Protect your finances when your spouse is bipolar

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 getting married in less than 30 days to my fiance who has bipolar disorder. How can I prevent his taking out credit cards or opening accounts to protect our marriage from financial destruction? I want to block him from getting credit to begin with. He has filed bankruptcy in the past and has finally gotten through it. He now has some credit because after 15 years he doesn't have a bankruptcy over his head and he now has about $3,000 in debt from credit card purchases. I have $6,000 in debt ($2,000 on a credit card and $4,000 on an auto loan). I can pay my bills and could survive a financial disaster such as unemployment for a time, but how can I prevent drowning because of his bipolar condition? Can I block him and us from getting any more credit at the credit agencies or something? We live in Louisiana. -- Cheryl

Answer for the expert

Dear Cheryl,
Louisiana is a community property state. That means, generally speaking, that any debts run up by either of you during your marriage indeed belong to both of you. Shopping sprees are a common symptom of bipolar mania, so you are right to be concerned by this when you marry someone who has had bipolar manic spending sprees in the past.

You can take reasonable steps to secure the two of you from financial disaster, however. Other people have faced the same situation and have worked out solutions. One person who has, and is willing to share her experiences on her website,, is Sarah Freeman.

Freeman says, "There are two concrete techniques for credit management that I follow myself and teach my readers. 1. The use of Mood Charts and a Wellness Plan; and 2. A Treatment Contract with my spouse. These tools alert myself, my spouse and my doctor if any manic symptoms are developing. Also, my agreement with my spouse, made when I am well and 'in my right mind' is that my ATM and credit cards can be taken from me if I become manic."

Freeman adds: "Also, we practice financial transparency. As I know that in the past I have gone on bipolar spending sprees, I think it is important for my spouse's peace of mind to know what shape my finances are in. This is not about a lack of trust or a surrender of personal responsibility. It is recognition that I will always have bipolar disorder and that although I have been episode free since taking medication, there is always the danger of mania developing. Wild spending is one of my manic downfalls. Even though we do have some separate bank accounts and credit cards, I share this information."

Financial transparency is a good idea for all of us, bipolar or not. Freeman and her husband use (a free online program) so they can both see what's going on in their finances at any time.

You can't completely block someone from getting credit or from using credit they already have, but you can make opening new accounts very difficult by putting a credit freeze on both of your credit reports. Credit freezes prevent would-be lenders from viewing a borrower's credit history, so he or she can't take out new loans. Credit freezes are becoming more user-friendly in recent years, even though they are not widely promoted. You may be able to freeze your credit history and still be able to use it when you need to, simply by providing a PIN number. Read "Put your credit report on ice with a credit freeze" for detailed instructions.

I'm glad you're going into this with your eyes wide open. You're marrying an imperfect person. But let's face it, so is he, and so is everyone else who says, "for better or for worse, in sickness and in health." We all have quirks -- it's the people who won't admit it who scare me! If your husband-to-be follows his treatment plan and allows you to help him control it and limit the damages, you should be OK.

I'd also encourage you and your fiance to go through a financial education class together. This is a great time to get on the same page money-wise. You can find a financial seminar at a local library, community center or church. There's something about studying with other people and sharing experiences and goals. Or you can find a course or book you can follow at home.

Congratulations on your upcoming wedding! Best of luck as you build a new life together.

See related: Put your credit report on ice with a credit freeze, Take steps to prevent bipolar card splurges

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Updated: 04-21-2019