"We do financial counseling, not marriage counseling or therapy," says Mike LeClear, director of counselors at Financial Hope Counseling and Education in Fort Wayne, Ind. But that hasn't stopped clients from asking LeClear to play the "enforcer" role when it comes to marital money spats.
LeClear, who has been helping people overcome their financial hurdles for 15 years, says that when it comes to marriage and money, 90 percent of the time the wife is the money manager in the household.
What's surprising is not which spouse tends to rack up the troublesome levels of debt (it can be either, he says), but how often he discovers that the client has kept the debt a secret from their significant other.
It's Not Just the Money
Besides big balances on credit cards, hidden debt also comes with some heavy emotional baggage.
"Sometimes a couple will come in because one spouse found out about the massive amounts of debt incurred by the other spouse," he says. "The 'wronged spouse' wants me to be angry, too, but I try to get to the root of the issue. Sometimes it's just that one spouse is a tightwad and the other spouse has been living under the gun and using credit cards to buy things for their kids."
Credit counselors say that clients go to great lengths to keep their family from finding out about their debt. They often open a P.O. box for the bills and even get a separate cell phone number to give to their creditors.
Rosemarie Willix, a certified credit counselor with InCharge Debt Solutions in Orlando, says she had a client who provided her sister's address in another state for correspondence relating to the $60,000 in store-card debt she had racked up. She was keeping her financial troubles a secret from her husband because he had helped her get out of debt in the past.
'Til Debt Do You Part
When Bruce McClary, director of media relations at ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions in Seattle, was a credit counselor in Virginia Beach, his scariest moment was when he counseled a husband who had kept $80,000 in credit card debt secret from his wife.
The husband had used the P.O. box trick, but when his debt became unsustainable he brought his wife along to a credit counseling session, ostensibly to "tweak their budget."
After going over a budget, the husband dumped a grocery bag of credit card bills on the desk. The husband told McClary that he had taken a significant cut in pay but didn't want his wife to know.
In order to keep up their lifestyle -- which included things like equestrian lessons for their kids -- he had taken cash advances from several credit cards to pay the bills on other maxed-out credit cards.
"Honestly, when this whole thing blew up at my desk it was pretty terrifying," says McClary. "From the wife's point of view, it wasn't just this incredible debt; it was the fact that he had a P.O. box that revealed the level of his deception. She expressed her concerns about a mistress or a whole other life that she didn't know about. This guy even lied to me at the beginning of our session about his income."
McClary says the financial counseling session went "off the rails," and he recommended marriage counseling and a return visit for credit counseling. The couple never returned. "It's pure speculation on my part, but I suspect they ended up in divorce court," says McClary.
Secret Girlfriends and Motorcycle Moments
Financial secrets aren't limited to young couples. Willix, from InCharge Debt Solutions, recalls an 80-year-old couple that came in when the wife found out that he had been hiding his credit card bills from her because he'd been using plastic to take care of his girlfriend.
"The wife said she was not going to leave him and let the girlfriend get all his money, so she took the bills and signed him up on a debt management program," says Willix.
When a husband and wife in Columbus, Ohio, came in for credit counseling with Ann Estes, senior director for national affairs and partnerships with Apprisen, their budget didn't reflect the balance owed on a motorcycle that showed up on the credit report.
"The wife said, 'Oh, that's not ours, it's his brother's, we just allow him to park it at our house and he allows my husband to use it whenever he wants,'" says Estes. "Unfortunately, this wasn't true. The husband confessed that it was indeed his, which led to an interesting remainder of the counseling session."
Gambling Away Marriages
Mike Hoggan, branch director of Rural Dynamics consumer credit counseling services in Billings, Mont., worked with a husband who had a gambling problem. He had gambled away the couple's life savings, but Hoggan was able to help him become debt free and begin saving for a home.
The husband decided to "go big" and win back their savings in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, he came back to Montana with more than $160,000 in debt. The couple is now divorced.
In Stillwater, Minn., Linda Humburg, a counselor manager with FamilyMeans consumer credit counseling services, says a wife found out that her husband was in a debt management program only after they applied for a mortgage refinance. The husband had used credit cards to pay for his gambling addiction and then had spent 18 months on a debt management program to repay them.
Bankruptcy was not an option because they had plenty of home equity, but the wife refused to refinance and take cash out to pay the debt. In the midst of the counseling session, the wife punched her husband in frustration.
Do You Keep Secrets From Your Spouse?
Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, says hiding income or debt is committing "financial infidelity."
Coming clean can be difficult, but it's the right thing to do, says LeClear: "My advice is always to level with your spouse because that's in everyone's best interest."