Legal, Regulatory, and Privacy Issues

Credit card revenge spending


Getting burned by the one you love can inspire the desire to get back by charging up credit accounts. The ultimate cost, however, may be borne by you.

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Ah, sweet revenge. Getting burned by a spouse or love interest can inspire the desire to get back at the cad or caddette by charging up the credit accounts. However, while this method of retribution may be more appealing than keying a car or posting scandalous pics, the ultimate cost can be high and far-reaching. Credit card revenge spending

Who does it and why

When Cynthia Rodriguez suspected her husband, New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, was pitching woo with an infamous pop star, she took his credit cards on a little shopping spree. Substantiated reports are that Ms. Rodriguez treated several close friends to luxury spa treatments and other indulgences to the tune of over $100,000. Did splurging on these material items make up for the emotional pain of A-Rod’s dalliances with the Material Girl? Only she knows, but at the very least, her pals benefited from her highly charged reaction. (See “7 ways to not be a victim of credit card revenge”)

Revenge charging is not reserved only by celebrities, but everyday folk as well. Stay-at-home-mom Felicia Perry was married to a world-class philanderer and also attempted to spend away her fury. “He cheated on me mercilessly — I knew he was but could never catch him. He made me feel like I was crazy, seeing things.” When she finally caught him in the act (oh, yes), Perry went for the wallet. “I grabbed our joint cards. I knew that everything would be split 50-50 after the divorce, so I figured it was a good discount.” She bought a ticket to New York City and licked her wounds for a week in a swank midtown hotel.

Michael McAuliffe, president of Family Credit Management, a nationwide nonprofit credit counseling agency, says he and his counselors are familiar with couples using credit as weapons. “We have seen people go to great lengths and open cards in the other’s name, which is illegal. We have seen people not make payments, or worse yet, overdraft a joint checking account or abuse a debit card at just the right time so important payments bounce.”

Why do some use cash and credit to punish a partner? Because it’s easy, the effect is instantaneous and, according to St. Paul, Minn., financial consultant and author Ruth Hayden, money is this society’s primary power tool. “Money always gets the other person’s attention. It says, ‘Did you notice? I’m upset!'” It’s tit-for-tat justice: “He went for a golf weekend, now I’m going to have fun myself.” Hayden calls it reactive spending, and says that though it can feel rational, it’s not: “It’s purely emotional.”

Ways to cope without
turning to plastic
Because of consequences for using a spouse or partner’s credit cards can be so severe, experts suggest adopting other, better ways to deal with conflict and hurt.

Think before reacting, urges Michael McAuliffe, president of Family Credit Management. “Ask yourself how will you feel in the future if you do this and could there be any repercussions from the other party legally, emotionally, etc., and is it really worth it?” Step back. Talk to a friend.

Hayden offers other ways to deal with feelings of vengeance:

  1. Make effective communication a priority. When you are able to express yourself verbally, you’ll be less tempted to use credit cards maliciously.
  2. Find true power. The pleasure you’ll get by charging is temporary. Gain real strength through education or by pursuing a fulfilling job.
  3. Surround yourself with positive friends. Avoid people who persuade you to act unethically.

And if emotions have led you to already run up the cards? Calm down and conduct damage control. “Depending on the time line, you can return your purchases,” says McAuliffe. He also recommends transferring the balance to your personal account, an action that would be most welcomed by the other side, especially if you want to salvage the relationship. If you do go your separate ways, you still could be saddled with revenge debt. As with bad affairs, don’t let it linger: Apply all extra funds to what you owe and soon you’ll be free of more than just the financial burden.

Dallas attorney Clinton David also sees many credit card power plays in his practice and notes the ploy’s destructive nature. “Many times, in revenge charging, the theory is if we can’t own the village together, then I will burn it down,” says David. “This somewhat backward reasoning states that ‘although I might be spending a lot of my own money, I want to make sure that you leave this divorce with as little as possible.’  Logic plays no role in this process, and it is all about paybacks and revenge.”

If you think women are more apt to wield the credit sword, McAuliffe says not so — it depends on the situation.  “Everyone is capable of reacting in a manner they would not normally take, given the right or wrong circumstances.”


As Perry understood, when you charge on jointly held cards, you may end up liable for at least half of what you spent in the event of divorce. In her case, the deal may have been worth the expense, but that’s not always the case. When you’re mad and bent on retaliation, it’s easy to go overboard and charge what you can’t afford to repay, but will ultimately be responsible for.

There are other, more serious repercussions to consider before using cards that don’t belong just to you. For example, your ex may respond by filing a lawsuit and pressing charges against you for the amount you charged. Don’t think it doesn’t happen, says McAuliffe. “We have seen many cases where the person who used the card has been prosecuted criminally.”

It’s legal to shop on cards where you’re an authorized user or co-signer, but you are not allowed to use someone else’s individually owned account without their permission. “Should the spouse (or partner) use the other person’s individual credit card and the store accepts it, the account holder will be obligated to pay the bill unless it is reported to the credit card company that it is an unauthorized charge,” says David. “In that event, the person conducting the unauthorized charge has opened himself up to potential criminal prosecution.”

And then there’s the relationship damage. Not all couples’ problems lead to permanent break-ups, and the debt incurred in anger can cause serious issues if the duo chooses to stay together. Behind-the-back charging breaks trust, which is the backbone of a healthy partnership. In fact, McAuliffe says it can be worse for those who need to clean up the mess they made, as they “have to deal with whatever upset led to the revenge as well as fixing the financial troubles.”

See related: 7 ways to not be a victim of credit card revenge, When your ex doesn’t pay on joint accounts, Ex-wife maxes out joint cards: Who pays?, What to do when your ex steals your identity, Help! My ex-wife forged my name on credit card applications, When collectors come after you for ex’s unpaid debt. Resist racking up debt to get back at cheating spouse, Dividing credit card debt in divorce, Create a separate credit identity after divorce, Avoid bankruptcy during messy divorce, Protect your credit score during divorce, Escaping co-signing: How to get out of a co-signed loan, credit card

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