Tips for rebuilding your credit after divorce

A domestic violence survivor and divorcee needs to rebuild her credit life, too

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 am a survivor of domestic violence, and I am disabled as a result. I have not had a credit card in close to six years.

My credit report has but one negative account, and it is for a vehicle that my ex-husband was court-ordered to pay. He refuses to follow the order, and this has been left on one of the big three credit reporting agencies.

I would like to get a credit card to build up my credit a little at a time, but I do not know what to look for or be wary of. Would you be kind enough to offer some advice? Thank you from all survivors!
-- Patricia

Answer for the expert

Dear Patricia,
Much has been written about how to build up your credit from scratch. Getting started can be scary, however, when you've been through so much already. Perhaps hearing from a fellow survivor of domestic violence will help.

Chellie Campbell, author of "The Wealthy Spirit," filed for bankruptcy and lost her home to foreclosure. Her ex was supposed to pay off his Bank of America card, but of course he didn't. Campbell's credit was trashed.

Even with the harshest possible negative marks on her credit score, Campbell rebuilt her credit and her financial life.

You can, too.

You need to do these three things to get your finances back on track:

1. Deal with the negative account from your ex. It can be tough to get your ex's financial transgressions off your report. Many people don't realize that when the court orders one spouse to pay a bill, creditor's still have the right to try to collect from you and to report to the credit bureaus.

You should definitely send a copy of the court order to the credit agency with a letter explaining the situation. If you can afford it, consider paying the balance and getting your ex to pay you back. When Campbell's ex didn't pay off their credit card as he had been ordered to do, Campbell paid it herself. It's one way to get a fresh start, painful as it may be.

2. Start building a credit history. It's hard to get around in this society without a credit card, and having one helps you demonstrate that you are a good credit risk. A secured card that requires you to put an amount equal to the credit limit in another account is the easiest way to start.

"Immediately there were credit card issuers that offered me a secured credit card," Campbell says. "I started with $300. I put $300 in a savings account with Capital One and then I could charge $300. I added $200 to the account, and then I could charge $500. After a year or two, they started raising my credit limit without me asking because I was establishing my credit."

While you're building your credit score, don't overstress about it. "I don't think you have to live and die for your credit score," says Campbell. "It's only important for borrowing money and getting a decent interest rate."

After a couple of years, try applying someplace else to get an unsecured card. If that doesn't work, try again in a year.

Find a way to make a better living. No matter how disabled a person is, there is always something they can to do help other people -- and serving others is how money is made. "You're never down and out as long as there's life and breath in your body," says Campbell. "Can't see? You can talk. Can't talk? You can write. You can always be a service to someone else, and it usually has something to do with what you're passionate about."

Campbell met a woman in one of her seminars who was disabled. What she found she could do was sell over the telephone. She had an upbeat personality and could talk on the phone and set up appointments. "I don't care how downtrodden you are; it starts now," says Campbell.

If you aren't sure where to start, contact your local community college or state employment agency for career counseling. Don't fall for scams or "work-at-home" opportunities that require you to pay an upfront fee. You shouldn't have to pay to work.

I like the fact that you refer to yourself a survivor of domestic violence, not a victim. Campbell says that even if we have been victims in the past, we have to say, "I'm not going to be a victim anymore."  By taking control of your credit and finances, you're showing yourself to be a survivor in more ways than one.

See related: Divorce and debt stories and advice, Help for bad credit, Prepaid cards full of hidden dangers, 9 things you need to know about prepaid cards

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Updated: 03-26-2019