Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


Sociology and Anthropology

First Advisor

Dr. Mary Ann Powell


This study examines the impact of personal debt accumulated before marriage upon marital quality for individuals. Attention from popular media points to the need for further systematic investigation. This study strives to fill this void in academic research. I use the National Survey of Families and Households to conduct a longitudinal analysis of the effect of debt on marital quality for 433 respondents who were single in 1987-1988 (Wave I), and who were married in 1992-1994 (Wave II). Ordinary Least Squares regression was used to test several hypotheses. Social exchange theory provides theoretical guidance for the analysis. Exchange theory focuses attention upon an individual’s circumstances by providing a framework to connect rational thought to marital quality, which is often viewed as an irrationally driven perception of an individual’s relationship. This study examines possible predictors of marital quality including: respondents’ background information; type and amount of debt; financial indicators, including debt-to-income ratio, and financial stress; as well as children and health condition. Results of this study show that normative debts (i.e., educational loans) have a negative effect on marital quality while education alone has a positive effect. An individual’s level of financial stress acts as a strong predictor for lower marital quality, suggesting that marital quality depends not only on debt brought into the marriage, but also on how one feels about that debt. This is important because people from more educated backgrounds, who expect their educational efforts to be rewarded financially, may find debt less burdensome generally. Higher numbers of children are associated with lower marital quality and higher financial stress. This demonstrates how the expense associated with having children affects marital quality both directly and indirectly. This study provides an understanding of the predictors of marital quality, as well as insight into the implications of debt on an individual’s future.


A Thesis Presented to the Department of Sociology and the Faculty of the Graduate College University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Master of Arts in Sociology University of Nebraska at Omaha. Copyright Michelle Mason May 9, 2003