Dear Mr. Dad: As a husband, what can I say to my wife to help her understand that her financial habits affect our present and future? We want to buy a house now. This is where I realized that I need to push her to improve her credit. It's not the credit score alone that I'm concerned about, it's the things that have made the score low. Although we have some joint financial accounts, we've also kept separate ones. Sometimes she simply doesn't pay the bills at all! And last year, she bought a time share (against my approval) while she wasn't working and now is way behind on payments, but won't call them to work something out. I don't want to be annoying, even though I feel the urge to, but she needs to stop relying solely on my good credit score when we consider making major financial purchases. What can I do or say? Help!
A: Given how easy it is to trash a credit rating and how hard it is to rebuild (it takes years), you've got to take a hard line in this situation. If your wife's credit score goes through the floor, your good score won't be enough to make the difference, especially when you're talking about a new home.
The first thing you need to do is make it difficult for your wife to keep making major purchases. Call your credit card companies and ask them to put limits on her cards or to cancel them all together (although if you're trying to restrict cards that are in her name only, you probably won't have much luck). That may put some hardship on you too, but having to make all your purchases in cash makes spending a lot of money a bit harder.
Next, if you have debts that have outstripped your ability to pay, talk to the creditors and ask them to help work with you on restructuring the debts. If you file for bankruptcy they could end up with nothing, so they have some incentive to work with you. You may want to find a credit counseling agency to help you with this. Two organizations can help you find an agency near you: The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (www.nfcc.org/) and the Financial Association of America (https://fcaa.org/).
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Whatever you do, get on this immediately. One of the biggest reasons couples break up is money issues. Hopefully, it won't come to that. But just in case, while you're talking with the credit counseling agencies, ask them about how debts are structured after a divorce. In some states, everything is split down the middle, regardless of which spouse incurred the debts. In other states, both spouses are responsible for the entire amount of the debt, which means that a creditor could come after you for 100 percent of the debt if your wife stops making payments. There are a lot of different alternatives and you should get some solid information about how things work in your state.
Be very sure when talking to these agencies that you find out exactly what their fees are. Stay far, far away from any organization that promises to restore your credit over night or insists that you take out more credit cards.
Finally, check into Debtors Anonymous (www.debtorsanonymous.org), which is similar to Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step program. You should go too – to support your wife and also because without realizing it, you may actually be enabling her spending, and you need to learn how to stop.
(Read Armin Brott's blog at www.DadSoup.com, follow him on Twitter, @mrdad, or send email to email@example.com.)