Forget chocolates, lend your credit rating for Valentine's Day

To Her Credit columnist Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for, and also wrote for MSN Money, and, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Question for the expert

Dear To Her Credit,
I want to improve my low credit score by piggybacking on my husband's credit cards -- he has a FICO score of 790. My concern is that my score will lower his. Could that happen? How can I confirm that? Thanks for your help.  -- Tamara

Answer for the expert

Dear Tamara,
It's all upside and no downside to piggybacking on your husband's credit cards to improve your credit score. That's because you'll get to claim the stellar history of each of his cards on your credit report as if you had been the one making payments on time and otherwise behaving responsibly all those years. What a deal!

And your husband's score is safe. It can't possibly suffer when he adds you to his accounts, as long as the accounts remain in good standing. Your old cards and your prior credit history can't somehow hitch a ride on the cards you have together over to his report. Even if you have a bankruptcy or foreclosure in recent history, his report remains perfect.

It won't matter much whether he adds you as a joint account holder or an authorized user. The accounts will improve your report either way. (FICO scores now filter out authorized user scams designed to piggyback on the scores of total strangers, while letting legitimate authorized users benefit when they are added to accounts.) If your husband adds you as a joint account holder, you will be equally responsible for the balances, now and in the future. If he adds you an authorized user, you can spend money on the accounts, but the banks can't go after you as an account holder if the balance is not paid. However, for most married couples who don't keep separate finances or for those who live in community property states, it's all coming out of the same purse anyway.

One reason to be added as a joint account holder instead of an authorized user is that in the unthinkable event that your husband should die, a joint account won't be automatically canceled.

Now here's the caveat: Do not add your husband to your less-than-stellar accounts. All you have to do is put his innocent name on a troubled credit card, and that 790 score will take a fast tumble. It doesn't seem fair that missed payments from before his time would hurt his credit, but they will.

If there is still a huge disparity between your credit score and his, and you need to apply for a major credit line or mortgage before you can bring yours up to his level, you may want to have your husband apply for credit without you. If his income supports it, he can even buy a house based on his qualifications.                                     

Remember, if you want to improve your score and not damage your husband's, keeping the accounts in excellent standing is key. Because you have different credit scores, I'll assume you haven't been married very long. It takes time to learn to trust each other with money, and adding you to his credit card is a demonstration of his love and belief in you. To continue to build your new financial life together, practice complete transparency with your finances. Transparency builds trust. Keep talking about your financial goals together and working as a team, and you should have a long and successful money life together.

See related: Piggybacking gets clemency from FICO, Piggybacking, meant to jump-start credit, can backfire, Piggybacking: When should the free credit ride end?, Piggybacking is still an option, but proceed with caution, What happens to credit card debt after death?

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Updated: 03-21-2019