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Comparing Credit Card Options for Spouses: An Authorized User vs. Joint Account Holder

Authorized User vs. Joint Account Holder

Credit card debt can destroy marriages or be used as the tipping point to earn perfect credit scores, as I did in our marriage. But it’s not as simple as believing credit cards are better because they are safer, earn rewards, and can benefit your credit scores. 

The brain science is clear: credit cards activate the reward center of our brains and drive more spending on average than using cash, up to 20% more. 

What this means in your marriage is that before settling in on choosing between adding a spouse as an authorized user or applying for a joint credit card, determine whether credit cards lead to overspending in your marriage.

Take the time to uncover potential risks for your credit scores and relationship if you believe credit cards still make sense for you and your spouse. There are risks associated with being a joint account holder or authorized user under the following circumstances: 

  • If your spouse has poor credit

  • If you and your spouse do not talk about money 

  • If you do not share bank accounts and your spouse overspends

Bank Accounts and Credit Cards

Maintaining separate credit card accounts does not protect you from an overspending spouse if you share bank accounts. The credit card bill must be paid, and if it’s coming from a shared account then a money dispute is unavoidable. 

However, separate bank accounts can ultimately lead to the same dispute. There will be a money dispute if your spouse spends beyond their means and thus is unable to pay their agreed upon portion of the shared household expenses. 

Dr. Jenny Olson led the groundbreaking research finding that pooling all of your money into marriage causes more happiness for couples that choose to do otherwise.

I asked her whether she felt the transparency of shared bank accounts could reduce the likelihood of credit card overspending, even if spousal credit card accounts were kept separate. 

“Absolutely - having joint bank accounts can reduce the likelihood of splurging, even if credit cards are separate."

Dr. Olson continues by adding, "The reason is that couples with joint accounts are pulling from the same pool of resources at the end of the month. Prior research suggests that we tend to be on ‘our best behavior’ when we have joint versus separate accounts because we ultimately have to justify our expenditures.”



Compartmentalized Accounts and Overspending

There are advantages and disadvantages to various separations and convergences of bank and credit card accounts. But for most couples, the interactions with those accounts do not happen in a vacuum when there is overspending. 

Separate bank accounts cannot prevent spouses from arguments if one spouse is unable to pay shared expenses because of overspending. And neither are separate credit cards. 

At the heart of a successful money relationship in marriage is teamwork. Couples who can work together to stay on the same financial page can avoid most money disputes. 



Comparing Authorized Users and Joint Account Holders

Authorized User vs. Joint Account Holder

Authorized Users

What is a Credit Card Authorized User?

An authorized user is a person who has been added to a credit card account by the primary credit card holder. The authorized user can make purchases with the credit card as if it were their own. However, the responsibility to pay any charges remains with the primary cardholder.

What are the advantages of an authorized user?


Adding your spouse as an authorized user allows them to use the credit card without the hassle of applying for a separate account. It's a quick and easy way to give them access to credit.

Builds Credit

As an authorized user, your spouse's credit activity on the account may be reported to the credit bureaus. This is only beneficial if the primary cardholder pays all bills on time and maintains a low credit card balance, ideally close to 0% of the overall credit limit. 

What are the disadvantages of an authorized user?

Limited Control

While you can set spending limits for authorized users, you ultimately have less control over their spending habits. If your spouse overspends or misuses the card, it could impact your credit score and finances.

No Ownership

As an authorized user, your spouse does not have ownership or legal responsibility for the account. They cannot make changes to the account or dispute charges independently.

Credit Score Impact

While being an authorized user can help build credit, it may also have a negative impact if the primary account holder misses payments or carries a high balance.



Joint Account Holders

What is a Credit Card Joint Account Holder?

A joint credit card account is one that two people share. Both account holders are equally responsible for paying off the balance and any interest or fees incurred on the card.

What are the advantages of being a joint account holder?

Equal Responsibility

Both spouses have equal ownership and responsibility for the account, including making payments and managing balances. It promotes transparency and shared financial responsibility.

Shared Rewards

With a joint account, both spouses can earn rewards and benefits from the credit card, such as cashback, points, or travel perks.

Builds Joint Credit

As both spouses' credit activity is reported on the account, it can help build and strengthen their joint credit history. This can be beneficial when applying for loans or mortgages together.

What are the disadvantages of being a joint account holder?

Shared Liability

While joint account holders share equal responsibility, they also share equal liability for the debt incurred on the account. If one spouse overspends or misses payments, it can negatively impact both credit scores.

Potential Disputes

Joint accounts can lead to disagreements if spouses have different spending habits or financial priorities. Successful account management requires effective communication and compromise.

Credit Score Impact

Similar to authorized user status, joint account activity can impact both spouses' credit scores. If one spouse has a poor credit history, it could affect the other spouse's ability to qualify for credit in the future.

Wrapping it Up

Deciding between adding your spouse as an authorized user or opening a joint credit card account depends on your individual financial situation, relationship dynamics, bank account structure, and shared financial goals.

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