Buried in debt
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Tess Vigeland: Ever think it might just be easier to keep something from your spouse? It would be if you were living in magic no-one-ever-finds-out land.
We found some credit counselors who are reporting that in the last few months they've noticed an uptick in calls from one half of a couple. The caller asks the counselor to send all the forms to, say, their mom's house or their personal email account.
Counselors call it financial infidelity and it's about a lot more than money.
Ashley Milne-Tyte has our story.
Ashley Milne-Tyte: Michael McAuliffe has been a credit counselor for 15 years, but even he was shocked recently when one of his staff spoke to a man who'd racked up $300,000 in credit card debt which he hadn't mentioned to his wife.
McAuliffe is president of Chicago-based Family Credit Management. He says the guy was a salesman.
Michael McAuliffe: And he kept thinking that big sale was going to come, going to come, going to come and, you know, he didn't want to adjust his standard of living. He doesn't need to tell his spouse about it because he's just waiting on that big sale. But now he can't get any more credit cards to use.
McAuliffe says the counselor tried to persuade the man to come clean, but the caller was adamant. He was afraid his wife would balk at the idea of curbing her lifestyle, never mind her reaction to the prospect of filing for bankruptcy.
McAuliffe says his staff usually gets two or three calls a month from people hiding their debt from their other half. Now, he says, with the economy in a downturn and people's credit maxed out, there's a call like this every day. But why the secrecy?
Mary Hunt: I can answer that so clearly. It's fear of rejection.
Mary Hunt knows all about the fear of rejection. These days she's an author who runs the website debtproofliving.com, but as a young married woman in the 1970s, she was determined to live the high life regardless of her husband's pleas for frugality. She opened multiple credit card accounts and piled up debt, much of it on the sly.
Hunt: I had a secret post office box where I would get bills that would come to make sure that he didn't see them because it was just easier for me to deceive him, to keep what I thought was harmony in our marriage.
She says she was terrified he'd leave her if he discovered how lavish her spending had become.
But it's not always fear of a break-up that drives over-spenders to keep their activities under wraps. Alan has been a member of Debtors Anonymous for 14 years. He says for men like him, familiar old attitudes can play a role.
Alan: The thing about it is it's an ego thing. For some reason, men feel that if they tell someone that they can't handle their money or they're in way out over their heads, they think that someone's going to look down at them and shame them because, "What are you an idiot? You can't handle your money?"
Alan says buying the latest gadgets for himself and the cutest clothes for his kids made him feel good... even if he couldn't afford it. In the early 90s, his widowed father moved in with him and his wife. Alan forged his dad's signature to open a credit card in his name. The card arrived and the spree began.
One day, his wife unearthed one of the bills. She asked how his stroke-stricken father could have spent $5,000 on all this stuff.
Alan: I said "I don't know... I have no idea." I just denied it point blank.
But his wife was persistent. Finally, he admitted the truth. He joined Debtors Anonymous that very day. Recently, he celebrated his 25th wedding anniversary.
Occasionally, financial infidelity plays out in unexpected ways. Eve Pidgeon now heads communications for credit counseling firm Greenpath Incorporated. She's a saver. Her ex-husband was a spender who loved credit cards. He used to walk around with his pockets stuffed with $20 bills.
Eve Pidgeon: My financial infidelity was waiting until he was asleep, stealing the money out of his pockets, putting it back in the bank and back on the cards immediately so we were never deep in debt.
Her intentions were good. Still, debt experts say honesty is usually the best policy. Mary Hunt of debtproofliving.com says for people hiding debt from a spouse, there's a right time to come clean.
Hunt: Don't even think of doing this until you are come to the place where you have 100 percent genuine remorse. No excuses. Nothing other than "I am so sorry and here's my plan." You've got to have a plan for what you are going to do to change this.
Whether it's credit counseling, she says, or getting a second job -- or a first job, as in her case. Hunt says when she finally revealed the extent of their debt to her husband, he didn't walk out. He told her they'd pay it off together. She says they finally began talking about their different attitudes to money and talking about that made them open up about a lot of other things.
38 years after first hitting the credit cards, she says their relationship is stronger and more rewarding than she'd ever thought possible.
I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace Money.