MONEY's new poll of the behaviors of some 1,000 millennials and boomers when it comes to relationships and money found that couples who are in sync on financial issues feel more secure, argue less about money—and have hotter sex lives. But there's one issue that consistently gets in the way of marital harmony: debt.
Two in 10 boomers and millennials say they fight about credit card debt, making this one of the five most common conflicts for both groups. Among the older generation, 61% find excessive debt unattractive. On the surface, Gen Y seems less concerned about debt, with just 41% saying it's a turnoff. But that's deceiving. Millennials, sometimes called "generation debt," are so weighed down by student loans that many just accept debt as a condition of being young.
In any case, the impact of debt on relationships is undeniable: "It is a silent killer, chipping away at your self-confidence," says psychologist Kathleen Gurney, author of Your Money Personality. In fact, Jeffrey Dew, associate professor at Utah State University, found that marital satisfaction is correlated with assets, so that as debt increases, happiness wanes. A big IOU, of course, also stands in the way of your goals. Case in point: More than 70% of young adults say student loans keep them from saving, a National Foundation for Credit Counseling poll found.
The good news is that "as couples experience success paying down debt," says Gurney, "they start to see themselves and their partners differently, and the arguing ends."
Here's how you can beat your debt together.
Open with someone's misfortune. Got debt that's burning a hole in your goals? Again, it helps to use a life event to spur the conversation, but in this case a negative one can have more impact. Particularly if one or both of you have been avoiding facing facts, "a soft-and-fuzzy approach won't get results," says Bruce McClary of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. You might mention how a friend's aging parent needs help or bring up the challenges your brother has faced since being downsized, noting how if it had happened to you, your debt might make it tough to respond.
Create a pay-down plan jointly. In MONEY's survey, 70% of millennials and 77% of boomers say properly managing debt repayment makes for a healthy relationship. Indeed, a systematic approach is the best way to erase balances, says McClary. Some people start with the highest-rate credit cards, to reduce the total interest paid, then move on to other debt. An alternative tack is to start with the smallest balances to enjoy early success. Or follow the lead of Lisa Dell and Cory Tiffin, who began attacking their combined $10,000 on four credit cards after marrying three years ago. Initially the Chicago couple, now 31 and 29, started paying the minimum on their lowest-rate cards and double the minimum on their highest-APR cards. "But we kept feeling we weren't making progress," she says. So they transferred the balances to one card and, by paying $900 a month, vanquished the debt in 20 months.
There's no right answer. What's important is that you make the decision together. Same for choosing what sacrifices you'll make. Also be sure to review your progress regularly. As you whittle down the debts, says financial planner Wallace, "you'll be more motivated to stick to the plan."
More from the Love & Money survey:
Poll: How Boomer and Millennial Couples Feel About Love and Money
Why Couples Need to Get Financially Naked
The Single Most Important Money Talk for Couples
How Money Can Improve Your Sex Life (It's Not What You Think)