When you get married, you’ll start hearing the word “joint” thrown around like you’re in the bathroom line at a Grateful Dead show.
- Joint property.
- Joint tenancy.
- Joint accounts.
- Joint filing benefits.
So many “joints,” it kinda makes you wonder: is there a “joint credit score”? How does getting married affect my credit? If my partner has good or bad credit, does it impact me? Why does having good credit matter going into a marriage? And if my partner has less-than-perfect credit, how can I help?
Let’s explore how marriage affects your credit score.
What’s a Credit Score, Again?
We’ve written a whole feature on How Credit Works: Understand the Credit History Reporting System, but here’s the short version:
- Your credit score is an SAT score for a borrower of money. It roughly represents how “good” you are at borrowing money — how reliable you are at paying off debts, how experienced you are at taking loans, etc.
- Your credit report is like the full report card behind the credit score. It lists what loans or lines of credit you’ve taken out and what events have positively (or negatively) impacted your score.
Now, there are technically several types of credit scores out there, but 90% of top lenders prefer the FICO® Score, so that’s what we’ll use moving forward.
Your credit score, aka FICO® Score, is compiled using the following breakdown:
- 35% – Payments history. Have you paid off your past credit accounts in time?
- 30% – Amounts owed. What percentage of your available credit are you using up?
- 15% – Length of credit history. How old is your credit history and average age of accounts?
- 10% – Credit mix. Do you take out a healthy variety of loan types (auto, home, etc.)?
- 10% – New credit. Have you recently taken out a lot of loans in a short span of time?
So that’s a credit score — a three-digit, standardized metric for indicating how “good” you are at borrowing money.
Why does it matter?
Why Does Your Credit Score Matter?
Lenders use your credit report and credit score to determine your creditworthiness, i.e., how “worthy” you are of getting a loan or a line of credit.
Lenders love people with excellent credit since they’re trustworthy and generate income for them via interest. Folks with excellent credit get access to:
- More lenders.
- More types of loans.
- Top-tier credit cards and benefits.
- Lower interest rates and more.
By contrast, folks with good, fair, or poor credit might have fewer options for loans/lenders/credit cards and will be offered higher interest rates.
In summary, good credit gets you better loan terms, which can make a big difference when you and your partner are applying for a mortgage, auto loan, HELOC, and more.
Before we move on, I recommend getting a free credit report and score from our friends at Credit Karma. Knowing your latest score will make the rest of this article more relevant and actionable.
How Does Marriage Affect Your Credit Score?
The legal act of getting married will have no direct impact on your credit score.
As far as the big credit bureaus are concerned (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion), you and your partner are still individual borrowers of money with separate credit histories. The legal union of marriage doesn’t impact any of the five factors that make up your credit score, listed above.
And just so it’s clear, your and your spouse’s credit reports will never get merged into any sort of “couple’s” credit report.
Will You Take On Your Partner’s Debts When You Get Married?
Debts that are separate going into the marriage will stay separate. Your partner won’t suddenly become a guarantor on your loans once you’re married, and vice versa.
That being said, if you live in one of the nine Community Property states (AZ, CA, ID, LA, NV, NM, TX, WA, and WI), debts incurred during marriage do automatically become both partners’ responsibility — even if one partner had no idea the debt existed.
Definitely keep that in mind as you read the next section.
Will Changing Your Name Affect Your Credit Score?
I’ve heard some people throw around the term “fresh start” when they bring poor credit into a marriage, but that just ain’t the way it works.
“Unfortunately for anyone who’s hoping for a do-over, changing your name doesn’t reset a poor credit score or wipe out your existing credit report to let you start anew,” says Experian.
You also don’t have to notify the credit bureaus of your name change. Once you update your name with the Social Security administration and your lenders, Experian says they’ll figure it out from there.
How Will Marrying Someone With Bad Credit Affect Your Finances?
As outlined above, the act of getting married won’t automatically change your or your spouse’s credit score. There’s also no such thing as a “joint credit score” — your credit histories remain separate in perpetuity.
So while nothing happens automatically, being married to someone with poor credit can still indirectly impact your finances. Here’s how:
It Might Make It Harder to Get a Joint Loan
When you apply for a joint loan — say, to get a mortgage or a Mazda Miata — the lender will make a hard pull and analyze the credit scores of every co-borrower listed on the loan.
Then, they’ll take what’s known as the lower middle score. I’ll let Chase explain it:
“Say your credit scores from the three credit bureaus are 723, 716 and 699, and your partner’s are 688, 657 and 649. Lenders will then use the lower of the two middle scores, which is 657.”
As a result, “the lower score matters most.”
Now, you can always have the spouse with the higher credit score apply for the loan individually, and add the other spouse onto the property title manually. But doing it this way means your loan terms will be based on just one partner’s income.
If Your Partner Misses Payments on Joint Loans It Could Hurt Both Your Credit Scores
For better or worse, lenders treat co-borrowers as a team.
Here’s when it’s a good thing: if you make consistent, on-time payments together, the lender will report that good behavior to the credit bureaus and both of your credit scores could go up. To illustrate, my wife, Holly, technically pays our mortgage — and I just Venmo her for my half — but since our lender doesn’t care which co-borrower it came from, we both benefit.
Conversely, if Holly misses a payment, it doesn’t matter that I Venmo’d her — both of our credit scores get dinged since we missed it as a co-borrower team.
In States With Community Property Laws, You Could Be on the Hook for Your Partner’s New Debts
As mentioned above, nine states (AZ, CA, ID, LA, NV, NM, TX, WA, and WI) are Community Property states, meaning income, property, and debts accrued during the marriage are considered “shared” by default (though it’s possible to opt out).
“That means even though your spouse bought something or earned a bonus, or you took out a loan in your name, you are both equally responsible,” says Experian.
So if your spouse takes out a high-interest auto loan without your knowledge and starts falling behind on payments, it’s possible that you could see a drop in your credit score.
By this point, you might be picking up on a theme…
Poor Credit Might Be an Indicator of Misguided Money Habits (That Could Affect Shared Finances)
To preface, having imperfect credit doesn’t necessarily mean someone’s bad with money. They may have simply missed a student loan payment or two. Or maybe someone else damaged their credit on a joint loan.
Then again, sometimes poor credit is a direct indicator of misguided money habits. Someone you love might’ve maxed out several credit cards, taken out a high-interest auto loan to get a luxury car they can’t afford, or worse.
Point is, you’ll want to start sharing your credit scores and overall financial situation with each other sooner than later.
You may discover that one or both of you could do a little credit repair work before applying for a mortgage together. That way, you’ll both get a lower interest rate and save tons of money.
How Can I Help My Partner Repair Their Credit?
Review Your Credit Reports Together
It’s possible that your partner doesn’t even realize what money habits are eating their credit score, or what their score is in the first place. A 2019 survey by LendingTree found that nearly 4 in 10 Americans have no idea how their credit score is determined.
So your first steps might be to pull up each of your respective credit reports and spend 10 minutes analyzing them to see what’s helping (or hurting).
If You Trust Them With Money, Consider Adding Them as an Authorized User on Your Credit Card
One of the simplest, most turnkey ways to help your partner build their credit is to add them as an authorized user on your credit card.
Then, as long as you keep making on-time, monthly payments, that positive credit behavior will help to also raise your authorized user’s credit score.
If They Need Some Practice Building Good Money Habits, Consider a Secured Credit Card
If you don’t quite trust your partner enough to grant them direct access to your accounts, you can still help them to repair their credit from a safe distance.
Once you’ve helped them understand their credit score, how it got there, and why it’s important to repair it, a solid next step would be to help them apply for a secured credit card. A secured card requires a cash deposit, which then becomes your line of credit.
Like a gift card, secured cards won’t let you spend more than you have.
But unlike a gift card, secured cards build your credit when you make consistent on-time payments.
Plus, many secured cards will let you convert them into unsecured cards once you’ve repaired your credit to a certain point.
Can You Merge Credit Accounts (and Should You)?
Yes, you can definitely merge credit card accounts with your SO in two ways:
- Add them as an authorized user on your existing account.
- Open a joint line of credit, aka shared credit card, together.
If you add your SO as an authorized user, you’re still the primary account holder so your credit score will be impacted most by on-time or missed payments. You’ll also be in control of the points and benefits the card provides.
Read more: Authorized Cardholders: The Pros and Cons
If the two of you open a joint account, you’ll both be primary account holders, and therefore, on-time or missed payments will on paper affect you both equally.
Not every bank offers shared lines of credit, but it can be a good idea for improving both of your credit scores before applying for a mortgage.
My friends Xiao and Emily have a joint card, aka “couple’s credit card,” that they use for shared expenses like groceries and house cleaning. One of the first things they did was enroll in auto-pay to ensure they’d never have to remember who was supposed to pay it off.
While getting married doesn’t impact your credit score, being married definitely can. The lower credit score will heavily influence your ability to get joint loans, and your partner’s money habits — good or bad — can affect way more than just your credit score.
That’s why financial communication is so key in relationships.
Featured image: Pushish Images/Shutterstock.com