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.