NEW YORK (MainStreet) Go to a dating site and you'll see a zillion lonely hearts who yearn for long walks on the beach and cuddles before a fire, and the sites' new-member questionnaires are full of queries on exercise habits, political views, feelings about children and other, well, irrelevant issues.
Because what really matters is credit scores.
At least, that's one implication of some research on what makes for a solid marriage. People who enter a marriage with similar credit scores have a much better chance of going the distance than partners with scores that are very different, according to a study by two Federal Reserve Board researchers, Jane Dokko and Geng Li.
It's long been understood that money and children are hot-button marital issues, but until now there's been no rigorous academic research on credit scores.
"Credit scores convey unique and often unobserved information about consumers, including their loan payment histories and default behavior, as well as their levels of indebtedness and tastes for debt," the researchers conclude. "In addition, credit scores arguably proxy for trustworthiness by measuring the likelihood that an individual will repay and honor a debt obligation."
The researchers looked at data on tens of millions of couples from 1999 through last year.
Though it wouldn't make for a good Jane Austen novel, in which impoverished ingenues seek rich heirs, the research shows that people, in recent years at least, tend to marry people with similar credit scores. Those who don't have a much greater chance of suffering "financial distress and household dissolution."
That doesn't mean people are asking their dates to sign credit-release forms, but it suggests that one way or another prospective spouses look for mates with similar financial habits and views.
The researchers also found that spouses who start with very different credit scores have a better chance of staying together if their scores become similar over time than if they don't.
All those other characteristics, such as political and religious views, do matter. But the research suggests that even spouses compatible on many levels face a bigger chance of trouble if they aren't financially simpatico.
Though the researchers don't get into it, it is possible for some financial disconnects to be fixed, especially if they come from bad habits rather than philosophical conflicts. A poor credit rating, for example, can be the result of sloppy bill-paying habits rather than a true lack of trustworthiness. You can make your credit score better, and that's a lot easier than making yourself taller or more exotic.
So any prospective couple would be well advised to discuss financial habits and philosophies, savings habits and so forth. And it pays to set up an easy-to-use, stress-free financial system using money-tracking programs such as Quicken and Mint.com. That will work even better with online bill paying and alert services that use text messages and email to tell you when bills are due and accounts are running low or nearing credit limits.
What do you do if you cling to the romantic notion that opposites attract? Before the wedding, the researches suggest, get some counseling the financial kind.
--Written by Jeff Brown for MainStreet