Why you shouldn't assume adult son's debts on new card

To Her Credit with Sally Herigstad

Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of “Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis.” She writes “To Her Credit,” a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women and credit, for CreditCards.com. She also has written for MSN Money and Bankrate.com, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

Ask Sally a question, or see if your question has already been answered in the To Her Credit answer archive.

My 38-year-old son wants me to open a new credit card to pay off his card debt and make him an authorized user. I want to help, but would this be a wise move?

It’s natural to want to help your son get out of burdensome debt. However, his plan to use your credit to do so is not the answer.

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To To Her Credit,
My 38-year-old son has gotten into credit card debt for over $12,000. His interest rates are high.

He wants to open another account with his bank at a lower interest to pay off previous debt and will have the amount taken out of his checking account each month automatically. He is given me his old credit cards to hold.

My son needs me to be the primary account holder on his new card, and he will be the user. Is this wise on my part? Would my husband find out? If he finds out, this would cause a lot of trouble between us. I really want to help my son, but I am confused. – Kathy

Dear Kathy,
It’s natural to want to help your son get out of burdensome debt. However, his plan to use your credit to do so is not the answer, for several reasons.

The bank doesn’t want to lend to your son at favorable terms. Your husband apparently doesn’t want you to lend to him, either. These don’t seem like good indications that lending to your son will have a good outcome.

Further, the idea that he will open a new account, with you being the primary cardholder, doesn’t make any sense. That’s not how it works. If you are the primary cardholder, it’s your account – not his. If he has you add him as an authorized user, he gets all the benefits and none of the responsibilities.

See related: When an authorized user goes rogue: What to do

How this plan could backfire

I wouldn’t rely on the fact that he’s giving you his old credit cards. He’s essentially admitting he has a spending problem, and he thinks giving you the cards will keep him on track.

That’s great, but it’s all too easy for him to still have the card numbers written down somewhere, so he can buy things online if he wants. Or he can call the bank and get new cards in a moment of weakness. He can even beg for his cards back, or take them from you.

If that’s not enough reasons to say “no” to this idea, you say that if your husband finds out, there will be trouble. It’s not a good idea for spouses to make big financial decisions without consulting each other, especially if the reason they don’t tell the other spouse is that they know it won’t go over well.

Financial decisions made by one spouse inevitably affect both spouses, one way or another. Even if your husband never finds out about this deal, keeping significant financial secrets will cause you stress, and it is not good for your marriage relationship.

It may sound as if I’m being too hard on your son. I don’t know how he got into debt, or everything he’s been through. Compared to many people, his debt load of $12,000 is not even that outrageous. I’m certainly not saying that a parent should never help an adult child, especially during tough times.

However, you have your own financial future and credit to think of. You must be getting close to retirement age, if you’re not there already. If you can’t afford to lose $12,000, you can’t afford to risk it, either.

See related: Debt consolidation: 4 options to streamline multiple debts

Help him help himself instead

Your son can get out of debt himself, without risking your money and credit.

He can use one or more methods to pay off his debt, including but not limited to:

  • Creating a budget and learning to live on it.
  • Selling excess belongings to raise cash and reduce expenses.
  • Increasing income by working more hours or finding a better job.
  • Consolidating debt (using his own credit) either through a 0 percent balance transfer card or debt consolidation loan.
  • Filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy if he needs relief from collection efforts.

A qualified credit counselor can help him explore his options. I recommend finding a nonprofit agency affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or the  Financial Counseling Association of America. They can help him make a plan to not just get out of debt, but to start working toward his other financial goals, as well.


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Updated: 06-20-2018