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How NOT to Use Credit Cards: Couples Edition

Updated: Jan 4

Updated post: 11/28/23

Original post: 6/11/22


How couples can use credit cards wisely

Do not let credit cards use you to destroy your wealth. You have the power to use credit cards to build your wealth.


Credit cards can be the cause of strain or arguments in a relationship. As a matter of fact, couples who disagree about financial matters are twice as likely to divorce as those on the same page about their finances.


Not being on the same page about financial risks is the strongest predictor of divorce.


Managing money as a couple is as much an art as a science. The only perfect playbook is the playbook that works perfectly for you.


Couples who combine their finances need to discuss how they can work together to manage their credit cards, which could depend on how they have combined their money. Some couples combine their finances; others do the same but have individual accounts for fun money.


To help couples, we created a free and customizable budget sheet for couples. It includes linked video clips with tips to help couples build budgets together.


Here are 10 ways couples should not use credit cards and what to do instead.


Failing to communicate


A poll from the National Endowment for Financial Education® (NEFE®), analyzing financial infidelity among U.S. adults, finds that among those who report having ever combined finances in a relationship, two in five (43 percent) confess to having ever committed some act of financial deception. When asked for reasons why they had committed a financial deception:


  • 34% feared disapproval by a partner/spouse in a relationship where discussions of finances had already occurred

  • 33% were embarrassed or fearful about their finances

  • 27% feared disapproval by a partner/spouse in a relationship where discussions about finances had not yet occurred.

Be open with one another about any past credit card debt and how you feel now about using credit cards.


Be honest about the credit card behavior by your partner that you appreciate and the behavior that adds stress to your relationship and personal finances.


Waiting to talk until something contentious arises, such as receiving an unexpected bill or uncovering financial infidelity, will likely lead to a fight.


Schedule a money date instead. A time you and your partner can have a conversation about money, free of distractions and in a setting that is more comfortable to have tough conversations.


Work together to decide who should manage your credit cards. Be clear about the responsibilities to prevent misunderstandings from leading to paying bills late or running high balances.


This is where we went wrong.

 
 

Misjudging who should use credit cards


How couples can use credit cards wisely

Personal finance is more personal than finance. Credit cards can serve as a tool for wealth building or a weapon to destroy it. Folks who are unable to use credit cards responsibility should not have one. Full stop.


Drazen Prelec is a pioneer in the field of neuroeconomics. He is a professor in the MIT Sloan School of Management, holding appointments in the Department of Economics and in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT.


Prelec and his team created an experiment where they organized a silent auction for tickets to sold-out Celtics basketball games. They told half the bidders they could only pay with cash and we told the other half they could only pay with a credit card.


They found that on average the credit card buyers bid more than twice as much as the cash buyers bid. His findings are similar to past studies which found that people spend on average up to 19% more using credit cards than cash.


42 percent of U.S. adults currently have credit card debt. U.S. adults with a net worth of $100K to $199K hold the most credit card debt and the most common reason cited is day-to-day expenses. If not careful, credit cards can become the preferred tool for frivolous spending.


Determine who is best suited to use credit cards. This is an easy decision if both partners can manage credit cards well, but that is not always the case.


An authorized user can make purchases using your credit card. Authorized users typically have a copy of the card in their name tied to your account. The authorized user has no legal responsibility.


Authorized users can improve or build their credit scores by being added to the accounts of a primary account holder with strong account history. Once added to the account, its entire history will appear on your credit reports if the card issuer reports authorized-user activity.


Conversely, the authorized user's credit score can be damaged if the primary cardholder misses a payment or has a high utilization rate.


However, authorized users can remove themselves from the account at any point. When this happens, the account is removed from the authorized user's credit reports, so there's no lingering negative impact.


A joint account holder is considered a primary borrower on the account. Unlike authorized users, joint account holders undergo a credit check when applying for the account.


Both account holders are equally responsible for any debt incurred using the card. And joint account holders can't remove negative information from their credit report as authorized users can. Even after closing the account, negative items will remain on the credit reports of both joint account holders for seven years.


In summary, it is far simpler for couples to have their own accounts and add each other as authorized users. Only add your spouse as an authorized user if your spouse can be trusted to use your credit card responsibly.


Listen to Senior Director of Public Education and Advocacy for Experian Rod Griffin explain the differences between the two in more detail on our Modern Husbands podcast.



How to use credit cards as a couple

Destroying your credit score using credit cards


Here are three ways you destroy your credit score with a credit card:


  1. Maxing them out your credit card

  2. Carrying high balances

  3. Missing a payment

Most financial experts recommend keeping credit utilization below 30% to maintain a healthy credit score, and this is absolute nonsense.


Rod Griffin is Experian Director of Public Education Rod Griffin has shared with me numerous times that folks should aim to keep their credit utilization to as close to 0% as possible.


I can’t recall the last time my utilization rate exceeded 2%, which was clearly a factor in earning my perfect FICO 8 credit score.


FICO shared the results of their study of the traits of folks in various credit score ranges. Those with a FICO 9 credit score between 800-850 averaged a total revolving utilization rate (i.e., credit cards) of 4%. 95% have never been delinquent, and of those who have been, it’s been an average of 46 months since they were.


Here are a few simple ways to soar your credit scores:


  1. Pay credit card balances in full every day.

  2. Ensure at least one partner wholly owns the responsibility of using credit cards to build credit scores.

  3. Increase credit limits without changing spending habits.

 

Your financial life in a spreadsheet, automatically updated daily. Build your budget, now.

 

Losing money from credit cards

How couples can use credit cards wisely

According to the CFPB, late fees account for 99 percent of penalty fees and over half of the credit card market’s total consumer fees. Fees paid range, but as you can see, the trend of who pays fees and how much is clear, with an average deep subprime account charged $138 in late fees compared to an $11 for the average superprime account.


Credit card late fees Consumer Financial Protection Bureau I March 2022

According to Experian, the average credit card balance in 2019 was $6,194. And according to the April 2022 Wallethub study, the average credit card interest rate is 18.32% for new offers and 14.56% for existing accounts.


Credit card interest and fees add up to $120 billion per year. That said, as long as credit card balances are full and on time – not one penny in interest will be paid. Interest applies to carried balances, and the video below illustrates so well.


Failing to consider the best strategy for opening a credit card


Opening a new line of credit can modestly and temporarily reduce the credit score of someone with an established credit history mainly because it reduces your overall average length of credit history.


Partners should consider how at least one can maintain an excellent credit score while getting the most favorable credit card terms.


Be patient and wait for the best signup bonus offer. If you both have excellent credit, consider double-dip signup bonuses.


Not addressing credit card debt


Whether couples come into a relationship with credit card debt or it has accumulated while together, married folks should be laser-focused on eliminating it as fast as possible. Here are three strategies to eliminate credit card debt.


  1. The avalanche method first focuses on paying the loan with the highest interest rate loans. Arrange each debt from the highest interest rate to the lowest. Make the minimum payments on all debts, but apply as much as possible to pay off the highest interest rate loan first. After this is paid, apply the same amount of money toward the account with the next highest interest rate, and so on, until finished.

  2. The snowball method prioritizes paying off the smallest balance loans first. Once that debt is paid, use the money that was applied toward that payment to the next-smallest debt balance owed.

  3. Consider transferring credit card balances to new cards with lengthy 0% intro APRs to avoid interest.

Watch this short illustration, sharing how each method works in more detail. This illustration is available on our free customizable budget sheet for couples.


The Bankrate credit card payoff calculator is an excellent companion tool to work through this. And the CFPB debt reduction worksheet is a handy resource for partners to remain on the same page.


Choosing the wrong credit cards


Partners should take the time to sit down together to review their spending habits and identify the patterns that would fit into credit card rewards categories. Most credit card search engines categorize cards as follows:


  • Credit cards with low interest rates

  • Credit cards for bad credit

  • Best credit cards for travel

  • Best credit cards for rewards

  • Best credit cards for cashback

  • Best credit cards for balance transfers

However, credit card rewards are often more specific. Gas, groceries, dining out, airfare, and pharmacy purchases are common rewards categories with varying percentages. Uncover where the most money is spent within those categories to determine what credit card is the best fit.


Credit card search engines do profit when a credit card is selected using their site. Here is an example disclosure:

CreditCards.com is an independent, advertising-supported comparison service. The offers that appear on this site are from companies from which CreditCards.com receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site, including, for example, the order in which they may appear within listing categories. Other factors, such as our own proprietary website rules and the likelihood of applicants' credit approval also impact how and where products appear on this site. CreditCards.com does not include the entire universe of available financial or credit offers. CCDC has partnerships with issuers including, but not limited to, American Express, Bank of America, Capital One, Chase, Citi and Discover.


Please note that Modern Husbands made the strategic decision, not to partner or affiliate market for financial institutions. The advice we provide will remain unbiased and focus on supporting the educational efforts of the Modern Husband community.


We do not intend to steer you away from using these services. I use them myself, and we want to ensure you understand how they generate revenue. Here are four widely used credit card search engines.


Closing the wrong credit card


Your average length of credit history is generally around 15% of your credit score. Unless there is a clear advantage for closing an account, such as an annual fee, keep the oldest credit card account open and try to use it at least once a month. It doesn’t have to be a primary credit card.


If other cards provide more lucrative rewards, consider using the oldest cards for small automatic purchases such as a Netflix subscription, and set up auto pay.


One final note – don’t close an account without understanding what happens to any accumulated rewards!


Not having the right number of credit cards


The perfect amount of credit cards is the number of credit cards that are easiest for partners to manage responsibly with rewards that best meet their financial goals and needs. According to Experian, the average number of credit cards per person in 2019 was 3.84, but that doesn’t make it right for you.


According to Rod Griffin, the Experian Director of Public Education:


“From a credit reporting and scoring standpoint, you only need one or two credit cards. Make sure to use them responsibly. If you make a purchase, pay it in full each month and keep your balances low. You don’t need to have a lot, just a couple are sufficient for building a strong credit history and good credit scores.”


Not understanding key credit card terms


Reading the fine print is the opposite of fun, but it’s essential nonetheless. Most of what you need can be found in the Schumer Box, which is required by law to be provided by consumers. Below is an interactive Schumer Box. You can click on underlined key terms which links to an explanation of what they mean.


Schumer Box

Below you can also find key terms folks should understand before opening a credit card account, pulled from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.


  • Annual Percentage Rate (APR) To calculate the APR, the interest rate and fees are compared to the amount you borrow and calculated over a one-year period. This allows you to compare the costs of a credit card to a six-month installment loan. It is also why APRs are often different from simple interest rates.

  • Balance transfer A balance transfer lets you move an outstanding balance from one credit card to another, sometimes for a fee.

  • Grace period The period between the end of a billing cycle and the date your payment is due. During this time, you may not be charged interest as long as you pay your balance in full by the due date.

  • Credit balance An amount that the card issuer owes you.

Check out the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Consumer Tools Credit Cards page for more unbiased information.

 

Learn More


Couples who learn more, save more, and spend more on what is important to them.


For engaged and recently married couples who want to manage money and the home as a team.


Self paced online courses for couples designed by national financial therapy and financial planning experts


Winning ideas from experts to manage money and the home as a team. 2023 Plutus Award Finalist: Best Couples or Family Content


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