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4 smart card rules for a successful marriage

Dawn Papandrea

January 5, 2015

Credit cards probably aren't top of mind when you think about marriage success. However, with money problems at the root of many a divorce, you might want to think again.

For people heading into marriage, the credit and borrowing habits of each person matters, says Elle Kaplan, CEO and founder of LexION Capital Management LLC. “It's one of the big things that couples fight about. Before the wedding day, it's a good idea to establish rules and boundaries,” she says. While you may never both be in total agreement about money styles, getting on the same page about where cards fit into your finances is a great start.

Here are some expert card rules for couples that can apply to any marriage.

No secret spending

Once you decide how you will use card debt as a couple, you also have to make a commitment to be transparent when you make a purchase, says Kathleen Burns Kingsbury, wealth psychology expert and author of  “How to Give Financial Advice to Couples.” Although we'd like to think being honest is a no-brainer, many spouses admit to hiding purchases from each other to avoid conflict, she says. And sometimes, that spirals into secret credit cards and discoveries of maxed out accounts.

“If you find yourself having the urge to hide a purchase, first look at what is triggering this urge — your money history, a previous financial conflict or a realization that you really should have not spent the money,” she says. “Based on what you discover, talk to your partner about the purchase or return it.”

One way to keep everyone honest is to ensure that both parties have equal access to account information at all times, says Randy Hopper, vice president of credit cards at Navy Federal Credit Union. It could be as simple as sharing logins and passwords with each other, or setting up text alerts for when account activity occurs. Mostly, however, it's about communication. “Credit card balances and monthly payments should be rolled into all other financial discussions,” he says.

Also, order your credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.com for free each year and look over them together. It's best to come clean before there's a problem. (While you're at it, check for errors on your credit reports.)

Set credit expectations

Some people believe it's OK to put everything on their plastic and pay it off at the end of the month; others reserve cards for emergencies only. In other words, couples may have very different mindsets when it comes to using credit, so setting expectations prior to opening joint accounts with a partner is key, says Hopper. “It has to start with understanding each other's behavior,” he says. Then, you can get more specific about where or in what situation a card might be used.

No matter how you use it, the best card strategy is to pay the balances off in full each month, says Kingsbury.  “From time to time you may need to use credit for a large purchase. If it's not something that can wait, work together to make a commitment to pay it off as early as possible, even if it means no dinners out for the next month,” she says.

Establish your own credit limit

Some couples have their own spending money or access to an individual card account,  says Kaplan. You might agree that any purchase over $100 needs to be discussed with your partner first. Or you might have a monthly limit of $250 for personal spending. The idea is to choose a figure that works within your budget, but still gives each person some freedom.

However, says Kaplan: “The bottom line is you should talk with your partner if you're spending more than $100 (or whichever amount you set), no matter how you're spending it,” she says. “It really eliminates the ability to make expensive impulse buys because you have to check in with someone.”

Make your credit conversations ongoing (and fun!)

Kingsbury says that you should evaluate all of your card rules at least annually. “Life changes and finances change, so checking in regularly make sense, and will help you continue to talk openly about how you plan on using debt as a couple,” she says.

Cards can actually be a good tool for budgeting and sharing expenses, and if you work together to earn points or cash back, it could even be a fun way to reward yourselves. “When choosing a new credit card, do the research together and make it fun,” says Kaplan.  “You might find a card that offers rewards that help you travel, or you can use points toward your financial goals. Anytime you can make finance fun as a couple, you're better off.”