Dealing with a spouse's secret credit card debt

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,
My husband just informed me that he has been hiding $25,000 of debt from me. We have been married two years. I knew he had debt when we were dating. It was approximately $15,000. We put a plan together, he worked two jobs and it was paid down. Or so I was told. In reality, the debt shrank to approximately $3,000 and eventually ballooned back up to $25,000. He has been at the $25,000 debt level for one or two years, as he has just paid the minimums.

I have now paid off all of the debt with a lump sum of cash from my checking account. My question pertains to his credit score. He has agreed to not have a credit card again, but is concerned about his credit score. The debt was spread over six cards, and I would like to cancel all of them. The last card was opened around 2010. Are there any adverse consequences to closing all of the cards? Any advice you can provide would be greatly appreciated. -- Lena

Answer for the expert Dear Lena,
Your husband spent $25,000, hid the bills and after he confessed, he let you pay it all off with money from your checking account. And now the biggest thing you two seem to be worried about now is whether his credit score will take a hit if his cards are closed? I'm arching my eyebrow.

If I were in your situation, I would be more concerned about trust issues in my marriage. You seem to be in the mode of he breaks it, you fix it. He promises to be good; you figuratively take away the car keys. But he is an adult, and there's only so much you can do to keep him from spending money. Whether you close all six of his cards or not, who's to stop him from opening six more next month? Unless you build up financial trust in your marriage, you're headed for trouble.

The good news is that building that trust in your marriage is not only possible, but it's been done by many couples who have been through similar situations. For that to happen, however, you have to both be willing to do two things: 1) start working together as a team; and 2) practice financial transparency.

Working together as a team means you both pull your weight. You don't have to make the same income or even both contribute monetarily, but you should have common goals and both be working toward them. A win for one of you should be a win for both.

You can learn to be on the same team by studying personal finance books together or taking a local personal finance class. It can even be fun to work on finances as a project together. Not everyone is going to feel that way, but at least you can have a new sense of purpose as a couple.

Practicing financial transparency builds trust. If one of you is intercepting the mail for any reason other than a surprise present, that trust level goes down.

Transparency does not mean one marriage partner dominates and controls the other. That doesn't work, because people who can't spend anything without getting yelled at eventually rebel. This is where a budget, agreed to by both of you, actually gives you freedom. You agree ahead of time that X amount of money is for groceries and X amount is "walking around" money you don't have to account for at all. Some people have a given amount, say $100, depending on your situation, that they can spend without consulting the other. That gives each person enough freedom, without suggesting it's OK to buy a motorcycle on the way home.

To answer your question about whether closing six cards will hurt your husband's credit, yes, closing all six of the cards at once will lower his available credit and cause his score to go down. Closing them all may not really help anyway, because he can just open new ones. I suggest closing all but two or three of the cards anyway, just to simplify things. I recommend keeping his oldest accounts open and closing some or all of the newer cards. Then, make sure you both see the card statements every month. Resist the urge to complain about small items or the statements might go "missing" next month.

Staying out of debt is more important than worrying about a few credit score points you might lose by canceling excess credit cards. Sure, you'll want to keep a couple of cards. But if you take care of your finances first, for the most part your credit score will take care of itself.

See related: Poll: About 6 million in U.S. hid bank accounts from spouse, partner, Who pays secret debt in divorce?

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Updated: 01-23-2018