I Married a Big Spender: What It Cost Me, and What I Learned

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By Yuri Cataldo, as told to Penny Wrenn

In its Money Mic series, Learnvest hands over the podium to people with controversial views about money. Today, one man explains how a lopsided financial relationship with his ex-wife -- whose name has been changed -- landed him in debt -- and how he's now reclaiming his money life.

Leslie and I were college sweethearts. We met at Indiana University in 2004. I was working as a costume designer for the school play, and she was one of the actresses.

We had a slow courtship -- a friendship that turned into a romantic relationship. She made me laugh and brought me out of my shell. We were a good fit.

In 2005, I graduated and moved to New York City to attend a theater program at Juilliard, and Leslie and I continued dating long-distance while she finished up her senior year. The separation was hard on her, but I was able to fly back to Indiana to see her every couple of months.

It Began by Cosigning Her Car Loan

During one of my visits, Leslie asked me to go car shopping with her. It was her first time buying a vehicle, and she wanted my input. There was just one problem: When the salesperson at the dealership processed Leslie's application, he saw that she had a low credit score and told her she'd need a cosigner to qualify for the loan.

Leslie was surprised because she didn't have a lot of debt, but it turned out that there were a couple of nicks on her credit report due to medical expenses. Not wanting to let the sale get away so easily, the salesperson looked at me and asked if I could cosign. I thought, "Why not?"

I didn't know what my credit score was, but I had a few cards and always paid the minimum balance on time. So I volunteered to add my name to Leslie's application, and a few minutes later, she was the proud owner of a new car.

Call it a misguided moment of spontaneous chivalry or the blind decision-making of a starry-eyed guy in love, but I had no idea what I was really signing up for -- to be on the hook for the payments if she ever stopped making them.

Fortunately, cosigning didn't end up hurting my credit score because she made the payments on time -- but it hurt me in other ways. That day marked the beginning of our lopsided financial relationship. As the years with Leslie went by, I would become the sole burden-bearer of our collective debt.

We Bought a Condo We Couldn't Afford

The next year, I moved to Connecticut to study production design at Yale. Leslie had just graduated and relocated to be with me. We moved into an $800, one-bedroom apartment and started splitting our household expenses.

Leslie found a job in a jewelry store, making about $30,000 a year. I was an unemployed graduate student, but I received a monthly stipend -- less than $2,000 -- from school. Money was tight, but I wasn't worried. I used my credit cards to float us when we needed them.

When our lease was up about six months later, we wanted to upgrade to a bigger place because we were planning a future together -- marriage, kids, the whole thing. At the time, it seemed like a good idea to buy a condo, even though we weren't making enough money to afford such a big purchase (and we didn't have any savings). But I'd always heard it was better to buy than to rent.

The housing market was at an all-time high, and we were easily approved for a $178,000 loan, with no money down. Once again, I had the better credit score, so the lender put the mortgage in my name.

New Student Loan Used for Furniture

Leslie wanted to buy all new furniture, so I came up with the brilliant idea to take out a student loan for the cost of furnishing the condo -- plus moving fees we couldn't afford to cover, either.

I had a scholarship and government-backed financial aid during my undergrad days, so this was my first time applying for a private loan. I'd heard from other students that they were receiving $5,000 and $10,000, with only 4 percent or 5 percent interest rates, so it seemed like a no-brainer to me.

Plus, I knew that I wouldn't be responsible for paying the money back until after I graduated, and, by then, Leslie and I would be making bigger salaries. The loans would be easy to repay.

Leslie and I struggled to make ends meet as homeowners. Almost 100 percent of our combined income was going toward condo expenses: Leslie's salary was just enough to cover the $1,300 mortgage payment, and my stipend went toward paying the utility bills -- meaning we had nothing left to buy clothes, go out to eat or spend time with friends.

Need Cash? Take Out Another Student Loan

It had been so quick and easy to get a student loan a few months before, so I thought, "Why not do it again?" And that's how it went: Every six months, whenever we needed extra cash, I'd simply take out another student loan to cover our bases.

The icing on the cake? When I proposed to Leslie in 2007, I bought her a $6,500 diamond engagement ring -- with money from a student loan.

More than a year passed before I started to worry about our debt. And that's exactly what I thought it was: our debt. I didn't think it made a difference that all of it -- the condo, $25,000 of credit card debt, $70,000 in student loans -- was in my name.

Grad School Ends, and Payment Time Starts

Then it all hit at once. In the summer of 2008, soon after I finished grad school and a few months before our wedding, the student loan bills -- about $750 each month -- started rolling in.

By that point, Leslie's career had taken off, and she was earning much larger paychecks. We were renting our condo in Connecticut and had moved into a $2,500-a-month apartment in Brooklyn so Leslie could be closer to her six-figure sales job on Wall Street. Meanwhile, I had a string of low-paying theater jobs.

Paying off debt wasn't as fun as spending our money on new things.

I told Leslie now that there was more money coming in, we should cut back and aggressively pay off our debt -- but she brushed me off. Paying off debt wasn't as fun as spending our money on new things.

Throughout our relationship, we didn't really talk about money. Looking back, I should've noticed at least one red flag: Leslie always spent money as quickly as she made it. I didn't think anything of it when she had the retail job at the jewelry store. Her paychecks weren't that big, so it didn't seem like she was shelling out a lot. But when she got the Wall Street job, she'd blow an entire month's salary on Coach bags and shoes.

I didn't foresee the big financial hole that we were digging. I always believed that sooner or later we'd pay off everything -- Leslie would outgrow her excessive spending habits, and I'd eventually get a good-paying job on Broadway. Then we'd pool our resources and start living more frugally. Of course, that never happened.

Then She Asked for a Divorce

We'd only been married for six months when Leslie told me that she wanted a divorce. I was blindsided. As far as I knew, we weren't having any trouble in our relationship. But Leslie's feelings had changed.<

I couldn't get a straight answer from her as to why she wanted to end things. She talked in circles about how marriage wasn't what she thought it was going to be -- how she thought she'd be more in love with me.

So after just a year and a half of marriage, we divorced in 2010 -- and I was on the hook for all of our debt.

Back With Mom and Dad

Feeling overwhelmed at the idea of paying back our debt with my income as a freelance designer (about $20,000 at the time), I moved back to Indiana to live with my parents to save money. I took a job as a college professor, while also working as a waiter and taking on other odd jobs, like working as a sign-holder for a cell phone company, to pad my income.

Leslie gave me $5,000, which put a dent in our debt, and then I drew up a plan for us to split the rest. She agreed to pay me an additional $300 each month for the remaining amount -- about $15,000 at that point. But after five months, she stopped making payments, saying her expenses in New York were high and she didn't want to contribute to paying back my student loans.

I took Leslie to court in 2011, but the judge only ordered her to pay $5,000 to cover some of the condo-related expenses. Speaking of that "investment," it turned out to be nothing but a big headache, especially when I was a long-distance landlord. What the tenants were paying in rent didn't even cover the mortgage payment. I tried to short-sell it, but the lender blocked the sale.

Bankruptcy Brings a Feeling of Relief

Feeling completely defeated, I declared bankruptcy last year in order to absolve myself of all responsibility for the house. Honestly, I felt relieved -- and ready for a fresh financial start.

These days I'm slowly but surely putting the pieces back together without Leslie. I still live with my parents, but I've learned to live well within my $38,000-per-year salary as a professor.

I've still got about $50,000 in student loans, but I'm chipping away at them a few hundred dollars every month. And for the first time, my savings account is growing. I've also started investing heavily in my 401(k) and learned how to trade penny stocks.

The most important [lesson] is to put myself first -- and never take on financial risk for someone else again.

I'm working hard to rebuild my credit. Before I declared bankruptcy, I'd paid off all but about $2,000 of my credit card debt. But due to the bankruptcy filing, those accounts showed up on my credit report as canceled instead of paid in full. So I took the time to write to my creditors one by one to explain my case and have them change the account status.

And it's been working: My credit score has been steadily climbing -- from 530 to over 750. It feels amazing to regain control of my life again.

Of all the financial lessons I've learned from this experience, the most important one is to put myself first -- and never take on financial risk for someone else again.


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31 Comments

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frank1946

Women enjoy $$$, Kids and Beauty.

Thankfully, you did not have a large $$$ Insurance Policy !

July 14 2014 at 9:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Fae Kelley

You got a liar, a cheat and a thief in a tidy package. I did too. He had marriages I didn't know about because I didn't do a criminal background check on the man I would marry. He stole my identity for credit cards that I knew nothing about. I didn't prosecute because he was my husband. He had done this to others. He mortgaged our paid off house behind my back (that's legal) and then got a reverse mortgage to pay off that. Then he died.
You are lucky you got out in 6 mos.

July 13 2014 at 4:08 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Hi RON

Guess even the "educated" sometimes are brain dead and deaf when it comes to being on top of things in their personal financial world!!

July 13 2014 at 1:37 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Ken

At a cocktail party, I mentioned in passing that my wife doesn't drive. One older fellow looked me straight in the eye and said, "I'll trade you sight unseen, and throw in my wife's diamonds, her furs, her Cadillac, and all her credit cards." I think he meant it, too.

July 13 2014 at 11:19 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Larry

Can you imagine someone this naive teaching college? No wonder some undergraduate degrees are worthless. Isn't it fraud to buy new furniture with a student loan?

July 13 2014 at 12:58 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
zebra365

Yuri, you were doing so good until you got to the "learned how to trade penny stocks" part.

You might as well say, "I learned how to play Keno", or "I learned how to play craps".

Read up on Scott Burns, or John Merriman and learn about Vanguard Indexing for Saving and Investing.

Learn to invest, and go to Vegas if you have to gamble, it's more fun than penny stocks and just as profitable.

July 12 2014 at 10:26 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to zebra365's comment
Valerie

@ Zebra --- I had the same thoughts when I read that part of his story. LOL

July 13 2014 at 1:09 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
eeverettm

Generation Entitlement - that's what these lazy, incompetent, naive young people have turned into. Not using God-given common sense, the government now have them in their back pocket. Hahahaha.

July 12 2014 at 3:07 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
bobbyboy150

His ex could have been a DC politician based on how she loved to spend money. The moral of this story is....DO NOT get into a relationship with someone who thinks he/she is a member of the US House of Representatives or the US Senate or the WH.

July 12 2014 at 2:53 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
jeff

Advice to daters---- if the other half seems to spend a lot on credit, RUN!!
While in law school, I accumulated $15k in loans. Only covered tuition. Kept a job and covered mortgage, etc. Friends who seemed to have a lot of time to study, take trips to Europe, etc were taking Law Access Loans, $10-20k a semester. No I didn't finish.
My wife blamed her bankruptcy on her abusive parents, so since we were not married at the time, the house weent in my name. As well as all my credit cards that seemed to suddenly get maxed out.
Due to other circumstances, I found myself starting with nothing but my old boss who wanted to retire and needed my help temporarily. I did very good, he stayed ten years until his death. During that time, I paid off the student loans, paid $25000 in credit card debt off, bu it kept coming back. The credit card company was sending "cash advance" checks to my house and my wife was paying off all her debt by forging my name. Unfortunately, I could nnot put her in jail- should have, but didn't. That was at the same time I refused to take advantage of astonomial house prices and take all our equity. I knew she culd not have revolving debt around. Oh, we get paid Friday? I will take a $3000 cash advance on equity line so there is a "cushion" and then use it for shoees, purses, etc.
People-- run---- she went thru $2 million of my earnings and then my partner died, the housing market crashed, and Bush was in office.
We now live within our means and I am still working 2-3 jobs paying extra off.

July 12 2014 at 8:01 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to jeff's comment
Valerie

@ Jeff --- WHY are you still in this marriage???? Do you need to have a house fall on you to wake up??? Your wife is not going to change her ways. She is a lifetime spendaholic. At the first opportunity, she will be back at her favorite hobby of shopping till she drops. (Or, until you drop dead, from working like a galley slave to pay her debts.)

Also, re your wife's excuse that her bankruptcy was created by abusive parents --- tell her this --- if she had a crummy childhood, she can blame that on her parents. But, if she is having a crummy adult life, she is the one responsible for that.

July 12 2014 at 9:35 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
danabnnc

Do your research Jeff. The housing market crash was created by Clinton.

July 13 2014 at 8:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
fpfininc

probably at least 50% of the student loans were spent on non-related to college education expense, and then there is the huge amount lent to incdompetent kids to go to the scum ball "schools" making millions for these useless schools, thanks to the govt and the low intelligent kids that took out these loans .

July 11 2014 at 7:51 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply