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Is the economy ruining your marriage?

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By George Mannes, Money Magazine senior writer

Question 2: It's been a tough year. The value of your home and your portfolio are way down (even after the recent surge in stock prices), and the payments on the big home-equity loan you took to buy that new motorboat are starting to feel out of reach. Which of the financial issues you face is putting the greatest strain on your marriage?

A. Your plummeting portfolio.

B. Your eroding home equity.

C. Those oversize loan payments.

D. Trick question. They're all stressful -- duh! There's no way to rank this kind of financial pain.

Answer: C. Sure, a sharp decline in the value of your most important assets can easily put a damper on your relationship -- it's depressing, after all, to watch your savings shrink, and depression doesn't exactly put you in the mood for love.

But studies by Utah State University professor Jeff Dew show that so-called bad debt, such as balances on credit cards or installment loans, has a much more direct effect on marital happiness than issues with assets, and the impact is largely negative: The more bad debt a couple have, the more likely they are to argue and the less likely they are to be satisfied with their marriage.

By contrast, "good debt" -- such as student loans or mortgage payments -- doesn't seem to affect how they feel about each other. And while having more savings and investments can certainly help alleviate feelings of economic pressure, it doesn't stop the fighting.

So if you're looking to improve the state of your union, the course is clear: Pare down on the amount you owe.

Feel free to reward yourself along the way -- say, a small dinner out to compensate yourself for all the ones you've skipped. Or be silly -- put stars on the refrigerator, just like you got for your third-grade homework.

"It marks and commemorates that you did it together," says Lili Vasileff, president of the Association of Divorce Financial Planners. That way you can enjoy a pat on the back while you whittle down your debt -- for a double dose of marital contentment.

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