Credit Card Debt: Marriage, Privacy and Honesty

Archie writes in:

In our marriage, my wife and I have agreed not to open financial statements addressed to each other. We supposedly did this so that we would be able to hide things like gift purchases from each other. Whenever we talked about our finances, we just talked about balances on accounts and didn’t worry about individual items on each other’s bills.

Over the last few years, I’d noticed more and more bills from various banks sent to my wife, but I hadn’t really thought too much about it. Yesterday, we received a call from someone from Citi who wanted to speak to my wife about her account and made it clear that the account was overdrawn and past due.

I was frustrated and worried, so I dug through the mail and found her most recent statement from Citi, which was unopened. I opened it. She had a balance of over $7,500 on it. I was just shocked, so I opened some of the other statements with her name on it that I could find. From just what I could gather in a few minutes, I found that she has $30,000 at least in credit card debt.

I put all of the statements in my bedside table for now. I don’t know what to do next. We certainly don’t have $30,000 to pay these off right now and even the minimum payments are difficult. It looks like my wife has been juggling accounts a lot because there aren’t many payments on our recent bank statements.

What do I do next? I don’t know what to do and I’m afraid of the big fight we’re going to have.

I originally included Archie’s note in my reader mailbag for this week, but I had enough to say about his situation (and I figured readers would, too) that I decided to devote a whole article to it.

First of all, this isn’t just about your discovery of the credit card debt. There has been a long history of dishonesty here – and that’s what I would call it, dishonesty. Marriage is a union based on trust and $30,000 in credit card debt is a pretty strong violation of that trust. It is going to take a lot of work to dig out of that debt.

In short, my suggestion would be that you seek marriage counseling, first and foremost. You’re in a situation now where you’ve both violated the trust in the marriage – your wife has been hiding tens of thousands of dollars in debt and you’ve opened up private correspondence to her. You have a perfectly good reason to feel that your trust has been violated and to feel upset. So does your wife.

This means your marriage has some very serious trust issues that you need to work through in order to be able to move forward successfully with a financial plan.

Why? A financial plan in a marriage only works if you can fully trust one another. You need to be able to trust that your partner is actually working towards the same goals with the same methods as you are and that if either of you run into trouble, you’ll work it out together. If you can’t trust each other, then a financial plan cannot work.

The first order of action, then, is to re-establish the trust.

If you’ve reached a point where you feel that you can trust each other again, then turn your eyes to your financial situation. View the past as water under the bridge; instead, focus on where you’re at now and how you can make your situation better from your current position. What-ifs don’t help with the here and now.

The first step to recovery would be a mutual commitment to spend less than you earn. Remember, of course, that part of your required spending is the debt repayment and also remember that you (as a couple) are spending far beyond your means (witness the $30,000 in credit card debts). Thus, this will be a lot harder than you might think. This step will take some serious work on its own. You’ll both have to face your spending head-on and make some difficult choices. But you have to get that spending under control.

Second, you need to create a debt repayment plan. A debt repayment plan is easy to set up and helps you develop an orderly method for paying your debts down.

Finally, and most importantly, the two of you need to discuss goals together. What do you want for your mutual future? Where do you see yourselves in five years or ten years or twenty years? What exactly will it take to get there? Obviously, getting control over your spending and getting rid of your debts are two big steps, but those are just two steps. You need to work together to figure out what comes next and how to get there.

Good luck.

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