Published May 25, 2011
Love may conquer all, but if you're not careful it can wreck your credit.
Love and credit "don't mix too well," says Joel Greenberg, co-founder of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies and president of Novadebt, a nonprofit credit counseling service based in Freehold, N.J. "You've got to try and keep them separate."
But for a lot of people in love, common sense and better judgment go out the window.
Many times, "love is blind," says Linda Sherry, spokeswoman for Consumer Action.
While money's not supposed to matter in a relationship, attitudes about spending and credit can have a big impact.
"In relationships, people fight about money more than they fight about sex -- and those are the two hot topics," says Patricia Schiff Estess, author of "Money Advice for Your Successful Remarriage."
Want to help keep your love and your credit strong? Here are five moves you don't want to make:
He remembers one young woman who used her credit cards to turn her boyfriend's cramped home into a snug lovenest for two, charging renovation supplies, furniture and decor items.
Then they split, she moved out and he lost his job. Without an income, he couldn't help her with the bills.
"He's got all the benefits, she's got nothing," Greenberg says.
"You may think a relationship is going to last, but it doesn't," he says.
2. Borrow to lend
"One of the things you should never do is lend money you have to borrow," says Natalie Lohrenz, director of credit counseling for the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Orange County.
To paraphrase "Love Story," love means never putting a loved one's purchases on your cards or getting cash advances to lend money.
Kristen Garrett counseled one woman who was on the financial brink from helping her adult son. When the son's girlfriend got pregnant, the mom stretched even more to help the couple acquire an apartment, furniture and baby clothes.
"She didn't have the money, so she was putting it on the cards," says Garrett, the public relations coordinator for Pittsburgh-based Advantage Credit Counseling Service, a nonprofit affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
"She got so far into debt, bankruptcy was her only option," she says.
And that stressed mom is far from alone. Many times, when loved ones need help, someone will pull out the credit cards.
"I think as far as people trying to help out family members, that's a fairly common occurrence," says Garrett.
Your first clue that the arrangement could lead to financial heartache: the fact that your loved one needs a co-signer at all.
"There must be something in their background that makes them a poor credit risk," says Greenberg. "You might be doing it for love, but you could end up holding the bag."
The most common co-signer mistake that lovers make? Co-signing for cell phones, says Michelle Burton, certified credit counselor with the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Dallas. "Most phone contracts last two years and most relationships don't."
What it can cost you in dollars and cents: fixed monthly charges, variable calling charges and early termination fees that can run from $250 to $350, she says.
"I think the most important thing to remember is you don't co-sign for anything you can't afford to pay for yourself," says Burton.
He remembers one instance of a shopaholic spouse who kept applying for (and getting), those pre-approved credit offers and running up the balances. She then started using new cards to pay the balances on the older ones. She finally came in for credit counseling "when she could no longer handle the balancing act," he says.
Her husband hadn't known about the debt and the couple was "a hair's breadth from divorce," says Greenberg.
Keeping an eye on your bills, even if you're not signing the checks, can be equally important, he says. And that goes double if you have an authorized user on any of your cards.
Another item that can come in handy: a written agreement with any authorized users.
"Put it in writing," Greenberg says. "It eliminates any misunderstandings."
Greenberg remembers one woman who named her son as an authorized user on one of her cards when he was in college. Decades later, he was married with kids and a successful professional career, when he called to tell her he'd purchased a new living room set and put it on her card.
"She realized she'd become an enabler," says Greenberg.
5. Rack up debt together
"Big picture: couples who accumulate assets together tend to have happier, more stable marriages," says Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. "Couples who acquire debt have more conflict and lower levels of marital quality."
Greenberg remembers one instance where the husband was earning the income, so he felt entitled "to make frivolous, large purchases," he says. "When you do that, you create a problem in the marriage."
"You have to work together," Greenberg says. "It really needs to be a joint effort."
One solution: establish a monthly budget and keep track of common expenditures, says Wilcox.
Couples who are working and planning as a team, he says, are "building a future together."
More from CreditCards.com: