Ask Amy: Husband Married to Long-Term Debt

By Amy Dickinson | October 14th, 2020

When it's not the bills causing the debt – but the shopping...

Woman doing some online shopping that gets her into debt

Dear Amy: My wife and I have been married for a long time. We both grew up in working-class families, were the first in our families to graduate from college, and had respectable careers in different industries.

Now that we’re more or less retired. I have a small online business that supplements our Social Security income, and her pension. (My 401k disappeared in the last recession.)

I try to set aside money for special purchases and be prepared for unforeseen emergencies.

On the other hand, she buys all sorts of stuff online and puts it on various credit cards: Clothes, food, books, household items, you name it.

We have literally piles of unopened packages and brand-new stuff, and it never seems to end. I think it is some sort of hoarding complex.

I have tried talking to her about the spending, but she is highly secretive about our finances and when I press her for details, she picks a fight about something I did or said years ago.

She accuses me of not trusting her (and I don’t, really) and being paranoid (I probably am).

If something happens to her, in the state where we live, I would be liable for the credit card debt that is in her name.

Given what I do know of our financial situation, beyond my own business’s financials, I am afraid I would be bankrupt if she passes away. She refuses to even discuss any kind of counseling. What can I do? I can’t afford to divorce her, either.

— Lost in a Blizzard of Packages

Dear Lost: When your wife runs up debt on multiple cards and hides all of it from you, she is committing “financial infidelity.” This has exposed a huge rift in your marriage (you cannot have a healthy, functioning marriage if one partner is lying about something so important). Unfortunately, unlike with other kinds of fidelity, ultimately the consequence and burden of her behavior may be borne by you.

Shopping – and buying – can give some people a dopamine hit, similar to gambling or addictive behavior.

Let’s assume that she is hiding and deflecting because she feels guilty and ashamed.

Instead of confronting her in anger, you could try to gently pry open the vault by enlisting her as a partner in your long-range financial planning. If she insists that her purchases are affordable, ask her to show you the paperwork. Tell her that you want your marriage to get back on track by being transparent and honest with one another. (I assume you have made financial mistakes, also – you need to admit them.)

Regardless of how your wife responds, you should definitely see a counselor and a lawyer. You say that you can’t afford to divorce, but it is possible that you cannot afford to stay married.

Debtors Anonymous has a “friends and family” support group: check You will also learn a lot from debt-buster Dave Ramsay.

Want to get even more life tips from Amy? Read more of her advice columns here!

In the tradition of the great personal advice columnists, Chicago Tribune’s Amy Dickinson is a plainspoken straight shooter who relates to readers of all ages. She answers personal questions by addressing issues from both her head and her heart. A solid reporter, Dickinson researches her topics to provide readers with informed opinions and answers. Ask Amy, P.O. Box 194, Freeville, NY 13068

© 2020 by Amy Dickinson

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