Husband's secret debt destroying marriage

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 discovered recently that my husband is back to his old tactics. He's acquired debt using credit cards that he is unable to make the minimum payments on. He sneaked around and got them without me knowing. I finally found the statements, and now I'm upset over the balance, complete with late fees and balance transfers.

We went through this before several years ago. That time, my husband used my cards without me knowing it and hid the statements by having them come to a different mail box number. Before all this happened, my credit had been excellent, and I didn't owe anyone. We went to credit counseling and we've been making payments of over $900 a month for the past five years. He filed for bankruptcy at the time.

I have been watching the money carefully and my credit is making a comeback. Now I discover this! I am concerned that his bad credit will affect my credit. My name is not on the cards that he has, and we live in Hawaii.

We have our own business, and I have everything in my name since he has no credit, bank account or savings whatsoever.

The debt my husband has acquired is from sheer carelessness and always having to get what he wants --and ending up with nothing to show for it. I do not trust him at all with money, or with much of anything. He has no discipline with money. I think the D word is what you might tell me to do.   -- Kathleen

Answer for the expert

Dear Kathleen,
Don't dump your husband over just money. Good men aren't easy to find, and if overspending is his worst trait, you can find ways to deal with it. Try to remember that we all have shortcomings of some kind.

On the other hand, if you can't trust him with anything, including finances, you may come to the conclusion that divorce is in the cards. A marriage without trust is no marriage at all. I would never tell someone to get a divorce, but I would certainly understand if you made that decision.

Kristen Hagopian, motivational speaker and author of "Brilliant Frugal Living," says she's been asked questions like this on the air. "She has every right to take the action she's taking -- a majority of divorces happen due to money problems," says Hagopian.

Just because you have a right to do something doesn't mean it's a good idea, however. Consider your kids, if you have them, and how much of your life you have invested in each other. Divorce, like bankruptcy, is a last resort. It's not the easy way out. It's not even cheap, by the time you split assets, pay the lawyers and court costs, and maintain two households instead of one. The fact that you have a business together makes it even more complicated.

Instead of divorcing, first try to find ways to help him act like a financial grown-up. "It sounds as though the husband has indulged in overspending because he's always been bailed out," says Hagopian. "Believe it or not, divorcing him won't cure him of his spending problems.  My truest advice would be to stay together a while longer, keep the finances completely, utterly separate and keep assets (cars, homes) in her name."

If all of your income comes from your business, you should determine together how much of the business cash flow should go each month to mortgage, car payments, savings, groceries and so on. There should also be some money to go into your husband's accounts that he can squander if he wants. When it's gone, that's it. You should come to an agreement that neither of you is going into debt without the other person's permission.   

It may seem as if you're having to play the part of your husband's "parent," teaching him the money lessons that his actual parents never did. That's OK. Try to graduate to a true partnership as quickly as possible, however. You can do that by being open with each other, planning and making goals, and building that trust level back up, one day at a time. 

If you're not sure you can get him on board, Hagopian recommends a money counselor -- an independent third party that can get the message through to him.  Doing so will help him understand that things have deteriorated to a tough point -- that you're ready to take drastic counseling measures to try to save your marriage.

See related: Who pays secret debt in divorce?, 9 steps for restoring trust after hidden debt is revealed

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Updated: 01-22-2018