Editorial Policy

Married doesn't automatically mean joined cards, credit

Erica Sandberg

December 9, 2014

QHi Erica,

I'm married and would like to apply for a credit card.  When I apply, will the bank need to contact my husband, check his credit and put him on the account? Or, can I apply alone and get it just in my name? We both earn incomes, but my husband was saying that the bank will want both our names on the account because we are married. This wouldn't be a secret card or anything. I just want to earn rewards on groceries, and I don't think it makes sense to have both our names on it when I'm the one using it. Would the bank require both of us to be on the account? –Bess

ADear Bess,

Waltz over to your husband and say nicely, “I'm sorry, darling, but you're wrong.”

Not that I want to start a couples war, but it is important for everyone to know the truth about lending rights. Sometimes that means dispelling pervasive myths: No, married people are not automatically viewed by creditors as a single unit.

Any adult can apply for and obtain credit cards and loans in just her name. You can do this by completing the application using your personal identification and financial information. The lender will then pull your consumer credit report and credit scores — not your husband's — to see if you qualify for the product. In the event that you do, the account will be issued to only you. Your husband would have no legal access to it unless you give him authorization.Ask Erica

I understand that your intention is not to be covert, but if you wanted to be, that would be possible. Evidence of the pursuit and granting of the card would not be on his credit file, so unless he opens your wallet and mail and discovers the account, you could keep the entire (credit) affair classified — unless something goes wrong.

You see, a spouse who did not sign for the account can be held responsible for the debt in the event of divorce. If you live in a community property state, all assets and liabilities incurred during the marriage are typically split down the middle. Even if you live in a state without these laws, the judge may assign one of you to repay the balance on an individually held card that you might not have ever used.

But let's get back to what you want, which is to get your own credit card to pay for all things you want and need.

Check out the current offers for people with your credit rating. If you don't know where you stand, pull your FICO scores at MyFICO.com, then apply for the credit card that best meets the issuer's criteria and your desires. You mentioned that you would like to use the card to buy groceries. There are cards that offer 2 percent and more cash back for dollars spent at qualified grocery stores. The key is to shop for plastic the same way you would any major purchase — by comparing benefits and drawbacks.

Once you have the card you want, commit to use it in a positive way. With your husband, develop a budget that you can both live comfortably within. Only charge those things that you can afford to easily repay in full so you keep the balance at zero. This is crucial.

Overcharging leads to deep, expensive debt. If you maintain big balances, you'll waste money on finance fees. The payments might be too high to meet other bills, causing savings to suffer. Such a situation would not just be a problem for you, but for your entire family. If you were to treat that card in this fashion, it would be you apologizing, not your husband.

Got a question for Erica? Send her an email.