Q: I suspected my wife of having secret debt, so I confronted her. She confessed that she’s been carrying debt on her own credit cards and has only been making minimum payments. The balances are now high enough that she can’t keep up. What should I do?
A: Finding out that your spouse hasn’t been honest regarding financial matters can put a lot of strain on a relationship. While this is difficult to accept, at least the problem is out in the open.
Spouses hide spending from each other for various reasons. Understanding why your wife did what she did will help you consider your next steps.
Does she have a spending problem, like a shopping addiction? Many people laugh retail therapy off as something trivial, but it is a powerful coping strategy and for some people an addiction that requires professional help to beat. Your support of your wife with concrete strategies to limit her access to credit, as well as support while she undergoes counselling, may be what’s needed before you can deal with the actual debt.
Is your wife responsible for managing your household and living expenses? If she is and the debts you’ve found out about are the result of losing control, then you may have two issues, namely communication with each other and budgeting. The good news is that you can tackle both of these issues together.
Start by planning a time to talk. Be honest with and respectful of each other. Agree not to play the blame-game and focus on what you can do to resolve the situation. This means putting all credit cards on the table, literally, and printing off statements for all accounts – chequing, savings, credit cards, line of credit, loans, etc.
Look at the last 3 months carefully and categorize every expense. You both need to see exactly where your money has gone.
Decide which credit products make sense for your family. Cut up credit cards that are out of control; limit online access to savings accounts and lines of credit; lower limits on debit cards – agree to only use cash until you’ve got things under control.
Next create a debt reduction strategy, and seek help if you’re not sure where to start. Be accountable to each other each week at a family meeting so that you can work together as you make choices to bring your spending in line with your income.
Instead of viewing this as detrimental to your relationship, it may actually repair some of the damage as you work on achieving your goals together.