## Abstract

Despite growing evidence that debt influences pivotal life events in early and young adulthood, the role of debt in the familial lives of young adults has received relatively little attention. Using data from the NLSY 1997 cohort (N = 6,749) and a discrete-time competing risks hazard model framework, I test whether the transition to first union is influenced by a young adult’s credit card and education loan debt above and beyond traditional educational and labor market characteristics. I find that credit card debt is positively associated with cohabitation for men and women, and that women with education loan debt are more likely than women without such debt to delay marriage and transition into cohabitation. Single life may be difficult to afford, but marital life is unaffordable as well. Cohabitation presents an alternative to single life, but not necessarily a marital substitute for these young adults.

## Introduction

Young adults increasingly delay marriage. American men’s median age at first marriage rose from 24.7 in 1980 to 28.2 in 2010. It increased even more among women, rising from age 22.0 to 26.1 (U.S. Census Bureau 2011), while the overall share of young adults married by age 30 declined (Cohn et al. 2011). Delays in labor market entrance and barriers to advancement, expensive housing, and increasing levels of debt are often attributed with contributing to marital delay (Furstenberg et al. 2004; Settersten and Ray 2010). At the same time, cohabitation rates have increased for young adults, with those in their late 20s having the highest cohabitation rates (Kennedy and Bumpass 2008). Numerous studies point to the importance of economic well-being and financial stability as predictors of marriage, particularly for men (Sassler and Goldscheider 2004; Sweeney 2002; Xie et al. 2003). Economic instability and a lack of economic resources matter less for cohabitation (Clarkberg 1999; Xie et al. 2003). Less attention has been paid to understanding whether the financial foundations required of cohabitation differ from those of marriage, how debt shapes union formation decisions, and whether these associations vary by sex.

Youth born in the early 1980s came of age during a period of expansive credit markets. Between 1992 and 2001, the percentage of young adults aged 25–34 who had credit card debt remained consistent, while the average debt holdings increased by 55 % (Draut and Silva 2004). It was also a period of increased college enrollment and dramatic changes in the financing of college, notably the decline in the purchasing power of federal grant aid and growth in the availability of student loan programs (Fitzpatrick and Turner 2007; Rothstein and Rouse 2011). As of 2003–2004, one-third of undergraduates borrowed federal loans up from a quarter of a decade before, and this was accompanied by a 26 % increase in the average loan amount (Wei and Berkner 2008). Understanding its role in the familial lives of young adults is important because of growing evidence that debt influences other pivotal life events in early and young adulthood, such as college completion (Dwyer et al. 2012), first career choice (Rothstein and Rouse 2011), and starting salary (Minicozzi 2005). Despite growing convergence in men’s and women’s roles, it remains unclear whether the effect of debt on union formation differs by gender. This omission is surprising, given that women pursue and obtain college degrees at higher rates than men (Buchmann and DiPrete 2006).

Building on recent work examining consumer debt and marriage in young adulthood (Chiteji 2007; Dew and Price 2011), this study tests whether individual debt has an independent and significant impact on transitions into marriage versus cohabitation, above and beyond traditional socioeconomic indicators. Two distinct types of credit obligations are analyzed. Credit card debt is the most common form of unsecured debt for young adults. Among those with education debt, however, student loans tend to account for the largest share of their debt portfolio. Data are from the 1997 National Longitudinal Study of Youth (NLSY97), a cohort of young adults born in the early 1980s. Discrete-time competing risk models test whether similar consumption, economic, and social factors predicting transitions into marriage also explain entrance into cohabiting unions and whether these relationships differ by sex.

## Growth in Credit Card Debt and Education Loan Debt in Young Adulthood

Americans experienced 30 years of unprecedented availability and access to both unsecured and secured credit markets between the mid-1980s through the Great Recession (2007–2009) (Durkin 2000; Dynan and Kohn 2007; Lyons 2003). The rise in credit card debt levels was largely driven by financial deregulation changes in consumer credit (Watkins 2000) and technological changes that allowed companies’ to diversify risks across households and offer more attractive products (Johnson 2005; Watkins 2000). These policy changes and financial innovations increased the debt of existing customers and those able to gain access, like young adults (Dynan 2009; Weller 2010). Between 1992 and 2001, the average credit card debt of 18- to 24-year-olds increased 104 %, rising from $1,461 to$2,985, compared with an increase of 38 % for all households (Draut and Silva 2004). Jiang and Dunn (2013) calculated that the average credit card debt of young adults born between 1980 and 1984 exceeded that of their parent’s generation by $5,689, and of their grandparents’ generation by$8,156. Scholars point to the slowdown in real wage growth, which has not kept pace with the rate of inflation, as a cause for rising debt (Draut and Silva 2004). The inability to repay debt also increases the likelihood of rolling over debt with compounding interest into future periods.

### Education, Labor Market, and Financial Characteristics

Current educational attainment is categorized into less than a high school diploma, high school diploma, some college, and bachelor’s degree or more. Enrollment status captures whether the respondent was enrolled in a degree program in any month during the calendar year. The variable is disaggregated into the unenrolled and those attending two- and four-year programs; those enrolled in K–12 are grouped with the unenrolled, but professional degree or postsecondary enrollees are included with those attending four-year programs because of small cell size. Including those with less than a high school diploma and the unenrolled population along with the college-goers and the graduates is important given that they are also accessing credit markets and making decisions related to relationship formation.

Labor market controls include a measure of the youth’s logged predicted annual earnings, lagged one year. This was estimated from the young adults’ hourly wage earnings if they worked full-time year-round, using all available waves of the young adult pre- and post-transition, and was estimated separately by gender (Haurin et al. 1997; Whittington and Peters 1996). Measures of current employment status include indicators for full-time work, having worked 30 or more weeks, and at least 30 hours per week in the previous year. All education and labor market explanatory variables are time-varying.

The total value of all financial and nonfinancial assets at the start of the study period, except the value of primary residence, is included as a proxy of wealth (Schneider 2011). Also included is an indicator for bank account ownership, which captures respondents’ connectedness to formal bank institutions or reveals economic disadvantage (Garasky et al. 2008). A dummy variable equal to 1 indicates those who are “unbanked” (lacking a checking or savings account). Young adult households younger than age 24 have the highest rates of unbanked persons, with percentages declining with age (FDIC 2012).

Factors expected to impact union formation and timing and considered exogenous to the youth’s relationship type and timing decision are also included. Time-invariant controls for family background are the mother’s and father’s educational attainment as of 1997, whether the youth resided in a rural area at age 12, a variable equal to 1 if the youth lived with both biological parents from birth through age 14, and an indicator equal to 1 if the parental respondent reported negative net wealth in the 1997 survey. Given racial and ethnic differences in young adult cohabitation and marital rates (Addo 2012; Amato et al. 2008), the sample is categorized into four ethnoracial categories: non-Hispanic white (reference group), non-Hispanic black, Hispanic, and mixed race. In addition, all models control for whether the youth currently resides in a rural area, as well as her/his birth year, age, and age squared.

### Analysis Plan

To estimate the role of early debt holdings while controlling for the other covariates on transitioning to cohabitation and marriage in early adulthood, I generate hazard function estimates using maximum likelihood (Allison 1984). This modeling technique allows for the inclusion of both time-varying and invariant regressors in the estimation. Respondents are followed for every year they are at risk of transitioning from single status into a union type. For the competing risks (hazard) models, when the decision to cohabit or marry is jointly determined, multinomial logistic regressions are estimated. Given that the outcome can be one of two events—cohabitation or marriage—the hazard rates estimated here represent the conditional probability that a youth will transition out of singlehood into a coresidential union given the other event has not occurred.

Standard errors are clustered at the individual level using the Huber/White procedure, which assumes that observations are independent across and not within respondents. The final data set is arranged in a person-year format, with each young adult contributing an observation for every survey year they remain single from age 20 until they transition to their first union. All observations after transitioning are censored. This is important both to avoid reverse causation, given that prior union history can influence current debt levels, and to permit modeling the importance of financial health in the relationship market during this transitional phase in the life course. All tables list the relative risk ratios, the antilog of the estimated coefficients. A likelihood ratio test comparing a pooled model of both gender and distinct models rejected the null hypothesis at p < .000; therefore, all models were run separately for women and men.

## Results

### Descriptive Statistics

Figure 1 plots the unconditional hazard rates of transitioning to cohabitation and marriage by gender over the study period. At every age, both men and women have a greater hazard of cohabiting than marrying. Women transition to cohabitation at earlier ages than men and at greater rates across the study period. The hazard of a first union increases with age for both women and men. By contrast, the hazard rates for marriage are low and exhibit a slow and steady increase, peaking at age 29 (the oldest age by the end of the study period) for both women and men. The majority of the sample remained single over the study period: 52 % of women and 62 % of men. Women were nearly twice as likely to transition to cohabitation (31 %) as to directly marry (16.9 %), compared with 24.9 % of men who cohabited and only 13 % who married. These transition rates are in line with current research showing cohabitation as the modal pathway to coresidential relationships in young adulthood (Sassler 2010).

Table 1 compares the rates of indebtedness and average debt for young women and men by first union status. More than 34 % of the young women held credit card debt (averaging $2,582), compared with 29 % of the men (averaging$3,057). Although women were more likely than men to hold any debt, a closer look reveals that such differences are concentrated among women who remained single and those who cohabited; there are no significant differences in the proportion of women and men who held debt and married.

Women and men were considerably more likely to hold credit card debt than education debt. Cohabiting women and men held more credit card debt than did single women. Married men were also more likely than single men to have credit card debt, and in larger amounts. Men who remained single had greater amounts of credit card debt than did women who remained single—the one category where men’s debt levels exceeded women’s. Single women and men are more likely than their cohabiting and married counterparts to have education debt, and both single and cohabiting women are more likely to have education debt than their male counterparts. Of note, however, is that the amount of education debt does not differ significantly by sex.

Close to 7 % of the women in the sample reported holding both credit card and education loan debt, compared with only 3 % of the men. A little more than one-half of the women in the sample reported not having either type of debt, compared with more than 60 % of the men. Women held debt at higher rates in every union category. These results support Chiteji’s (2007) findings that the majority of young adults do not have outstanding credit card debt, with high debt loads concentrated among a minority of young adults. Descriptive statistics for all independent variables used in the analysis are provided in Table 4 in the appendix.

### Competing Risks Models: The Decision to Cohabit or Directly Marry Versus Remain Single

The multinomial logistic regression models for women are presented in Table 2, and Table 3 shows the results for men. Model A uses all explanatory variables, including the educational, labor market, and financial measures.5 Model B adds in the total debt measure (combined credit card and education loan debt measure), and Model C enters in the debt measures separately. Introducing debt into the model as an additional explanatory variable, along with the youth’s educational attainment and labor market characteristics, tests whether debt is acting as a mediator or operates independently from the other economic resources previously used as predictors of relationship formation. Although debt value can independently signal one’s financial state, it could also work in tandem with other financial and economic measures to provide an overall assessment of financial health. If debt is sending its own independent signal on the relationship market about the respondent, there should be no significant change in the magnitude of the estimates on the other economic resource measures. Asterisks indicate significant differences relative to remaining single, and underlined risk ratios represent significant differences between cohabitation and marriage.

The multivariate competing risks results for young women are presented in Table 2. In Model A, the estimates indicate that educational attainment is positively associated with a first union transition. Single women with less than a high school diploma have decreased risk of directly marrying, whereas having some postsecondary schooling increases the risk of marriage relative to women with only a high school diploma. The least-educated women are also at greater risk of cohabiting than marrying, as indicated by the underlined ratios. There is no association between transitioning to first cohabitation and educational attainment. These results are consistent with the education results reported for women using other data sources (Sassler and Schoen 1999; Sweeney 2002). Women with more education, even those in recent cohorts, are more likely to marry directly.

Current enrollment in any type of postsecondary degree program deters cohabitation, and four-year college enrollment decreases the odds of marriage. The results indicate that school enrollment is perceived as incompatible with early union formation. On the other hand, women who reported holding full-time jobs have an increased probability of cohabitation and direct marriage. Having positive assets aids in the transitions to cohabitation and marriage. Among this recent cohort of young women, positive economic attributes are associated with transitioning out of singlehood into a first coresidential union.

The addition of the total debt measure in Model B has an additive impact on the other socioeconomic attributes in the relationship market; total debt is also an independent and significant predictor of union formation. The relative risk ratio of a one-unit increase in logged total debt is 1.035 for transitioning to cohabitation relative to remaining single and 0.985 for direct marriage relative to cohabiting. In other words, young women with nonzero debt have an increased risk of cohabitation relative to remaining single and relative to directly marrying (Hypothesis 1). The financial status indicators show that being unbanked increases a young woman’s odds of cohabitation relative to marriage in any given year. Net financial assets are positively and significantly related to transitions into a first cohabitation or direct marriage.

The final results, from Model C, assess whether the type of debt held matters for the union decision choice. The competing risks models reveal that relative to remaining single, cohabitation is the relationship choice for women with credit card debt (Hypothesis 2). A one-unit increase in logged credit card debt is associated with a risk ratio of 1.057 for transitioning to cohabitation relative to remaining single. Young women with education loan debt exhibit a 0.928 decreased risk of directly marrying relative to remaining single. Partially consistent with Hypothesis 3, women with education loan debt are less likely to transition to marriage but are also more likely to transition to cohabitation.

The regression results for young men, whose economic attributes have historically mattered more for marital formation (Sassler and Goldscheider 2004), are provided in Table 3. In Model A, the competing risks model indicates that men with less than a high school diploma have lower risks of transitioning into cohabitation and marriage relative to remaining single, and increased chances of cohabitation over direct marriage. High school dropouts are about one-half as likely to marry in any given year compared with men with high school diplomas. Men with bachelor’s degrees or more are more likely to directly marry than to cohabit, relative to men with a high school diploma.

Compared with the unenrolled, being currently enrolled in a two- or four-year degree program significantly deters cohabitation, with two-year enrollees slightly more likely to transition than four-year attendees; men enrolled in four-year degree programs also have decreased odds of directly marrying, consistent with previous studies (Axinn and Thornton 1992; Sassler and Goldscheider 2004). Men enrolled in four-year degree programs are also more likely to transition to marriage than to cohabitation, as indicated by the underlines in Table 3. Although school enrollment tends to deter cohabiting relationships, advanced degrees increase the probability of a transition, particularly into marriage.

Both labor market characteristics—full-time employment and earnings—are positively related with transitioning into cohabitating unions. The risks of cohabitation and direct marriage relative to remaining single as well as of direct marriage relative to cohabitation are positively associated with the value of total assets, which is consistent with the results found for women. Unbanked young men, however, have greater odds of cohabitation over the other two relationship states, whereas being unbanked increased women’s odds of cohabitation only relative to marriage.

The addition of the combined debt measure to the male competing risk models (Model B) does not significantly alter the relationships of the other measures of economic stability and earnings potential, with one exception: men with at least a bachelor’s degree now have a decreased risk of cohabiting relative to remaining single, although they remain more likely to directly marry than cohabit. Contrary to Hypothesis 1, having no debt is negatively associated with transitioning from single into a union for young men. Men’s economic attributes more strongly predict first cohabitation, whereas the same economic characteristics for women are stronger predictors of direct marriage. Not only are women’s economic attributes a significant predictor of their first coresidential union, but they also appear to matter more for marital formation than do men’s economic attributes (Hypothesis 4).

For men, the estimates in Model C indicate a positive correlation related to transitioning into cohabitation for those with nonzero credit card debt (Hypothesis 2). Men who reported zero credit card debt have decreased odds of transitioning into either cohabitation or direct marriage. Education loan debt does not increase men’s risks of transitioning into cohabitation relative to marriage and continued singlehood, nor does it decrease their risks of marriage as it did for the female sample. The lack of debt—specifically, no credit debt—matters more for union transitions. Contrary to Hypothesis 3, only credit card debt increases transitions into cohabitation relative to remaining single.

In an additional sensitivity analysis (available upon request), the multinomial regression models were run on young adults with at least some college (sample size of 1,305 women and 1,025 men) and only college graduates (1,061 women and 800 men). The association between the debt measures and union transitions did not change substantially in magnitude or significance for young women. The negative relationship between enrollment in two-year degree progression and cohabitation and four-year degree programs were no longer significant relative to remaining single, nor was the positive relationship between transitioning into cohabitation with total assets. For the young men, the relationship between total debt and direct marriage relative to remaining single was both negative and significant; however, credit card and education loan debt did not differ.

It is possible that the relationships between education debt and educational attainment could be driving these associations, especially for those who have not completed their studies. Models interacting education debt with education were tested, given that many young adults enter and leave postsecondary schooling without obtaining a degree. Interaction results were significant only among male college graduates, who had an increased risk of cohabitation relative to remaining single regardless of whether they carried education loan debt.

All models were then run on a pooled data set combining women and men and added gender and nonzero debt interactions to address whether gender differences in the relationship between debt amount and debt types are significant. The interaction of being female and positive total debt is significant at p < .10 for transitions into cohabitation relative to remaining single and marrying, providing additional support for Hypothesis 4. When delineated by debt type, gender did not have an added impact on positive credit debt for women. Education loans, however, were more highly associated with transitions into cohabitation relative to singlehood and relative to marriage for women than for men (p < .10). These results highlight that the economic attributes of young women—from their educational attainment to their labor market and financial characteristics—are associated with their first union choice, particularly regarding transitions into marriage, with debt playing an independent role on women’s transitions during young adulthood. Debt increases cohabitation and deters marriage, suggesting that the financial underpinnings related to cohabitation and marriage differ. The findings also imply the type of union entered is sensitive to debt type.

## Discussion

This study suggests that credit card and education loan debt, an increasingly dominant feature in many young adults’ debt portfolios (Houle 2014), is an important factor in union formation decisions during this stage in the life course. Educational attainment and labor market characteristics still matter for relationship formation, but so does financial status—and, specifically, debt, at least for this cohort of young adults. Although wealth and marriage remain significantly associated among young adults (e.g., Schneider 2011), my findings extend previous work by revealing that debt matters as well, for both the cohabitation and the marriage market. Debt is positively associated with transitioning out of singlehood, but the absence of debt is not, suggesting that single life in young adulthood may be difficult to afford. Married life, however, is unaffordable as well. Cohabitation presents an alternative to single life but is not necessarily a substitute for these adults.

Gender differences suggest the economic burden debt presents for a marital union is treated differently within men’s and women’s relationship markets. Total debt, credit card debt, and education loan debt all increased the odds of cohabitation for women, consistent with Hypotheses 1, 2, and 3. Yet, only positive credit card debt was associated with transitioning into cohabitation from singlehood for young adult men. The analyses indicate the existence of an economic threshold for cohabitation, one that may differ for young men and women. Women with debt may be considered unattractive in the marriage market but still have some resources (e.g., employment, education, and access to credit) that can positively contribute to a nonmarital coresidential household. The findings for women also support the qualitative research showing that debt is a barrier to marriage but not to cohabitation (Sassler and Miller 2011; Smock et al. 2005). Young men who lack observable indicators of financial sophistication (e.g., bank accounts, and nonzero credit card debt) may be considered suitable relationship partners but may be relegated to the cohabitation market for their first coresidential union. Men with no credit card debt, however, do not enter either the cohabitation market or the marriage market. This may potentially reflect lack of access to credit, which is a sign of financial immaturity. Men with debt are more able to transition to coresidential unions than women, indicating that men continue to dictate the terms of union formation within this recent cohort of young adults (Sassler and Miller 2011). Men appear willing to accept a working partner but not one who is a potential financial burden on the household. These findings might explain the growing socioeconomic divide between those who marry and those who chose to delay or opt not to marry, as well as the rising median age at first marriage for women and men.

My findings also indicate that women’s economic attributes are increasingly important for marriage formation, extending prior research based on earlier samples of young women (Oppenheimer 1997; Sassler and Schoen 1999; Sweeney 2002). Early union transition type and timing of marriage remain associated with measures of educational attainment and positive indicators of current financial health and future economic stability. Current trends in the marriage market reflect labor market fluctuations, which have seen the rewards to highly skilled men increase disproportionately in size relative to low-skill wages (Madrick and Papanikolaou 2010). Dwyer et al. (2013) found the relationship between debt and enrollment to be gendered, with the odds of dropping out of college more sensitive to education loan debt for young adult men than they are for young women. My results indicate that education loan debt is also a contributing factor to continued social stratification and economic mobility within society. Although greater educational attainment is associated with transitioning to marriage for women, women are more likely to pay a penalty for their education loan debt than men. The accrual of debt from pursuing greater educational attainment may have unintended consequences for women, with cohabitation being the more attractive coresidential option earlier in the life course (Hypothesis 4).

This study is not without limitations. First, given that the data are right-truncated, this is not a study of nonmarriage but rather a study of delayed marriage. Second, debt is a stock quantity, meaning that it is a point-in-time measure. It is difficult to ascertain from the survey how long it took the young adults to accumulate debt and how long it will take them to pay it off. Third, aside from the unbanked proxy variable, testing for actual credit access and whether a youth was credit-constrained was not available because it was not explicitly assessed until later interviews. The results presented reflect actions related to credit use. Fourth, this study analyzes how outstanding debt and debt type potentially alter behavior for young adults navigating in the cohabitation and marriage markets—not whether young adults with access and outstanding debt are inherently different from those with debt. By distinguishing those with nonzero debt from those with no debt, it is possible that at least two distinct socioeconomic and demographic groups are combined into the no-debt category: the credit-constrained and the wealthy. Descriptive statistics indicate that young adults sampled fall predominantly into the lower- and middle-income class and that this study has captured the behavior of a policy-relevant and growing demographic: young adults saddled with credit card and education loan debt. Another potential concern is that differential access to education loans may influence enrollment; however, several studies have found access to financial aid for postsecondary schooling is not a constraint for enrollment decisions (Carneiro and Heckman 2002; Stinebrickner and Stinebrickner 2008), although recent research has suggested that household credit constraints may negatively impact children’s college enrollment decisions (see Lovenheim 2011). And finally, although no strong causal claims are made, my results do provide strong evidence that debt plays a nontrivial role in the relationship decisions of young adults coming of age in the twenty-first century.

Marriage as an institution has undergone significant changes during recent decades (Cherlin 2005). Contemporary young adults now emphasize individual financial and personal responsibility as a necessary precursor for marriage, with a shift away from shared obligations and asset accumulation starting early in one’s adult life. Marriage has come to represent the finish line rather than a starting point of young adult life (Cherlin 2004), and it is no longer something that the majority of young adults enter into in early adulthood. The relationships among economic resources, union formation, and marital timing remain an area of demographic interest. Future studies should focus on the role of debt on family-building behaviors, such as fertility decisions, relationship quality, and remaining married or partnered. Ongoing compositional changes in the labor market, education market, and the financial landscape are salient and undoubtedly impact the American household and family. This article examines one specific structural factor that emerged in the last three decades within the lives of America’s young adults: indebtedness. The evidence suggests that debt, operating through the differences in the debt structure of credit card and education loan debt, may have an independent influence on the first coresidential union choice, above and beyond the traditional educational and labor market characteristics of “good fortune” presumed necessary for marital formation (Sassler and Goldscheider 2004; Schneider 2011). These results pinpoint the need to revisit the relationship between economic resources and early union formation, particularly during a period when cohabitation has become more common and rising inequality has contributed to a new marital divide in America.

## Acknowledgments

The author would like to acknowledge Sharon Sassler, Daniel T. Lichter, and Francine D. Blau for their helpful comments on early versions. A preliminary version of this article was presented at the 2012 annual meeting of the Population Association of America in San Francisco, CA.

## Notes

1

Debt could directly impact union formation if credit access is constrained or if the debt amount signals their perceived readiness for cohabitation versus marriage to the debtor and to others. The latter is the mechanism tested in this study.

2

It is not possible to determine if their debt at age 20 is independent from their previous relationship experience.

3

The majority of the excluded women (88 %) and men (90 %) were cohabitors, increasing the average age of first cohabitation from 20.89 to 22.65 for women and from 21.93 to 23.02 for men, and increasing first marriage from 22.49 to 23.61 for women and from 23.42 to 23.96 for men.

4

Aggregating the education loan debt to the same level as the credit card debt or filling in missing years for credit card debt measure are qualitatively similar to the yearly measures and are available from the author upon request.

5

Additional covariate results reveal that compared with non-Hispanic whites, non-Hispanic black women and men are less likely to transition to either union, and Hispanic women and men have a lower probability of cohabiting. Having a child is positively associated with transitioning into cohabitation first for women, but men who report having a child are more likely to cohabit and marry than to remain single. Maternal education increases the risks of cohabitation, but paternal education decreases the risks of cohabitation only for women. Being raised in a rural area increases the likelihood of direct marriage, and currently residing in a rural area decreases the likelihood of cohabitation.

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