Credit card debt carries special stigma, survey finds

The average American household in debt owes $ 15,355 on credit cards – but don’t expect people to openly admit to having this type of debt. According to a NerdWallet survey, 70% of Americans believe there is more 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 the stigma, embarrassment, and judgment around credit card debt and other types of debt, including student loans, mortgages, and medical bills. Here is what we found out about the psychology of debt in America:

  • 35% say they would be more embarrassed to tell others they have credit card debt, compared to 19% who are most embarrassed by any other type of debt.

  • 43% of people with credit card debt would feel judged if their family and friends knew how much credit card debt they owe.

  • 49% of Americans would be less interested in dating someone if they knew the person had credit card debt.

Credit card debt comes at an emotional cost too

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More than a third of Americans (35%) would be the most embarrassed to tell people they have credit card debt rather than any other type of debt.

Americans say they are more embarrassed to recognize credit card debt than any other type of debt. Because credit card debt is heavily stigmatized – often referred to as “bad debt” – it’s no surprise that Americans feel the most shame about card balances, whether real or hypothetical. Our investigation revealed:

  • More than a quarter (28%) of Americans whose households earn less than $ 50,000 a year responded that they would be very embarrassed to tell others they had credit card debt, while 4 in 10 earned 100,000 USD or more says the same thing.

  • Two-thirds (65%) of parents with children under the age of 18 at home say they would be embarrassed to admit any type of debt, compared to half (50%) of people without children living at home.

  • Midwest (61%), a group that generally boasts high average credit scores and low debt balances, are the most likely to be embarrassed about having debt. Southerners (56%) are the next most likely to be embarrassed telling others they have any type of debt, but they have the lowest average credit scores and the lowest debt ratios. highest in the country.

NerdWallet resident credit card expert Sean McQuay says, “It’s no surprise that shaming debt isn’t necessarily effective in preventing or eradicating it. We see that the Midwest and Southerners are ashamed of above average debt, but with very different results. Shame does not guarantee success. The only way to pay off debt is to face it 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 family members and friends knew their credit card debt amount.

Only a quarter (25%) of Americans say they would judge a friend or family member for having credit card debt. But 32% of Americans with and without debt assume they would be judged for the same. Our study has found in several cases that people who are most afraid of being judged on themselves are more likely to judge others for debts. This was especially true for millennials, especially men:

  • More than half of millennials with credit card debt (55%) say they would feel judged if their friends and family knew how much debt they owed; more than a quarter of millennials (27%) say they would try a friend or family member for credit card debt. All other age groups were less likely to feel judged or judging.

  • Men (44%) who have credit card debt say they would feel judged if their family and friends knew how much credit card debt they have, compared to 41% of women who would. This gap was particularly noticeable for millennials with credit card debt: 65% said they would feel judged, compared with 46% of millennials. Millennials were also more likely. to judge family and friends for their credit card debt: 33% say they would be judgmental, compared to 23% of millennials.

“Many millennials came of age during the recession, which could explain their fear of credit cards and the potential debt that accompanies their improper use, ”says McQuay. “Because of this bias, it makes sense that Millennials view credit card debt as something that needs to be judged. But, just like being ashamed of debt, judging someone’s debt is rather unproductive. This does not solve the problem; he points to it.

Debt, the dating circuit 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 would judge loved ones for having credit card debt, but if they’re willing to be romantically involved with someone in such a position, that’s 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 investigation found:

  • Half of American women (51%) would be less interested in dating someone if they knew the person had credit card debt, compared to 46% of men.

  • 62% of Americans 65 or older would be less interested in dating someone if they knew the person had credit card debt, compared to 46% of Millennials. Compare that with judgmental 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 65 years and older who have this debt would feel the same. judge.

“I think it’s interesting that the 65 and over age group seems more comfortable with their own debt while being more selective about potential partners in debt,” says McQuay. “While older Americans probably don’t judge younger people in debt, they don’t want that debt to become their problem through a romantic relationship.”


This survey was conducted online in the United States by Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet from November 2-4, 2015, among 2,017 adults aged 18 and over, of whom 1,659 have credit cards. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For the full survey methodology, including weighting variables, please contact [email protected].

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