MONEY Credit

How to Raise Your Spouse’s Low Credit Score

It's not just your partner's problem—it's yours too, if you ever plan to buy a house or a car together.

While married couples don’t inherit each other’s credit scores, one partner’s weak rating could sink the family’s financial goals.

If one of you has a less-than-perfect number—anything under the mid-700s on the FICO scale—it can affect your ability as a couple to qualify for joint accounts, like credit cards, mortgages, or auto loans, says Rod Griffin, director of public education at Experian.

For example, lenders might not approve you together for as large of a mortgage as you’d like or may only extend you one with a really high rate. And if you can’t handle those terms, “you might find yourself completing an apartment lease application while you work to rebuild your spouse’s credit history,” says Griffin.

As the higher scoring spouse, it’s in your best interest to help your partner improve his or her credit. Here’s how:

Do encourage diligence about credit card payments…

The strength of your credit score is based 35% on your bill payment history and 30% on your level of outstanding debt—particularly credit card debt.

Remind your partner to pay his or her bills on time each month (you might suggest setting up account alerts so that you don’t have to be the nag). And explain to your loved one that it’s important to keep outstanding balances on his or her cards under 20% of the limit on those cards, since the formulas reward a low utilization ratio.

“Attacking those two issues will help improve credit scores faster than any other actions,” says Griffin.

…but don’t step in to wipe away your partner’s missteps

Think twice before using up personal savings to clear your partner’s towering credit card balance.

If the debt stems from reckless and irresponsible spending, bailing out your spouse won’t teach any lessons. “You’ll be an enabler,” says Barbara Stanny, author of the forthcoming book Sacred Success: A Course in Financial Miracles. “[Your spouse] could fall right back into debt.”

A more effective way to help reduce your partner’s debt may be to cut costs from your family budget (primarily from your spouse’s discretionary spending) and use the savings to chip away the debt. While it’s a slower process towards rebuilding credit, the extra discipline and effort involved may be a helpful reminder in the future of why it’s never a good idea to overspend.

Another strategy, if you earn enough money: Consider taking on some monthly costs that you previously shared—like rent or the car payment—by yourself to allow your spouse to use more of his or her salary towards personal debt.

Do let your partner piggyback…

Another possibly efficient way to improve your partner’s credit rating is by adding him or her to one of your major credit cards as an authorized user. “Most scoring models incorporate authorized user accounts in the [credit score] calculation, so they can contribute positively,” says Griffin.

You simply call up your credit card issuer and request to put your partner’s name onto the account as an authorized user. He or she will receive a personal card attached to your credit limit in the mail.

Assuming you both use the account responsibly and pay the monthly balance on time and in full, both your credit profiles can benefit.

But you should know that your spouse will not be liable for payments.

Also just make sure to monitor his or her spending activity regularly. If your partner gets too swipe-happy you may want to cancel access so you don’t see your score come down or your balance go up beyond what you can afford to pay.

….but don’t co-sign on the dotted line

Taking on a new credit card and using it responsibly is yet another way to help improve one’s credit rating. But if your partner needs you to co-sign or be added as “secondary” borrower, think twice.

You’re lending more than just your name. If your spouse falls behind on payments, the bank could come after your money.

“It’s a horrible idea,” says John Ulzheimer, credit expert at CreditSesame.com. “When you co-sign you are essentially…guaranteeing payment on behalf of someone whom the lender feels isn’t credit worthy on their own.”

Co-signed debt can also come to haunt you, should you ever get divorced. “There’s no easy way to separate yourself from it,” says Ulzheimer. “When the two of you break up, you’re still connected via the liability, whether you want to be or not.”

A better idea: Introduce your partner to a secured card, designed for borrowers who can’t qualify for a regular credit card yet due to poor or insufficient credit histories. You load it with your own money—usually between $300 to $500—and proceed to spend. You can only charge as much as you put down as collateral.

Secured cards are available at many banks and credit unions. Money likes the no-fee one offered by Digital Credit Union, the interest rate on which starts at 11.5%. (You must be a member of DCU to apply, though you can join with a $10 donation to Reach Out for Schools.)

The catch with a secured card is that it’s very easy to charge up to the credit limit, but that’s no good for your credit score. Ideally, your spouse should keep his or her spending to less than 20% of the limit.

Consistently paying off the balance for about a year may then earn your partner an upgrade to a traditional credit card with a solid credit limit—maybe even rewards. But most importantly, your spouse’s behavior using the secured card will also be reported to the major credit reporting agencies, which in turn helps to raise his or her credit score.

Farnoosh Torabi is a contributing editor at Money Magazine. She is the author of the new book When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women.

MONEY 101: What is my credit score, and how is it calculated?

MONEY Love + Money

Ladies, This Is Why You Should Let the Guy Pay on the First Date

Who should pay on the first date?
Lew Robertson—Getty Images

He wants to impress you. So let him, says Love + Money columnist Farnoosh Torabi.

A confession to the men I’ve dated: If I ever insisted on paying my half at the end of a first date when you offered to treat, it may have been because I never wanted to see you again.

My persistence to pay was—at best—code for, “Let’s just be friends.” At worst, “Beat it.”

We all carry assumptions surrounding that first date bill and how it ought to be settled. When those expectations aren’t met, the evening could end awkwardly. She might be offended if he doesn’t let her pay; he might be annoyed if she doesn’t at least offer to chip in.

It’s an early stage financial crossroads that could make or break chances for a second date.

So, when in doubt, how should men and women best handle that first date tab? And was I right to offer to split the bill if I didn’t like the guy?

I tapped relationship experts Marni Battista, founder of DatingWithDignity.com and Bernardo Mendez of Your Great Life TV for some guidelines.

Men: Offer to take the lead.

Battista and Mendez both agree that it’s generally best for men to pay on a first date. Yes, even still in 2014—a time in which, as I myself have written, women often outearn men.

But the fact of the matter is that men typically want to pay: In a poll last year conducted by LearnVest and T.D. Ameritrade, 55% of men said they thought the guy should take the check. As Mendez explains, many men feel fulfilled and accomplished when they see an opportunity to provide, even if it’s in simple ways like paying for a drink.

Perhaps more importantly, paying is a way for him to preen. “Even a guy who doesn’t make much money if he really likes you will try to impress you to the utmost that he can,” says Battista

As for women? “In my experience, 90% will be offended if a guy doesn’t offer to pay,” says Battista.

The data seems to support her claim, at least to some extent. That LearnVest poll found that 63% of women expect the guy to pay. And when researchers at Chapman University recently surveyed more than 17,000 people on the topic of first-date finances, they found that 39% of women who offered to pay said they secretly hoped the men would not let them. Meanwhile, 44% of women said they were annoyed when expected to help pay the bill.

So guys, pick up the check. It’s just a first date dance move that—more often than not—leaves each person happy and satisfied.

The exception: If she asks him out and picks the place, the experts say, she ought be prepared to settle the bill.

Women: “Practice Being Courted”

In the olden days, men routinely paid because women, generally speaking, didn’t have the means to do so. But if he offers to pay nowadays, it’s not because he thinks she can’t handle it; and he’s not trying to offend. He’s most likely just doing what feels instinctively appropriate in the moment.

So when he offers to pick up the tab, says Battista, “Let him. Practice being courted.”

Mendez agrees, and says letting him pay initially can be a small way of letting a relationship blossom. “It does let him know, in a subtle yet important way, that you are the kind of woman who is confident enough to accept his generosity,” he says.

This is not meant to set some sort of precedent where he pays all the time.

Remember that you can—and should—reciprocate (assuming there’s a next time). Let him pay for the first date and then offer to treat him the very next time you go out.

Or, if you’re planning to stay out after dinner, offer to grab a round of drinks or dessert at the next stop. This way you both get to practice your generosity, and it feels a bit more romantic than going halfsies all the time.

But what if she’s just not that into him?

Okay, but say she decides midway through the date—or even five minutes in—that this relationship has no future. Should she accept his offer to pay, or would that be leading him to think she’s interested in seeing him again?

The experts don’t see eye to eye on this. According to Mendez, “If during the course of the first date you decide that you absolutely don’t want to see this guy again, insisting on paying for your half can help you signal more clearly that you’re not open to it.”

Battista, on the other hand, says women shouldn’t worry too much about sending mixed signals by accepting his offer to pay.

“A lot of women think, ‘if he takes me out, then I owe him something,'” she says. “You don’t owe him anything. If he wants to pay, either be direct [and turn him down] or just allow him to pay because that’s part of the game of dating.”

Farnoosh Torabi is a contributing editor at MONEY. She is the author of When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women.

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WATCH: Three Ways to Stop Your Spouse’s Secret Spending

Nearly a quarter of husbands and wives spend money they don't want their partner to know about. These three tips will help ensure this doesn't describe your relationship.

Check out our full Love and Money special.

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TIME Parenting

Don’t Let Your Husband Be a Stay-At-Home Dad

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Paul Bradbury—Getty Images/Caiaimage

Quitting your job to be a full-time parent is an equal-opportunity risk, though fathers opting out can sometimes be worse for families.

The socioeconomics of parenting are changing. The number of stay-at-home fathers in the past decade has doubled since the 1970s to about 550,000 men, and that figure is expected to grow, especially as more wives take on the breadwinning role in their marriages and the cost of childcare holds intolerable for many families.

I currently earn more than my husband and have, at times, romanticized over him supporting us as the primary caretaker in our growing family. What mother doesn’t enjoy coming home to a home-cooked meal, clean house and bathed child? And more dad involvement is never a bad thing. The stronger the relationship between father and child, the happier the family is, according to a joint study by Brigham Young University and Utah State University.

On the other hand, though, quitting your job to be a stay-at-home parent carries a number of potential risks. And when that parent is dad, the drawbacks can, in at least one case, be graver.

Just as one might hesitate to advocate for women to leave the workforce to become a stay-at-home mom, a similar case can go for men. What happens if dad wants back into the workforce later on? What happens if mom loses her job, faces a salary cut or is unable to work for a period of time due to an injury or other unexpected circumstance?

There’s no denying that childcare is one of the tallest expenses families face. The average annual cost of center-based care for a small child in the U.S. runs as high as $16,000 in states like Massachusetts, according to Child Care Aware of America’s 2013 report. For two children the annual expense can average as much as $28,600. These numbers can be much higher in metropolitan areas, rivaling the cost of sending a kid to college.

The mere economics of it all – especially if you have more than one child – can be enough to support the rationale that one parent should stop working to support life at home. And if you philosophically don’t believe in outsourced childcare to begin with, the decision to become a single-income family proves even more compelling.

With a baby soon on the way, my husband and I have crunched the numbers and learned that a quality day care facility in our Brooklyn neighborhood would run us about $500 to $600 a week. Meanwhile full-time at-home childcare – not including overtime – is more than $35,000 a year. For now, we’ve opted for the latter and have planned some serious spending cuts to make up for the monstrous expense. But add to our household a couple more kids down the road, perhaps a dog, a bigger home to accommodate, and the math would then likely favor designating my husband as Mr. Mom, still assuming our existing income disparity.

Even then, however, we’d rather outsource childcare for fear of the unknown. Is that crazy?

Perhaps not when you consider the facts of the matter. We know that women already pay a price for taking a leave of absence from the workforce. Sheryl Sandberg points out in her book Lean In that “women’s average annual earnings decrease by 20 percent if they are out of the workforce for just one year…30 percent after two to three years, which is the average amount of time professional women off-ramp from the workforce.”

Research suggests the penalty may even be greater for men who temporarily exit the workforce. One study found that dads who left work for even a short period of time to cater to domestic matters earned lower evaluations and more negative performance ratings at work than women who opted out.

Single-income families are also at a higher risk of financial collapse, as one might guess. Researchers at Hope College and Cornell University found that, “Not only are two wages often necessary to adequately provide for the needs of most families, dual-earner couples are less economically vulnerable than single-earner families, for whom a layoff can mean financial collapse.”

A single-income household can also result in more stress for her. As it stands, wives who earn more admit to feeling more pressure to “make it all work,” especially when it comes to the family’s finances. An academic survey I co-authored with Brad Klontz, a clinical psychologist, found that when she makes more she is significantly more likely to be the primary decision-maker on money matters and take charge of things like paying bills, budgeting, saving and planning for retirement. And a greater number of women who earn a bigger paycheck wish their partner or spouse would carry more of the financial burden in the relationship. And if he’s not making any money, where does this leave her?

There is a possible happy medium to this, as many stay-at-home moms have discovered: earn income from home as a part-time freelancer or entrepreneur while you commit to raising your family or, if possible, ask your employer about telecommuting a few days a week.

But even those options are easier said than done. Not everyone can find a way to make decent money from home given their area of expertise; juggling work and little ones in the same space can be harder than one expects; and telecommuting isn’t possibly for many.

When you consider the potential risks of not generating any money as a partner, however, earning an income is simply necessary. Not to mention, keeping your toe in the workforce is a way to still explore and satisfy other needs that go beyond that of Super Mom or Dad.

From WHEN SHE MAKES MORE: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women by Farnoosh Torabi. Reprinted by arrangement with Hudson Street Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Farnoosh Torabi.

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