It wasn't just her spouse: Harzog kept her debt a secret from everyone. "I didn't even tell my parents because I didn't want to worry them." Now, with the release of her new book, "Confessions of a Credit Junkie: Everything You Need to Know to Avoid the Mistakes I Made," Harzog has outed herself extremely publicly.
And after all these years, Harzog said that one of her biggest regrets is keeping her credit addiction from her husband. "Now I realize that it's better to talk about it. Couples in a serious relationship talk about whether they want to have kids, but they should also talk about money."
She Thought It Was Easy Money. She Was Wrong.
Harzog got into trouble with credit card debt almost the minute she got out of college in the 1980s. She said she wasn't raised in a family with a lot of extra spending money, so when she got a good job and the credit card offers poured in, she accepted them all.
She called this period her "decade of debt."
"I maxed out seven credit cards on things like designer suits, expensive makeup and accessories and shoes. What's sad is that I had a degree in accounting, so I should have known better. But I worked with almost all men, and I thought I needed designer clothes to boost my confidence."
The worst thing she did was book a cruise to Mexico with the one card that still had available credit, even though at that time she had about $1 in the bank. "I felt like I deserved it because I worked hard. It seemed normal to me to carry a balance on every credit card every month," she said.
When she started being afraid to open her bills -- or add up how much she owed -- that Harzog realized she was in trouble. When she got up the nerve to face her financial truth, she was around $20,000 in debt -- an overwhelming amount in today's dollars, and even more so in the 1980s.
That's when Harzog put herself on a strict cash budget and stopped relying on credit to fund a lifestyle she could not afford. She said she ate a lot of peanut butter sandwiches, avoided restaurants and didn't buy anything for about two years. Even now, she doesn't buy anything without waiting and thinking about whether she really needs it.
Money Sense Should Be Part of Healthy Relationships
"I became a CPA so I could increase my salary, and cut everything from my budget, so by the time I got married I had paid off all my debt."
Although her debt issues were behind her, keeping her past a secret from her husband was not healthy. That's why she advises couples to put money front-and-center in their relationship and deal with past, existing and potential financial problems head-on.
Even after a marriage dissolves, money problems can linger. "If you have joint accounts, then there are legal implications for the debt, since you're both responsible even if only one person incurred the debt," she said.
Harzog said she talked recently with a woman whose soon-to-be ex-husband was racking up debt to be vengeful. The woman froze the account as soon as she found out, but now both partners have lower credit scores, and the debt still has to be repaid.
Credit Topics to Discuss Before you Get Married
Harzog said couples should start talking about their attitudes toward credit and their own credit habits as soon as they're involved in a serious relationship. Here are a few of her suggestions:
• Ask about his or her credit philosophy. You could be dating a "power user" who uses a rewards card for everything and pays the balance in full each month. But you need to know if you're getting serious with someone with significant credit card debt or who expects you to help repay it.
• Ask if your partner knows his or her credit score. "You can share your own score or just say you have good or excellent credit," says Harzog. "You don't need to be judgmental if someone has a bad credit score. There are lots of reasons for this other than just bad money management." If you're living together or engaged and one has great credit and the other doesn't, don't cosign a credit card application, because you'll both be liable for the debt. If you're the one with good credit, you should be the one to make sure bills get paid on time and that spending is kept well below the credit limit.
• Discuss whether you'll have joint or separate accounts. "Many older women that I talk to don't have any credit history of their own," she said. "It's fine to have a joint account, but you should each have a separate credit card account, too, so you can build your own credit history."
• Don't let fear of a disagreement keep you from opening the subject: An inability to get on the same page about your joint finances is one of the most common reasons couples end up divorced. It's far better to have some potentially uncomfortable pre-wedding moments talking about money than to become one more statistic in the future.
Michele Lerner is a Motley Fool contributing writer.