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In marriage, maintain your own credit

Joint cards are nice, but not if they cause your individual credit to falter

By Erica Sandberg

Opening Credits
Columnist Erica Sandberg
Erica Sandberg is a prominent personal finance authority and author of "Expecting Money: The Essential Financial Plan for New and Growing Families." She writes "Opening Credits," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues for people who are new to credit, for CreditCards.com.

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Opening Credits,
What's the best credit card strategy when getting married? My husband and I each had great credit and our own credit cards before getting married. Since getting married, we now use one jointly owned credit card for almost everything we buy. Several of my individual credit cards have been canceled by the credit card company for nonuse. We want to make sure our credit rating stays high, but we're not sure about the impact of spending on one jointly held card and the impact of losing individual credit cards due to nonuse. (By the way, he's the primary cardholder for our jointly held credit card.) -- Roxanne 

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Roxanne,
I must say it kind of bugs me that some credit card companies are so quick to close inactive accounts. It's their right, of course, and it can also make sense. There's little point in keeping a line of credit extended to someone who doesn't seem to be interested in it.

That said, it is unfortunate for you that your credit issuer did shut down your accounts. I'm willing to bet that your credit score took a minor hit at their closure. Having and using a variety of credit instruments, especially if you opened them many years ago, is one way of building and keeping an impressive credit score. 

But I wouldn't worry, Roxanne. I don't think the impact is that bad, and you can quickly regain any lost points that happened when your credit issuers gave you the boot.  

Your first task is to see how the closures and your migration to one co-signed account has been affecting your credit score. So pull copies of your credit reports from all three bureaus (you can get them free once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com), and get your FICO credit score (for $19.95 at myFICO.com). Have your husband do the same. Compare today's information and scores to what they were before you were married. Was there a dip?

Now look at your husband's reports and scores as opposed to yours. If he has kept older accounts active, has little outstanding debt and has made all payments on time, his FICO score may be greater. However, because you said that the two of you came into the relationship with excellent credit, the difference is probably marginal. If that's the case, and both of your ratings are high, knuckle bump each other and move on to more fascinating topics.

In the event your credit score is trailing far behind, go ahead and apply for another credit card in your name and then back away from using the jointly held account. Charge just with that personal card for a year or so. While sharing a credit card should be helping both of your credit reports (as long as one of you uses the card regularly, keeping the balance low and never skipping a payment), if you want to bring your own score up faster, this is a way to do it. I also think it's a smart strategy to have an active individual credit card anyway. As long as you're both honest, forthright people who manage credit well, at least some financial autonomy is positive.

After 12 months, pull your reports and scores again and see where you stand. The gap will almost certainly have lessened. But I implore to you avoid overfocusing on credit scores and getting competitive about the process. All these figures do is rate a person's borrowing and repaying history. It's a snapshot in time and differences are bound to occur.

Oh, and for any credit card, do use it occasionally so the issuer doesn't snip you out of their books before you're ready to make purchases with it again.

See related: How your FICO credit score is calculated: Types of credit used, Joint accounts: Till debt do you part

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Published: November 16, 2011


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Updated: 09-26-2016


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