In this week's column, Suze Orman answers questions from readers.
Q: Help, I married a mooch! My husband borrows money from everyone - friends, relatives, people we have just met, our daughter's employer. He never tells me; I always find out by accident. He also never bothers to repay these people. This is obviously becoming a big problem. What should I do?
A: The first thing I notice is that you, like your husband, are asking for help from a stranger, but someone outside your partnership can't solve the problem. In my opinion, your husband's borrowing is really a desperate emotional, as well as financial, cry for help.
But before you talk to him, log on to the Web site of one of the three major credit-reporting agencies (Experian, www.experian.com or 1-888-397-3742; Equifax, www.equifax.com or 1-800-685-1111; Trans Union, www.transunion.com or 1-877-322-8228), and thoroughly review your credit history. My guess is that he has maxed out your joint credit cards and may even have applied for lines of credit in his name that you know nothing about. It's also possible that he secretly borrowed against your home.
The reason you need this information is that you may have to pay your husband's debts. In most states, you are responsible for debts incurred on joint accounts. In community-property states such as California and Wisconsin, you are also liable for debts that he has rung up in his name alone. If he defaults, the creditors will come after you. They can call you, take you to court, even garnishee your wages.
Now that you have a clearer idea of your financial picture, sit down with your husband and ask why he thinks he's hitting up friends and family for money. I'll tell you one thing: He's feeling frightened, powerless and (literally) worthless. His borrowing is an attempt to fill an emotional void. Only by regaining his self-respect can he be rendered powerful again.
If he can't or won't change, do not be surprised if you end up separating or divorcing. In most states, the official date of separation is the date on which you will no longer be legally responsible for new debts your husband incurs on accounts that are in his name only.
Q: My husband and I have a constant tug-of-war over money. I know we both ran up our credit cards, but now I feel like I am always the one to sacrifice spending money to try to pay off our debts. He says it's impossible to get out of debt when we keep getting hit with unexpected bills - medical expenses, plumbing problems - but everyone has some surprise expenses. I get so frustrated with him. What can I do?
A: Arguing over money is the No. 1 cause of divorce in the United States, and over the years, I've gotten so many letters just like yours that I have come to believe the wedding vows should be changed to say "till debt do us part." It's important that you talk with your husband about how you are feeling before you drift further apart.
Please note that I said talk with your husband, not to him. He does not need a mother; he needs a friend and a wife. Even in the 21st century, many men feel like complete failures when they don't make enough money to support their wives in a way they think they ought to. They keep buying things to assuage their feelings of inadequacy, going deeper into debt and adding to the frustration.
The two of you should sit down once a month to go over your finances: Since it's so much easier to spend money when you're not actually paying the bills, you should let him write out each check. You can balance the checkbook and figure out how much money is in your accounts.
You should also request copies of your credit reports from one of the three major credit bureaus. (See above.) If you've had a hard time keeping up with your debt, my guess is that you do not have the best credit. When you and your husband look at your credit history, he'll be able to see your financial picture realistically.
Remember, you cannot change people you love through anger, but you can influence them with understanding, patience, persistence and love. Keep your conversations on the positive side; try to focus not on the mistakes of the past but on what you both can learn from this experience. Once you've faced your situation, you and your husband will be in a position to end the tug-of-war and begin repairing your finances as a team.