How to deal with a spouse who spends compulsively

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

Dear Opening Credits,
My wife racked up our first credit card debt (about $13,000) back in 2002, shortly after we got married. I was upset, but I agreed to refinance our house to pay off the cards. She agreed that she wouldn’t pile up more debt. Then in 2007, I find out that she secretly opened three new credit card accounts and racked up over $10,000 in debt. Again, I was very upset, but I took out a home equity loan to pay them off, which I’m still paying on to this day. She promised to stay away from credit cards. We also began the Dave Ramsey program and began to pay off all our debt. But then, just last year, I find out that she secretly opened up yet another credit card with $4,500 in debt. We had the big talk again, she promised not to ever do it again, so on and so forth. I, like a fool, saved all my disposable income from the last year, combined with our tax returns, and just paid off this credit card today. Then, just as I was wrapping up our month-end finances, I was reviewing her bank account statement. To my horror, I saw that just last month, she received a loan from “Best Egg” and racked up another $2,000 in debt! At the same time I was paying off one loan, she was replacing it with another! I’m starting to believe I’m in a no-win situation here. She keeps saying she’ll never do it again, but then does it anyway secretly. This is a real trust issue for me. I simply can’t believe her anymore. I have my own account (as does she), but I’m paying all the bills while she’s racking up so many monthly payments for herself that she has to borrow money from me. I feel like I’m dealing with a debtalcoholic. HELP!!!! – Mike

Answer

Dear Mike,
You’re justified in having little faith in your wife’s financial promises. And, I’m afraid, it will take a long time and much effort to regain trust. Here is what I would do if I were you.

Find a Debtors Anonymous meeting.
Based on what you wrote, it seems your wife has a problem controlling her financial behavior. It might be an addiction. For this reason, Debtors Anonymous may be an ideal place for her to gain clarity and support in her quest to stop her destructive behavior. DA is based on the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program and is a fellowship where people open up about their negative borrowing/spending in a safe setting. Your wife will be offered guidance from others who are in the various stages of overcoming their compulsion to get into debt. Try your best to convince her to attend at least one meeting. As an incentive, offer to go with her, though you can find a group specifically for partners and family members of addicts.

Consider a postnuptial agreement.
You probably heard of a prenuptial agreement, which is a contract created by two people before getting married that assigns rights regarding assets and liabilities. Well, a postnuptial agreement does much the same thing, only each spouse signs it after marriage. Outside of deciding who owns what property, a postnuptual agreement also can be an effective way to separate from your legal responsibility any future debt that your wife may get into. This will be especially important if you live in a community property state, since balances one spouse accrues might be considered joint debt, even if you never knew about it. In the postnup, each of you would define who owns which credit card accounts and loans. It may also be written to spell out how you each handle your finances, including applying for credit products.

I spoke with Randall Kessler, a family law attorney who practices in Atlanta, about postnups and he believes one might benefit you. While the credit card companies won’t care whether you have such an agreement (“they will come after the person who has more money, so if they can collect from you they will," says Kessler), this contract will make it easier for you to seek damages from your wife in the event your relationship dissolves. “You can also put a provision in that says if she charges up debt, her assets will be affected,” says Kessler. “Maybe you get 100 percent of the the home or car in that circumstance. The debt becomes collateralized.”

Get couples counseling.
Maybe your wife is harboring resentment against you and overspending with credit cards is a vindictive move. It could be a reaction to a relationship problem, or something else entirely. Find out with the help of a professional therapist. I assure you that what your wife is doing is not normal. It is definitely hurting you and your marriage, and it needs to stop. The two of you must identify her underlying reasons for going behind your back this way, time and time again.

Keep your guard up.
I hate to say it, but if you’re going to stick together, you’ve got to be vigilant about checking up on what your wife is doing. Her constant charging is affecting you, both financially and emotionally. Have a daily money conversation asking what she’s thinking and doing with her money and accounts. Find out how much she has in her checking account and savings. At least on a monthly basis, review all banking and credit card statements. If she wants your trust back, being totally transparent for a long time is the way to do it and checking her credit reports together for new accounts can help. It will still be possible for your wife to open new accounts, but this way you’ll catch issues fast and can have her close them before she inflicts too much destruction.

Finally, you’ll have to accept that your wife’s thoughts are her own and she’s free to act on them, however damaging they may be to you. If she refuses to change the way she deals with money and credit, you have some action of your own to take – and that may be choosing to lead separate lives.

See related: Debtors Anonymous: What you can expect, Poll: 13 million Americans commit financial infidelity

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Updated: 11-24-2017