Spouse can't stop spending? Get a 'financial divorce'

Get professional debt help, but separate yourself financially

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 want to stop my husband from opening any more credit cards. Can I do this? Here's the story: He got us into debt one too many times. I keep bailing us out, and he keeps promising he'll never do it again. He cries and says he loves us and doesn't want to lose us, but up go those bills, and new cards keep being added. Honestly, I feel like divorcing him but I can't because we have two young kids. Then again, I feel like he's robbing them of a good life that they deserve. How do I cut him off? Please, I'm going crazy over here. Thanks for your help in advance. -- Gia

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert Dear Gia,
Yup, you are definitely in a loony-making situation. I can just imagine how vexing it's been to never know if you're in debt or not, and to wonder how many new accounts he's in the process of opening. It's not right. But it's happening, and here's what you can do about it.

Clearly, you've already had many serious talks with your husband, and nothing is getting through to him. This means he has a problem that he is unable to solve on his own. Therefore, your first step is to contact Debtors Anonymous (DA) today. He needs help from professionals to figure out why he's making such destructive financial choices and to get the tools he needs to get better.

Of course, DA can't cure everything. You want to be able to prevent your husband from obtaining any new lines of credit or loans, and I'm afraid that's not really possible. As an adult, he's free to do anything legal that he wants. And this means filling out all of the applications he can get his hands on when you're not around. That's a scary thought, but it is reality.

So what else can you do to protect yourself and your family's finances from a husband who can't control his charging? Well, you can remove all credit cards from his possession. Then again, he may have the account numbers, and if he's shopping online, that's all he needs to spend with them. So you may be better off having him close the accounts entirely and living without credit while he's working on his problem.

Also, pull your credit reports on a regular basis to check up on new accounts. Make sure you look at both his and yours, as credit reports are not merged for married couples.And if you are an authorized user on any of his cards, I would suggest getting yourself removed from those immediately so your credit score isn't impacted by his transgressions.

Because there are some legal matters to consider, I spoke about your circumstances with my friend, Jeena Cho, a San Francisco lawyer who specializes in debt issues. Her warnings to you: "Depending on the state, you may be liable for your husband's debt," says Cho. You don't say where you live, but if it's in a community property state such as California, "when two people get married, it creates a 'community,' which is defined as any property acquired or debt accrued after marriage." 

Cho and I agree that the time has come to get a "financial divorce" from your husband. How?

  1. Stop bailing him out! Eventually, he will be unable to make his credit card payments and his credit score will go down. You're actually enabling his bad behavior by making his payments for him.
  2. Get your own bank account, if you don't have one already.
  3. Keep your finances separate as much as possible so he can't use your credit and money in your account.
  4. Arrange to have money automatically transferred from his account into yours on the day he gets paid -- before he has a chance to spend it.
  5. Consider meeting with a family law attorney to discuss the possibility of a postnuptial agreement to make sure all of his debts stay with him in case of a divorce.

Doing all this work and being so vigilant is exhausting, though. You'll probably always have, in the back of your mind, some fear that he's fallen off the wagon or hasn't kept his promises. For this reason, I suggest that you, too, get counseling or go to DA. You deserve the support and guidance of experts who can help you deal with his charging addiction.

See related: Divorce and debt: A special section, A guide to community property, Shopping and credit cards, How to cancel a credit cardLiving without credit  

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Updated: 12-15-2018