9 steps for restoring trust after hidden debt is revealed

The conversation won't be easy, but it must happen

Opening Credits columnist Eric 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,
I've been reading your columns for a long time, and I really appreciate all your good advice. So now maybe you have some for me. I am a 29-year-old woman who has a big problem. My husband does not know about my credit card debt that is now over $10,000. We got married two years ago, and it was only $2,000 then and so not a problem. Now we are talking about buying a house, and he's going to find out about what I have done. I'm sick about it. I don't even know why I've done it. It just grew. How do I tell him about what I owe? And will it affect buying the house? I love him, and it's going to kill him. Thanks for your advice. -- Beth

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Beth,
Actually, your $2,000 debt was indeed a problem when you first got married. You didn't tell your fiancé about it before the marriage, and you should have. Worse, you let the balance snowball into a serious liability that is affecting your mutual goals, and you've damaged vital relationship trust.

You need to own up to your credit infidelity right away.

But just how are you going to tell him? I can offer some guidelines, but I guarantee they won't make the conversation easy. Revealing what been going on isn't going to kill your husband, but it's sure to wound him pretty badly.

Here's your best approach:

  1. Obtain copies of your credit reports from the three major credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion -- with their scores and have them ready for discussion.
  2. Remove all individual and joint credit cards from your wallet and place them in an envelope.
  3. Call a meeting. Make sure it's a day and time when you have at least a few hours to spend uninterrupted by kids, phones or other obligations.
  4. Begin by saying that you have made a massive mistake and have lied to him about your financial activity. Explain precisely what you've done and make no excuses.
  5. Present the credit reports and scores and show how your behavior has affected the two of you.
  6. Hand over the envelope containing the cards and tell him you will not be using them.
  7. Explain that you are willing to do whatever it takes to make amends. What will that entail? You'll decide that as a couple.
  8. Apologize. Will the words "I'm sorry" really help at that moment? No, but you've got to say them anyway.
  9. Allow him speak and get upset. As long as the situation doesn't get violent, he has every right to freak out and blow up. Heck, I would.

These are all the first essential steps to fixing this mess. The next is to pay the debt off. If you don't have enough in savings to cover the balance, you're going to have to come up with a realistic repayment plan. This means you'll need to make a lot of sacrifices, such as cutting your personal spending to the bare minimum and working however and whenever you can (without harming yourself and any children in the process, that is) and applying the proceeds to what you owe.

While you're laboring away, keep your cards on the table and prove to your husband that you are on the up and up. Be transparent. Review all credit card statements together. Pull the credit reports once every three months and read them with him.

Anyone who hides spending and charging as you have has deep issues to work on and solve. Therefore, also get help for compulsive shopping, look into joining Debtors Anonymous or pursue either individual or couples' counseling.

As harsh as I may sound, Beth, I really do wish you the best. Because as I'm sure you know -- or at least will soon discover -- once broken, trust is a dreadfully hard thing to repair. Certainly far harder than deleting debt or fixing a damaged credit score.

See related: How to get the free credit report that's actually free, The key things you need to know about credit reports and scores, New credit card statements elicit fear, spur action

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Updated: 03-21-2019