Getting married doesn’t affect your credit score per se. The major credit reporting agencies, for instance, don’t combine your credit history with your significant other’s once you say “I do.”
But, if you have a spouse or soon-to-be-spouse whose credit is less than stellar — or downright “horrible” like John Rampton’s wife Kristy’s was before they married— prepare yourself for the possibility of losing a few notches in your credit-score belt if you want to help dig him or her out of debt.
First, let’s learn more about John and Kristy (who both agreed to share their story): when they got married a couple of years ago, John, 31, knew going in that she had some credit issues.
“I knew she’d had some financial problems — she’d lost her job this and had hard times that — but you never really know until you know,” he said. “I just figured, hey, we’ll get married, we’ll have a few bumps … I know she’ll be a little in debt, but we’ll just pay it off and we’ll go.”
“I knew she had an outstanding student loan of about $12,000. Now, if it had been like $100,000 in credit card debt from a shopping habit, that would’ve been a completely different story, but I wasn’t too worried about it,” he said.
It wasn’t until after they married that they really started talking in earnest about her credit situation, and the reality was she’d had some major financial setbacks. Kristy, now 33, had lost her job and hadn’t been able to make her car payments. The vehicle had been repossessed. She’d missed some student loan payments and some credit card payments, too. Her credit score, somewhere in the 400s, according to John, meant she couldn’t qualify to get the utilities in her own name.
Lay Out an Action Plan
So, John came up with a plan.
“I took over all finances and gave my wife a monthly allowance to teach her money management,” he said.
Then they started pulling Kristy’s credit reports. That was helpful because they found a few unpaid medical bills that Kristy hadn’t even been aware of, including a $24 bill that had gone to collections.
“We paid those off. We paid off her credit cards and her student loans,” John said. “We went to buy a car and I was thinking, we’ve done all these things, our credit score is going to be waaaay better.”
But it wasn’t really, and Kristy didn’t qualify for the auto loan, so John co-signed. His credit score took a ding.
“It wasn’t a severe blow. It took me down a little bit, but it was helping her credit somewhat,” John said. But not enough. So they contacted a credit repair company.
“They started disputing all of these things on her credit report,” he said. After a few months, things started getting removed. (You can go here to learn more about credit repair and credit repair companies.) Her credit score improved, and after about six months, they checked to see if she qualified for a credit card. She didn’t, even though she didn’t have any debt. So they got a secured credit card with a $5,000 limit.
Kelly used it regularly and paid it off multiple times a month. Some months she carried a balance just to see if it helped her credit score. (It doesn’t — best practice is to pay credit card balances off in full.)
No Magic Credit Repair Bullet
“We played around with everything,” John said. “I don’t think there’s one magic bullet when it comes to fixing your credit. You kind of have to do everything.”
Today, Kristy’s score is at 760. And John’s score is also just fine. They don’t have any debt and they’ve even invested in a rental property.
“Now she’s 10-times better than I am [at money management], has all the bills under her name and is an expert at money,” he said. “Some people aren’t brought up with the same knowledge of money. You have to teach them. This was a bit of contention in the beginning of my marriage, but over the course of our first six months, it turned into one of the best things we could have ever done.”
Does Your Credit (or Your Spouse’s Credit) Need Help?
If you find yourself in a similar situation to John and Kristy, here are some tips for you to consider when fixing credit and debt problems.
- Correct Bad Money Habits. “As you begin to make financial transactions together such as financing cars, borrowing to buy a home, or opening credit card accounts in both of your names, any poor fiscal habits that result in late payments or maxing out credit cards will begin to negatively impact your personal credit score,” Toni Husband, a financial coach with Debt Free Divas, wrote in an email. “Adopting less than stellar money management habits from a spouse will kill your credit score.”
- Be a Team Player. It’s good to remember as you work to build good credit together that you are on the same side. “Your spouse is not the enemy, just the same wonderful person you married with a different way of interpreting your situation,” Husband said. “You’ll likely make mistakes or overreact. … The key is to apologize or accept apologies, learn from previous dust ups, and work a little harder next time to remember you both have the same goal — to do what’s best for your family.”
- Be Respectful. “Learning to manage money is a skill that can be mastered, but it may take time to unlearn less than productive habits,” Husband said.
- Celebrate the Wins. “Encourage change in fiscal habits by emphasizing positive behaviors rather than always complaining about what you don’t like,” she said. “Focus on improvements and use mistakes or setbacks as an opportunity to learn.”
If you’re looking for more tips on how to improve your credit score, you can use your free credit report summary, updated each month on Credit.com, to track your progress. There may be no shortcuts to better credit, but having a plan will get you there faster than no plan at all.
More on Credit Reports and Credit Scores:
- The Credit.com Credit Score Learning Center
- What’s a Bad Credit Score?
- How Credit Impacts Your Day-to-Day Life