Financial secrecy left my husband and me in a debt spiral

By Gina Freeman

Reviewed by Kimberly Rotter

Mar 08, 2024

Read time: 2 min

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I never expected to find myself the star of a debt drama. But my experience shows it can happen to anyone.

Everything was great, until it wasn’t

My husband and I were educated finance professionals with a lot of confidence. I took care of investing, and he paid the bills. We saved 30% of our paychecks and never carried a credit card balance. We owned a beautiful home and thought we were too smart for serious money problems.

We were so wrong. 

The 2008 Great Recession and foreclosure crisis took us by surprise. My husband worked in mortgage lending, and his income plummeted by 90%. I was hit by a drunk driver and had to quit work. We could have weathered this challenge, though, if we’d faced it together. But we didn’t. Instead, financial infidelity sabotaged both our finances and our relationship.

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Setbacks and secrets

My husband was so embarrassed by his falling income that he never told me. He stopped withholding taxes on his commissions. He stopped paying off the credit cards in full each month. He sold our investments at the worst time, when the stock market was down. He never told me that we needed to tighten our belts. And to be honest, I probably didn’t want to know.

Meanwhile, I’d become seriously depressed by my injuries and careless with my own spending. I lined up expensive tropical trips and invited friends for wine country weekends. We continued to host big parties and ate out several times a week. We drove nice cars with hefty monthly payments.

We were in denial. We were secretly in pain. And we never spoke of it. 

The truth comes knocking

Eventually, the truth caught up with us. I tried to sign up for a store credit card to get a discount on clothes I didn’t need. The application should have been a formality, but I was declined for having too much debt. I got a copy of my credit report and saw enormous balances on our credit cards—more than we earned that year! 

And it went from bad to worse. We got a notice from the IRS saying that we owed tens of thousands of dollars in taxes. And they wanted us to pay almost $1,000 per month to clear it up.

I tried to settle with our credit card companies with money from my 401(k), but was unable to pull it off on my own. I thought bankruptcy was the only alternative, and we ended up filing Chapter 13. (Like many filers, we didn't qualify for Chapter 7.)

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Living with Chapter 13

It was a long road. When you file Chapter 13, the court looks at your income and leaves you just enough to live on. No shopping. No trips. No restaurants. And you submit your tax returns every year so they can take more if your income goes up. 

This went on for five long years before our remaining balances were discharged (forgiven). Chapter 13 is public, and some of my husband’s colleagues and clients found out. This increased the pressure on our relationship. We were truly on the ropes.

Love wins

One expense that the court did allow us, however, was couples counseling. And in the end, the therapist and the bankruptcy court forced us to face our debt together and be open with each other. We survived it, and we learned a lot. Eventually, we emerged from bankruptcy. With a budget, some new relationship skills, and better spending habits.

Our debts were clear. And so was the air between us. 

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Money tips to protect your relationship:  

Here are a few points to consider if you’re going through it.

  • Everyone needs a budget, no matter how much they earn or how smart they think they are.

  • Both partners need to know how much the other earns and spends. Whether you’re married, or thinking about getting married, you need to have important money conversations.

  • Never forget that you love each other. Your partner is on your side, so don’t hide things. 

  • Solving debt problems can make you stronger together. 

Gina Freeman - Author

Gina Freeman has been covering personal finance topics for over 20 years. She loves helping consumers understand tough topics and make confident decisions. Her professional history includes mortgage lending, credit scoring, taxes, and bankruptcy. Gina has a BS in financial management from the University of Nevada.

kim rotter 2022 2

Kimberly is Achieve’s senior editor. She is a financial counselor accredited by the Association for Financial Counseling & Planning Education®, and a mortgage expert for The Motley Fool. She owns and manages a 350-writer content agency.

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