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How Marriage Affects your Credit Score — For Better or Worse
When you say, “I do,” your credit scores don’t become one, even if your hearts do. Credit scores are tied to your Social Security number, so your score remains separate from your spouse’s.
However, while your spouse’s past credit history has no direct impact on your own, your spouse’s money habits can impact your life -- and in certain circumstances, your credit score, too.
For example, if your spouse has a low credit score, it can affect your ability to borrow money as a couple, since a bad credit score can often indicate debt and a history of late payments. Additionally, if you have a joint account, their financial habits, good and bad, will show up on your credit report.
Managing personal finances together is a significant aspect of marriage. That’s why it’s important to know how your spouse’s debt, credit, and overall financial situation can impact yours.
How your spouse’s credit score impacts joint purchases and accounts
Couples usually make joint financial decisions together when it comes to big-ticket items like mortgages, car loans, and personal loans. When you co-sign a loan with your partner, both of your credit scores will be weighed to determine the loan amount and interest.
If your partner has a history of missing or defaulting on payments, their credit score could drive down the qualifying loan amount and you may have to pay a higher interest rate on the loan you do receive. You can leave your spouse off a loan application if they have a low credit score, but by doing so and not including both of your incomes on the application, you could miss out on qualifying for the full line of credit that you need.
“If one person’s income is not sufficient, you’ll have to factor in both [credit] scores,” says Megan McCoy, Ph.D., director for the personal financial planning master’s program at Kansas State University.
Having everything in your spouse’s name can also be problematic if you happen to divorce. If your partner defaults on bills and your name is on the account, you could be solely responsible for these debts without the help of your partner’s income.
Financial transparency makes for stronger marriages
When you’re married, your finances are intertwined -- for better or worse. Talking to your partner about their credit score and finances can help promote better communication about financial goals, and in general, as a couple.
“It’s very important that couples remember to take time to nurture their relationship, so their relationship doesn’t suffer because of financial stress,” says Ashley LeBaron, a family finance researcher at the University of Arizona.
Some couples may try to compartmentalize their financial lives to “mine” and “yours.” Ed Coambs, a financial therapist, warns that keeping finances separate can lead to financial infidelity, which can cause conflict and trust issues in a relationship.
“What you do with your money individually impacts what you do as a couple,” Coambs says.
Many married couples will merge their accounts and cosign on loans together. Unifying your finances with your spouse can make for a stronger relationship.
According to the 2018 Fidelity Investments Couples and Money Survey, 73% of couples who manage their finances jointly say they are more likely to say they communicate well with their spouse.
“It symbolizes we’re a team,” LeBaron says. “It’s better for the relationship and demonstrates commitment and equal power in their financial lives.”
For couples that pool all of their money together in a joint bank account, couples were happier in their relationship, according to research from UCLA Anderson Review.
Helping a spouse with bad credit
Your spouse’s bad credit and debt may make you cautious to open a joint account with them.
For some couples, it may make more financial sense to keep accounts separate until healthy spending patterns are developed. But with the right financial habits, poor credit scores can improve over time. Here are several ways to help nudge your spouse’s credit -- and your family’s financial health -- in the right direction:
No.1: Talk it out as a team
Talking about your partner’s debt or low credit score can be a sensitive subject, so it’s best to take a problem-solving approach instead of placing blame. Developing financial empathy towards your partner is critical, Coambs says.
“Most people with low credit scores are more avoidant about money,” McCoy says. “If you take kindly to your partner and work together to build their credit score, they’ll feel hopeful.”
No. 2: Agree on a plan
Decide on a credit-building plan together. Working with your partner to raise their low credit score can help couples qualify for lower interest rates and more favorable loan terms for major purchases.
“It’s important for both partners to come to that conversation humbly and avoid name-calling,” McCoy says. “They should remind themselves it’s not you against me, but together we have a problem we need to improve.”
No. 3: Weigh the pros and cons to having a joint credit card
One way to help your spouse build credit is to add them as an authorized user on your credit card account. The partner’s good behavior will be reflected on both credit reports.
No. 4: Consider counseling
Family therapists who specialize in family finance, a financial therapist, or financial planner can help couples get to the root of their underlying values, habits, and differences when it comes to money, which usually comes from how the household they grew up in interacted with money.
“It’s usually not just about the money, it’s what the money represents,” LeBaron says.
No. 5: Attack the problem early on
In a study of more than 4,500 couples, researchers found financial disagreements were one of the strongest predictors of divorce.
“Although income isn’t tied to relationship outcomes, the more debt couples have when they come into a marriage, the more strain it will put on their relationship,” LeBaron says.
Ashley LeBaron is a doctoral candidate in Family Studies and Human Development at the Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Arizona. Her research focus is family finance, including couple finance and financial socialization. LeBaron has published 23 peer-reviewed articles in journals such as Sex Roles, Journal of Family Issues, and Family Relations.
Megan McCoy, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist and a Level-1 certified financial therapist, is the director for the personal financial planning master’s program at Kansas State University where she teaches courses for the financial therapy certificate program. She is also the secretary for the board of financial therapy and the associate editor of profiles and book reviews for the Journal of Financial Therapy.
Ed Coambs, MBA, MA, CFP, CFT-I™, LMFT, focuses on improving couples relationships with money. He is a financial therapist based in Charlotte, NC. Follow Coambs on Instagram @healthyloveandmoney.