Sharing a card with a parent can be risky

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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Dear To Her Credit,
I am an authorized signer on my elderly mom's two credit cards. Does this affect my credit score? Would it be better for my score if I asked my mom to take me off these cards?   -- Julie


Dear Julie,
Being an authorized user on your mom's credit cards could be helping your credit score, hurting it or making no difference at all. It all depends.

If your mom's credit card issuer reports authorized users to the credit bureaus -- not all of them do -- the good or bad payment history on the card becomes part of your credit history, too.

If you have little or no credit history of your own, and your mom has been diligent about paying those cards on time, being an authorized user can help raise your score. Even if you have some credit history of your own or have some negative marks of your own, your mom's excellent credit history may improve your score if the banks report you as an authorized user on her cards.

On the other hand, say you're the one with the perfect credit history -- not your mom. If you use credit wisely and have carefully built your excellent credit score over the years, but your mom takes a more casual approach to money management, being an authorized signer on her credit cards is risky. If the banks report you as an authorized user on credit cards with an iffy track record, your credit score could fall -- fast. This is true, even though you're not responsible for the balance on the card, and regardless of whether you see the bill or know if it's being paid on time.

Being an authorized user on two credit cards can affect you in other ways, too. Even if your mom always pays her bills on time, these two additional cards could make it appear that you have too many credit cards or that you carry a high balance.

It's common for family members to add each other to credit cards and other financial accounts. Your mom may want you to be able to pick things up for her at the store, or maybe she is worried about you and wants you to have an emergency backup plan. Sharing credit cards may be convenient, but it often doesn't turn out well. If you have financial difficulties, you could be tempted to spend more on the card than you can reimburse your mom for or that she is willing to pay. If she misses payments, as we've noted, your credit score can suffer. And if you have brothers and sisters who find out you have been using Mom's card, they may start to wonder if you've been taking advantage of her. I've seen it happen.

Except on a temporary basis when necessary -- for example when a parent cannot get out and he or she needs someone to do the shopping -- I don't recommend being an authorized user on someone's credit card. Commingling finances is just too messy.

If you don't already have your own cards, apply for one or two and build up your credit history yourself. It's not difficult and doesn't require a lot of money. Start small, spend a lot less than you can and never miss a payment. When you build your credit history yourself, you never have to wonder how someone else's credit is affecting your own.

See related: Taking over parents' finances: first steps

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Updated: 03-23-2019