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My Spouse Overspends on Credit Cards. What Should I Do?

April 14, 2014
Credit Card Basics, Credit Cards
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Disagreements over money is one of the biggest problems for any relationship. Here are some suggestions on handling money and spending both before you enter a relationship, and after, especially if your spouse is a little too eager on the credit card trigger.

The safe approach: Separate accounts

Financial planners, therapists and family counselors have varying opinions on money matters in relationships. From a purely practical standpoint, one way to handle money issues is to do so before you tie the knot. One common method is for each person to maintain the assets they bring into the relationship in their own separate accounts. Then the couple should make a monthly budget, and each contribute an agreed percentage into that budget each month. Now each person can spend their own funds outside that common budget any way they wish.

As far as legal obligations go, every state has different laws. In some states, a pre-nuptial agreement will stipulate that the assets and debts of each party will remain separate. Practically speaking, that is the best way to protect your own hard-earned assets from an unfortunate surprise that your spouse is a spendthrift.

» MORE: How to pay off debt

Risks of comingled accounts

Let’s say, however, that you haven’t established these ground rules. You have merged all your accounts, comingled all your funds and have no agreements in place. If you are married, most jurisdictions consider the debts of one spouse to be attributable to the other. What happens on one credit card affects the credit of both individuals – although again, that may vary by jurisdiction and card issuer.

You open up a credit card statement and – wowie zowie! – the expectation of a $1,500 balance is blown away by $8,000 in charges. How do you handle this conundrum?

Family therapists will differ on the exact language to use in addressing the issue, so let’s stick to high-level problem solving. First, the issue must be raised in a way that is not accusatory. Talk about your financial goals, talk about your spending habits, and go over the statement together. Get to the bottom of your feelings. Why might your spouse be spending so much? Explain why it stresses you out. Remind your spouse of your goals and how this level of spending will set your mutual goals back.

Do you need professional assistance?

OK, so that’s all nice and rational. However, money is a very emotional topic. What if rational discussion fails? Now you have to move into professional assistance. A family therapist, counselor, or other relationship professional should be brought in.

If the situation is getting worse, don’t hesitate to seek out a debt management professional. Visits with this individual can be a serious wake-up call, as he’ll be able to neutrally point out how long it may take to pay off these debts.

More fixes for dire situations

You may have to move into more drastic steps. If spending really is out of control, then credit cards may have to be cut into pieces. Is anything that was purchased returnable? If your financial situation is deteriorating, returning items may blunt the damage.

If things are really awful, and this is an ongoing pattern – especially if your spouse is hiding the spending from you – don’t hesitate to go to Debtors Anonymous. The first step to fixing the problem is admitting one exists. Don’t be ashamed. It’s not easy to manage debt.

Couple with bank image via Shutterstock