Love and debt: How much does it matter to you?

“How important is it to know your partner’s finances before either dating or marriage?” That’s a question mortgage broker LendingTree asked in a recent survey of randomly selected men and women. The overall response: somewhat important prior to dating, but it mattered much more before marriage.

LendingTree also asked, “Would you run a credit check on a partner,” or consider “Hiring help -- such as a dating service -- to marry wealth?” Most respondents said they would be uncomfortable checking their partner’s credit, and an overwhelming percentage wouldn’t use a dating service to find someone financially suitable.

But the flipside of the survey was the smaller pool of respondents who considered it “extremely important to know” about a partner’s finances before dating or tying the knot, as well as those who had or would check their partner’s credit or try a dating service geared to finding out about financials.

LendingTree, which offers auto, mortgage, personal and other types of loans, has a vested interest in learning how love affects money. The lender’s survey used generic profiles of 10 men and 10 women. First, respondents were asked to rate them without any financial information. Then it tacked on varying amounts of debt -- business, car and student loan debt and credit card obligations to see how they now fared.

Among the findings:

  • A man’s attractiveness went up only when his debt was no more than half his income.
  • School debt didn’t hurt attractiveness as much as car or credit card debt, possibly because medical and graduate students are among those with the highest debt.
  • Not surprisingly, subpar credit wasn’t all that important when casual dating, and more than a quarter said finances weren’t important at all. But “opinions changed significantly” when the topic of marriage came up. Almost 90 percent said the information was particularly important.
  • More than twice as many women as men felt that it’s very important for their partner to be employed.
  • Women’s attractiveness didn’t fall nearly as much as men’s if their debt increased. So does this mean that women are more likely to be gold diggers?

Perhaps they’re just more practical, because when dating became serious and both parties began discussing home buying and planning for children’s college funds, it may become “difficult to picture a future with a seemingly irresponsible person,” the survey said.

Couples who argued about finances once a week were more than 30 percent likely to divorce, according to a report from Utah State University entitled “How it is tough to love when you owe.” In other words, the debt load you bring into a relationship is very likely to blow it up, no matter how good looking you are.

The LendingTree survey also addressed a second series of questions. If it’s important to know about a date’s or partner’s finances, how do you find out? And where would you draw the line without invading someone’s privacy? For example, how do you tell their real financial status? He or she could be drowning in payments for that flashy that car picks you up.

When LendingTree asked about how far men and women would go to uncover wealth, approximately a quarter of men, and slightly less women, said they would use a dating service to find a partner with “good financial standing.” But 70 percent of men and nearly three-quarters of all women said they “would never do that.” These “elite” dating services advertise in most airline magazines.

Surprisingly though, almost 30 percent of men and about 36 percent of women said they would run a credit check on their partner, and about 5 percent had actually done so. Equifax, Experian and TransUnion are the three major credit reporting services from which you can obtain a credit report.

A credit check isn’t always doable without the other person’s knowledge, unless you know the person’s Social Security number. “If you’re asking that on dating apps, expect a lot of ‘swipe lefts,’” said LendingTree Content Manager Mike Ouyang. But he added that you have other ways to play private detective.

  • Do they spend freely without much thought?
  • Do they purchase a lot on credit or borrow for most purchases?
  • Do they keep bills and mail organized?
  • Have you seen any warning letters?
  • If you start talking about finances, does your partner display “either nervousness or excessive bravado? Both could be red flags,” warned Ouyang.

Many people -- particularly millennials -- Google someone they want to date or are already dating, just by entering the person’s name with quotes around it, then narrowing the search by address or city. Finding that person on social media could involve a connection request.

Then there’s a Google image search. Websites, such as www.peekyou.com, will even try to find someone by his or her online identity.

If all else fails, try the old-fashioned way. “Build trust in the relationship, and be truthful,” said Ouyang. But he warns: “These things take time.”

Theoretically, so does a marriage, which is supposed to last for the rest of your life.

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.