Q: My husband and I have been together for almost four years. Before we got married, I had great credit, no debt, and few bills. In his case, though, collectors were banging down the door and he was about to be evicted. He's a good man, but lately I feel he's dragging me down with him. We now have more than $20,000 in credit card debt. Everything we own is in my name. I've managed to put away some money for our child's education, but neither of us has anything saved for retirement and, with our debt, we can't afford life insurance. I've managed to keep my husband from destroying my credit, but I'm so tired of all the bill juggling that I'm considering divorce. Any suggestions?
A: Debt collectors and eviction notices were evidence that you were headed for trouble, so I have to believe that you knew what you were getting into. Often when life isn't working out the way we dreamed, we blame forces beyond our control. But just as often, the problem is staring at us in the mirror. I can't stress enough that when we learn to take responsibility for what we do and don't have, we put ourselves on the path to happiness.
That doesn't mean I think you should divorce your husband. Your goal is to see if you can avoid that extreme option. First explore why he behaves this way. I find that when people act out with their money, it's typically because they don't value who they are. Sit down with your husband and talk with him about his attitude toward money, your family's financial situation, and his self-image. Spell out what you need to have happen to keep this marriage alive. For one thing, you are not to be the sole bill payer. Make this a joint exercise so that he sees the problem and understands his duty to fix it.
I can appreciate how emotionally spent you are, but try to come at him with love, not rancor. You're asking for major changes here; you need to be patient. After a few months, if he doesn't respond, then you'll know you must leave and can do so with a clear conscience.
While you're working on the relationship, all extraneous spending needs to stop, and you must start paring down your debt. If you have multiple cards, pay the minimum due on all accounts, then add an extra payment onto the one with the highest interest rate. When that balance is gone, increase your payments on the card with the next highest rate, and so forth. It will take time to undo the damage, but as long as you're paying the minimum on every card, you'll keep the credit raters happy, and by paying a little more each month, you'll be making headway on getting out of debt.
In the meantime, don't tell me you can't afford life insurance. Any parent with a young child must find a way to afford it. As I explain in "Term of Endearment" there's one type of life insurance that is very affordable. Use the money you've set aside for your child's education if you can't come up with the monthly payments. If something were to happen to you or your husband, that policy is her life preserver. It can help pay for not just her living costs but also her education.