One woman opens up about rebuilding her credit post divorce.
Once upon a time, I believed in love with a capital L. The man I was looking to share my life with was poetic and passionate, and we would experience a love like I’d read about in books, heard about in music, and watched in films. The love that I’d been raised to recognise was supposed to feel like a rollercoaster or a treacherous journey in wild seas. But the truth is, this kind of love is more often than not a Titanic voyage – complete with the proverbial iceberg. For me, it wasn’t until the day my husband left and the iceberg scraped along the side of our life together, that I realised how I’d let love with a capital L cloud my vision and blind me to reality. And that was especially true when it came to decisions I’d made around my marriage and money.
To lay the groundwork, it’s worth rewinding to see exactly where our conventions around cash and matrimony come from. Until 1870 married women weren’t legally entitled to own property at all. Any money, stocks, furniture, indeed any movable assets she owned before marriage became the property of her husband. While this seems like ancient history, it’s worth remembering how long vestiges of this patriarchal economic model percolated. Up until 1964 any money left over from a wife’s ‘allowance’ given by her husband remained his property, so she couldn’t ever save. It wasn’t until 1975 that a woman was guaranteed a right by law to open a bank account in her own name (source here) and she couldn’t apply for a loan or credit without her father or husband’s say-so until 1980. Through the 80s, a wife’s income had to be declared on her husband’s tax return – meaning he knew exactly what she earned and until 1990 a wife was routinely taxed under her husband’s code. And it wasn’t until ‘96 that legislation was passed to ensure assets were equally split between a couple in the case of divorce – up until then women were awarded only what she was deemed to ‘need’ to live on rather than a fair percentage of the value of the family home or her husband’s income – income he was able to earn while she had been raising children. We have until very recently been living in a social, economic and financial system which united a husband and wife’s financial destinies, often to the detriment of women and that leaves its mark even today.
While our legal and banking systems have changed to enable married women full financial equality, there are still many social forces which subtly guide you towards financial unity as a couple and that unity should be something we question much more, particularly when it comes to the joint bank account. I didn’t bat an eyelid when my ex suggested opening a JBA – it made sense after all, to share the bills and our living costs and we were married. That’s just what you do.
Fast forward four years and the man that I would have trusted with the world, no longer had my best interests at heart. In fact, he had absolutely no interest in my interest, APR or anything financially pressing. Aside from leaving me with the rent, bills, removals and redecoration of our shared abode, his escape and subsequent decision to ignore my pleas to tie up the financial ends meant we had a shared bank account with a large overdraft facility which I couldn’t close without his signature. I couldn’t even put a pause on it. Now instead of sharing a convenient account with someone I loved, I was offering a person I hardly recognised access to money I didn’t even have. For anyone thinking about opening a joint bank account with a boyfriend, girlfriend, partner or spouse, just remember, it’s not just your funds you entrust your other half with – it’s the right to create debts in your name too.
If the joint bank account remains a symbol of marital commitment, the message behind it – that what is yours is his – influences all sorts of other financial decision-making processes. Because my ex had credit issues (like over 27% of people in the country) over our years together, I had agreed to be his guarantor in some of his financial obligations. We were in the same boat, so why would I ever not help him financially? That would make me the worst wife, wouldn’t it? In retrospect, it would have served me far better to think about my own credit rating than try and win wife points, because when my ex took the mobile I’d signed for as a guarantor out of the country, used it willy nilly and ran up literally thousands of pounds worth of debt, guess who was liable? Guess who was threatened with court summons and bailiff visits? Guess who then couldn’t get a new mobile phone contract a few months later? Luckily, we didn’t have a mortgage or child maintenance, or any other more serious joint assets, but this example just goes to show how financial abandonment can wreak damage on your life long after the pain of the split subsides.
In an ideal world where we could all consciously uncouple from a marriage these issues wouldn’t exist. But in real life, joint banking, assets and property create a complete and utter nightmare. Before you open any account, sign any form, or make any decision which binds you financially to your other half, just consider what would happen if they decided to go AWOL. Even as I’m writing this, I know some people will be reading thinking this clear-headed, fair approach makes me sound cold-hearted and calculating. As if a woman wielding and protecting her financial power from her husband is some sort of harridan behaviour. All I can say is that I would never in a million years have believed that my ex would ever renege on his financial commitments to me.
Today I’m in a loving relationship and have been for the past six years. I have a child with my partner and we own a property together. In every aspect of my financial life I am extremely protective of myself, drawing up clear contracts and ensuring that the separation of our assets is apparent. We do not have a shared bank account and we do not have joint responsibility for any bill.
Instead, I take charge of a proportion of the outgoings, he takes charge of another proportion. Should we ever split, it is spelled out exactly what would happen financially, and I feel absolutely no shame about being so ‘calculated’ about it. Rebuilding my credit score was a process, but now I’m here, there is no way I’m going back. What I’ve learnt is that real love and marriage shouldn’t be based just on blind faith. Instead, there should be an understanding that even the deepest connections might fade, and every person has a responsibility for their own future. I hope more than anything that I grow old with my boyfriend because he is a fantastic man, but I know there are no guarantees. If it doesn’t work out, there will be consolation in knowing that debtors aren’t ever going to turn up at my door again and what’s mine will still be mine.
Thank you for sharing this.
I think the history of financial management has left women finding it particularly hard to protect themselves and their assets in a way that typically comes much more naturally to men too.
I came out of a similar situation myself a few years ago. I was lucky in that I was able to go to the bank and block the accounts when the relationship fell apart, but I was left paying the rent on the property that he was living in and wouldn’t leave because mine was the main name on the contract.
I think we should stop viewing someone being cautious of their own boundaries as ‘cold’. Unfortunately for all of the love in the world, there is a lot of unpleasantness too. So it is only fair that where there is risk, we try to protect ourselves and trust that a relationship can be forged while everyone maintains their own boundaries.
Also, I think it’s important to remember to never underestimate the way someone may react when it comes to a break up. So you’re absolutely doing the right thing in being cautious, and I have to say I’m doing exactly the same with my partner who I very much love!
French Clichés says
Such an interesting article!
Thanks for sharing your experience.
Thank you SO much for sharing this. I am currently in the initial stages of getting my first mortgage, together with my boyfriend, and this has made me think really carefully about the way we go about things.
I never would have considered any of this and am so grateful for the possible hindsight you might have given me.
I’ve been so blinded by the excitement, feeling in love and grown-up – and the idea of a joint bank account felt like a statement of that. This has been an important reality check for me. I’m still excited but I am going to enter into any agreements level headed at least !
Horrified by the recent history of women and their personal finances that you write about – I am in my late 20s and I had NO idea!
Jane Smith says
Not all joint current accounts need both signatures to be closed. I was surprised to be able to close our joint account with First Direct and transfer it all into my name. (This was with my ex’s agreement.) Another watch out is joint life insurance. It’s slightly cheaper but you have to start all over again (at higher cost because you’ll be older) if you split.
Alexandra Stedman says
Oh this is so interesting, as we have joint life insurance, something I hadn’t considered! xx
Thank you for posting this article. It has really opened my eyes, and I think that every person going into a relationship should read this.
This article couldn’t have been closer to truth of my future had I continued down the path with my exhusband. It has taken just over a year to become financially untangled from him, despite there being minimal joint assets, all while facing the ‘what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is mine’ barrier. Years of arguments about him wanting access to and wanting entitlement to my personal finances, despite us having joint finances to cover our joint bills – it was a difficult road to navigate. Settled just this week, it was best to leave him with a sum of money and walk away. I didn’t receive anything in return. Thank you so much to Anonymous for writing their story and thank you for sharing it Alex. It’s so important to protect yourself against financial predators.
It’s sad that the author had that experience but their decision not to ever open a joint account again comes from a position of bitterness that could have been avoided if they were smart with money in the first place. There are red flags they clearly ignored; having to be their guarantor because their credit was awful is a huge no no, also being bad with money should be a huge turn off in a potential partner. The relationship they have now where they discuss/agree on financial situations should be the norm and you can definitely open a join account with less risk; set the overdraft limit to 100 so if there was a chance you would be overdrawn you have a buffer, or nothing. Equally I’m not saying everyone should have a joint account; a joint account isn’t the issue here, it’s having a healthy and understanding relationship with money and preventing that getting caught up with naivete in relationships. Advocating abstinence rather than education is not teaching people to have a good relationship with money.
Alexandra Stedman says
I think this is the point, there has been a severe lack in education within the area of money, especially for women, and we need to be careful about shaming women for ‘not knowing better’. This is an opinion piece, so the writer explains why she doesn’t want to open a joint bank account, not advocating that everyone should – just a few pitfalls to be aware of – and you can see from other comments that this clearly has affected a lot of women similarly – so it’s nice to bring about a sense of community within the further education around money x
I totally agree, because extracting yourself from someone’ else’s debt issues is unbelievably stressful. I would also warn against becoming a ‘director’ of your partners company unless you very clearly understand how you can extracate yourself from that business if things go pear shaped. The financial side of my divorce was horrendous and like you, he not only carried on spending money that I would be jointly liable for but also owed HMRC money that I was in theory liable for too. I had no control over the deepening chaos. This also affected my ability to get financial aid for my children and I. If it wasn’t for my family I don’t know how we would have got through it.
I’m now loving the control I have on my finances and will never put myself in that position again.
I had a similar experience. My ex continued paying dividends from his Ltd company into our joint bank account in my name, then would transfer the money immediately into his own account. I was naive to the consequences until I recieved a £2k student loans bill, based on my years income. I basically forced him to pay it, on the threat that I would report his behaviour to the HMRC. That was just one example of how joint finances were used as a method of abuse.
מנפק לסבון נחושת says
I really love your perspective. Good work!. It turns out that what I have been looking for so far is in this paper, I am very happy to find several articles on this blog, I am interested in your sentence above, very opinion building in my opinion, why? because you wrote it in language that is easy to understand.
Janet Moore says
I have been married for 40 years this October and have never had a joint bank account. I have had had my own back account from the time I left school (in1965) It was set up for me by my parents, as they worked abroad and I was studying and then working in the UK. My husband and have always split the bills according to our respective incomes, and we review it from time to time. Our house is in our joint names. Yes, women should be aware of the pitfalls of a joint bank account, especially if they are not earning because they are raising children.
A very interesting read
I don’t understand the comment that women couldn’t open their own bank account until 1975. I was 18 in 1974 when I left home for university. I had no issue opening my own bank account, nor did my friends. I had several aunts who were single women with jobs and careers, financially independent and with their own bank accounts, how else could they have worked and managed their money?
Alexandra Stedman says
Hi Ruth, I’ve added the source for reference here – I suppose there were exemptions to the rules with certain banks – but here it wasn’t guaranteed by a reflection in the law until 1975 x
This was a very interesting article. I think it could be improved if the author specified the country that the laws about women and bank accounts applied to. It would also be great if there was more information about good ways to be in a partnership and keep financial assets separate and safe.
Interestingly, having an overdraft is not always the default option on a bank account. I am Australian and only experienced the overdraft option while living in the UK.
This was so interesting to read and a perspective I haven’t come across before. I had always thought a joint account was the ‘adult’ and therefore, ‘right’ thing to do. I think it’s completely right to say we only consider sharing future assets with a partner, rather than sharing future debt. Also it was very eye-opening to read about all the financial restrictions legally placed on women until very recently, that surely still impact today. We absolutely need better financial education for women. Thank you for publishing pieces like this Alex, they’re so important (and thanks to anon who wrote it!).
This is an incredible, insightful and educational piece. I took so much from it (and it’s beautifully written too). Apologies for my ignorance, I’m a 26 year old who after years at university studying a vocational degree, I’m finally fully financially independent. I’m trying to educate myself on money as I know there are severe gaps in my knowledge (never taught by parents or elsewhere). I rent with my boyfriend, the tenancy is in both our names, as are the bills. I pay all the bills by direct debit and he pays his half to me (also by direct debit). We pay our half of the rent separately. Money for food and toiletries is paid into my Monzo account each month which is used solely for this. What position would I be in if he were to stop paying his half? There’s a lot of trust and communication but I want to also look at this pragmatically. I like to know our exact outgoings and feel in control of everything. I’m happy to take the responsibility but does that mean I’m solely liable?
Alexandra Stedman says
To be honest, I don’t know and I suppose it’s always worth doing your own research and seek legal advice – I agree, there’s a lot of unspoken agreements etc and often those who aren’t married come across tricky situations too, which is crazy in this day and age x
A really interesting read, thank you for sharing. When my husband and I got married we decided against a joint bank account and opted for a joint credit card – we then use it for shopping, eating out, entertaining etc (pre pandemic obviously!) It’s worked well for us and I love having my own financial independence.
Sorry tale; brilliant research. Will be showing my daughter.
My jaw hung open reading this. Not surprisingly, I have been stiffed twice but society continues to facilitate selfishness & irresponsible behaviour so even more reason to be forewarned & drop the naivete.
Thanks for sharing this article. People are financially ignorant by design. Education & shrewdness are essential.
I wish. I have a JBA with my husband as he is still in school and I am the only one working.
Hmmm. When we started dating, my husband and I both made about the same and already had our own accounts. When we got married, we kept our own accounts, and only opened a joint account when we bought a house. We each have some of our salary going into our own accounts and most going into the joint account. But there’s no secrecy with our personal accounts – we both know what’s in each others, and use the money mostly jointly. We’ve been together for close to 30 years at this point, so short of going crazy, there is no way either of us would empty all of our accounts and disappear. I really think a huge part of this is knowing who you are marrying/making financial decisions with, and paying attention to any red flags.
I really feel for you Anon. I ended up in a slightly similar but luckily not as scary situation- when I got married, I had no idea that my husband had £50k of debt. I’ve never been in debt in my life other than my student loan and I would find it terrifying if I did. Our marriage broke up for completely different reasons and it wasn’t until I went to a solicitor to file a petition for divorce and we both had to complete paperwork laying out our full financial situation that I realised how much debt he had. I spent the next few months (until the divorce was finalised) in a panic because if he had died while we were still legally married I would have been responsible for his debts!!! Luckily it was all fine and didn’t become a disaster for me but easily could have done. And therefore, like you, I will never have a joint bank account either. lots of love x
If anyone finds themselves in this situation please contact your bank as soon as you can !
Depending on the complexity of your finances consider a solicitor too.
There are lots of things that can be done to help if you just ask. Please don’t feel you have to just keep paying someone else bills because your name is involved. Seek help!
For example if you have a joint bank account and mortgage contact the provider straight away. They can help you set up your own account and pause any over draft in the joint one to prevent further debts and mortgage can have restrictions places in it to prevent remortgaging etc. Every case if different so contact the provider and explain your situation.
nice and very informative article
nice and well written
It’s an interesting point of view and as a French citizen, I feel that our country’s legislations and lifestyle are quite different. For example, regarding of credit cards, in France it’s quite negative to have one. We mostly have debit cards and if you want to have a credit card, it’s an annoying procedure and quite expensive I’d add. But I reckon that having a JBA with someone who doesn’t know how to handle its finances shall be handle with caution. Thus said, I’d add that the lack of knowledge for JBA is almost the same as for marriage contracts. If you didn’t go to law school or business school like I did, you may not have any idea of what could or could not be done. Which is terrible. My partner and I have a JBA. It’s purpose is only for our house bills. But our salaries go to our own BA and the rest of the money is ours. Same for contracts. We have a civil partnership and we did go to our clerk to have separate assets in case things turn sour in our relationship. We’ve been together for 15 years but who knows what’s in the cards ?
This was a good read. My husband and I have a shared account, almost every couple I know actually keeps their finanaces separate. He makes almost double what I do, but we both work hard at our jobs and I do many things around the home and I was very honest with him about shared finances from the get go. We try to keep everything in our marriage 50/50 and regonize we are both contributing towards our shared life together. Once we opened a shared account it was actually MUCH easier to put money into our savings.
The best advice I have for any woman is to know your partners credit score before joining any finances or taking out a mortgage/loan together. This will give you a good indicator if they value their credit score. No matter how bad the relationship gets people who know the value of good credit will not, in my opinion, hurt their own credit to get back at someone(I’m sure not always the case). If someone has terrible credit talk with them about what got them there and take what they say with a grain of salt and do your own research. Some people have been through hard times but someone are just flagrant with money. Credit scores can tell you a lot of objective information about the person you are with. Always protect yourself.
This can apply both ways, a close male friend had a JBA with his female partner and she was the one on separation who continued to spend, had built up huge credit card debts, which he became liable for. He also left her with a jointly owned flat for a year so she could get back in her feet, she neglected the flat and when it was sold she had left him with all the property service bills. I think she was chaotic rather than vindictive but nonetheless he was the one left with a bad credit rating to outlive.
Me and my boyfriend opened a joint account 1 year ago when we bought out first house and moved in together. I found this article really educational, there was so much I didn’t know. Luckily though I feel the “sensible” steps I took while working out our new financial situation have left me (and him) in the best situation if things were to go sour despite there being so much I didn’t know at the time.
All of the joint bills come out of the joint account and we each have a standing order which puts enough money into the joint account to cover our bills.
We each have our own current accounts where the rest of our wages remain and our own savings accounts. We talk openly about our money and both save a little each month.
Anything on the bigger side we want or need to spend on for our house, we discuss and always pay half each. It’s then up to each of us whether we pay our half from our current account or savings. It’s no big deal if one of us can’t save anything one month because our savings are our own. They’re there for joint/house emergencies but also for ourselves.
I feel safe this way as I have my own money and my own savings. I’m in control. I know what I have and I know only I can touch it.
Our joint account has a really small overdraft limit for emergencies or mistakes but is small enough to not panic me if we ever broke up and it wasn’t amicable.
Talking about money and opening up the discussion is so important. It will make so many people’s decisions much more informed, remove shame etc. (As well as satisfying the nosey part of me who is interested in how other people manage theirs and the situations they’ve ended up in)