Editorial Policy

In Marriage, Sharing Credit Cards Can Be Costly

default author image

By Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D.
November 17, 2011

QDear Eva,
My credit score is low (580) thanks to a tough couple of years as a single mom, but my husband’s credit score is so much better (780). I’ve always wanted to take advantage of the kind of rewards deals that you write about, but I haven’t been able to because of my credit. Is there a way I can use my husband’s credit instead to apply for a rewards card? Would we even be approved? We’ve only been married for a year and so this would be the first time we applied for a card together. — LisaTh_financial-habits-couples-in-trouble

AHi Lisa,
Congratulations on your recent marriage! I’m glad your financial fortunes are taking a different turn. Making ends meet as a single mom is tough indeed.

Regarding your question, yes, technically you and your husband can apply for a credit card together. But you will want to weigh your options carefully before you do to make sure you really want to go down that road.

Let’s deal with the technical side of things first. There are two ways to share a credit card: You can both apply for the card and become joint account holders. Or your husband can apply and add you as an authorized user to the account.

There are pros and cons to each option. Spouses who are joint account holders both own the rewards earnings on the credit card, and they are both responsible for the charges to the account. However, because of your bad credit, you might find that card issuers will not approve you for a joint account, even if you apply for a credit card together with your husband. Ask Eva

You are more likely to meet with success if your husband applies for a rewards credit card and then adds you as an authorized user.

The good news about this option is that your credit score could even get a bump from this. Why? Because when you piggyback on your husband’s credit, the positive credit habits associated with the account will show up in your credit report and rub off on your credit score.

The bad news about this option is that when you’re an authorized user, rewards earnings technically belong to your husband, not to you. So, should (God forbid) something happen to your husband, you might not have any right to the rewards points in the account. Of course, that is hopefully a moot issue, and if your husband agrees to add you as an authorized user, he will certainly let you use the rewards earnings as well.

So, technically, the answer is yes. You can get access to a rewards card by becoming an authorized user on a card your husband applies for.

But here’s the million dollar question: Would you really want to?

What to consider before sharing a card
As newlyweds, you are still in the process of merging finances and becoming used to each other’s values and financial habits. It’s usually smart to make that a slow, gradual process and not rush into a situation where you have to agree on all things financial very quickly.

Sharing a credit card can easily change your relationship in ways that you may later regret. When you are an authorized user on the credit card, your husband, not you, is ultimately responsible for the charges. And if you make charges on the card that he disagrees with, that could lead to serious problem down the line.

It’s much easier to manage cash than credit cards: Either the money is there to spend, or it’s not. With a shared credit card, you two will suddenly have to agree on a lot more things: Which credit card charges are acceptable and which are not? How much of the bill do you pay off each month? How much of a balance is it acceptable to accumulate? Who is responsible for which charges (if you both have an income)? And so on.

These are the kinds of difficult questions a shared credit card can easily bring up. They are also the kinds of questions that easily lead to disagreements and even fierce arguments. And believe me, girlfriend, few things are worth compromising your relationship — and a rewards credit card, no matter how shiny and loaded with bonus points, is definitely not one of them!

So, you are really asking the wrong question. Instead of wondering how you can use your husband’s good credit to get a rewards credit card, ask how you can improve your own credit, so you can apply for that rewards credit card yourself down the road.

It’s not really that hard to improve your credit score, especially now that it sounds like you will have an easier time making ends meet. Pay all your bills on time, pay down existing credit card balances, ideally to 10 percent of the limit, and slowly, over time, create a history of stable, reliable credit management. Within a year or two, you will see a noticeable difference in your score.

And surprise, surprise, the kinds of credit behaviors that are good for your credit score will be good for your relationship, too! When you use credit wisely, don’t spend more than you have coming in and don’t accumulate debt over time, it takes away one of the most common reasons for financial strain and disagreement among couples. And that doesn’t just help boost your credit score and pad your pocketbook; it works wonders for your relationship.