love lives, the March 2019 survey of 1,000 U.S. adults found.

It’s no surprise credit card debt came in second on this list because finances are a taboo topic in general and many people feel shame about debt, says author and financial psychologist Kit Yarrow, a professor emeritus at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

Cardholders in debt may feel alone, but the percentage of Americans who don’t pay their bill in full is on the rise. In fact, 38 percent of U.S. households carry a credit card balance from month to month.

“If people knew how common credit card debt is, they might talk about it more,” Yarrow says.

See related:  Poll: 56% of balance-carrying cardholders have had debt for at least a year

Credit card debt not the only forbidden topic

Etiquette experts have been doling out advice about what not to discuss when, where and in what company since long before credit cards existed. Therefore, it makes sense that plenty of other topics make people want to change the subject. Conversational discomfort varies by many factors, including topic, generation, geography and relationship. The survey found:

  • Health and weight are universal topics of conversation. Health and weight may seem more personal than money, but on average only 33 percent of people are uncomfortable discussing their weight and 28 are uncomfortable discussing their health. Even with someone they just met, 1 in 4 would feel fine discussing their weight. The universality of health and weight issues may make it easier to talk about these topics, Yarrow says. “Many people struggle to lose a few pounds,” she says.
  • Religion and politics are the least uncomfortable hot-button topics. In a political climate where people are losing family and friends to spats about politics, it’s downright surprising that on average less than 1 in 3 Americans (28 percent) feel uncomfortable discussing their political views. And only 1 in 4 people on average feel uncomfortable talking about their religion. Even with someone they just met, more than one in three people (35 percent) feel comfortable talking religion.
  • Spouses are easiest to talk with about almost any topic. Far more than with any other relationship, Americans find it easiest to talk about sensitive topics with their spouse. Most people (92 percent) feel comfortable discussing the details of their love life with their spouse and almost as many (91 percent) feel comfortable discussing credit card debt with the person they married. However, weight was the most awkward topic to discuss with a spouse, with 11 percent saying the topic made them uncomfortable.
  • Pals make good listeners on matters of the heart. Despite love ranking as the top taboo topic in the survey, over half of Americans (56 percent) feel mostly or very comfortable talking about their love life with their friends. Women (57 percent) find it only slightly easier to talk with friends about romantic relationships than men (54 percent) do. Americans feel more comfortable talking about their love lives with friends than with siblings (48 percent).

See survey methodology

Why is credit card debt such a taboo topic?

Talking credit card makes people feel uncomfortable in general, but the survey found we feel more comfortable opening up on this topic in closer relationships.

It’s no surprise that almost 9 out of 10 people (88 percent) prefer not to discuss their credit card debt with someone they just met. However, more than 6 in 10 would feel fine discussing it with a parent (65 percent) sibling (64 percent) or an adult child (61 percent). Just over half (52 percent) feel comfortable discussing credit card debt with a friend.

While it’s good news that many Americans can open up to those they trust about debt, many hold back due to the stigma around debt, experts say. “People know credit card debt is a trap, and getting caught in it feels very embarrassing,” says Ben Watson, a CPA, personal finance coach and virtual CFO for the personal finance site

Discomfort around discussing credit card debt also varies by generation, and millennials are much more open to talking about debt than older generations. In fact, 6 in 10 millennials (61 percent) feel comfortable talking about credit card debt with their friends compared with just 4 in 10 (43 percent) baby boomers.

In general, younger adults tend to feel more comfortable talking about money, including debt, than older adults, says David Weliver, publisher of MoneyUnder30, a personal finance site for young adults.

“I have always suspected this is largely due to the fact that our collective experience in early adulthood is wildly different than that of boomers,” he says.

Many factors may play a role, including the prevalence of gig work, higher rates of student loan debt and rising living costs, especially in large cities where many young people want to live, Weliver says. Furthermore, the growth of the internet has helped to remove some of the stigmas around financial issues, Weliver says.

“When you can do a quick search and find thousands of blogs and forums highlighting people in very similar situations, it removes some of the shame and makes it easier to open up to friends in real life,” he says.

See related:  How to slay your credit card debt with ‘small wins’

Good reasons to talk about credit card debt

Are you one of the many Americans who feel uncomfortable discussing debt? Of course, it’s wise to steer clear of such a personal topic when you’re chatting with a critical colleague, a nosy neighbor or a friend who dishes out unwanted advice. But talking about your debt with a trusted loved one, and possibly a credit counselor, financial therapist or money coach, could be the first step toward digging out of debt. Here are three reasons you should consider talking about your credit card debt:

  1. Air your feelings about debt. Talking with a supportive friend or family member can be a good first step toward dealing with debt, Yarrow says. Set boundaries for the conversation ahead of time, she recommends. For example, you might tell your loved one that you’re not looking for advice or financial help but just want to talk to someone who cares. “Shame loses its potency when issues are aired out with sympathetic friends and family,” she says.
  2. Talk with others in the same boat. When money coach Matt Kelly had $160,000 in debt, he was working at a bank and pilot testing a group for employees based on Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. Each person in the group anonymously wrote their consumer debt total on a piece of paper to share with the group. The total: $900,000 amongst nine employees. The result: they all felt less alone, Kelly says. “There was a certain amount of relief about getting it out in the open and realizing we were going to tackle our debts one at a time,” he says.
  3. Make a plan to get out of debt. Refusing to shine a light on your debt situation can keep you in the dark. When you meet with a credit counselor or other money pro, you will need to open up about your debt situation including the actual numbers. You and your financial professional can then work together to create a debt repayment plan. “Being aware and action-oriented leads to feeling in control and self-empowered,” says Kathleen Gurney, a licensed psychologist who specializes in helping people make the best use of their money.

Confiding in those you trust can be the first step toward getting a fresh financial start, says Kelley Long, a certified financial planner at Financial Finesse. For example, once you’ve shared your situation with family and friends, you may feel less pressure to get expensive gifts, go on costly vacations or spend in other ways, Long says. “‘Coming clean,’ especially to people who are likely to empathize or at least support you in doing what you can to escape the debt, can accelerate your debt pay-off goals,” she says.

See related:  What to do when credit card debt becomes an emergency

Survey methodology

The study was conducted online in Ipsos’ Omnibus using the web-enabled “KnowledgePanel,” a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. general population, not just the online population. The sample consisted of approximately 1,000 nationally representative interviews among adults aged 18 and older, conducted between March 8-10, 2019. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

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