Credit Cards Tougher to Get for Stay-at-Home Parents

By Staff

As a stay-at-home mom, I cringed when I read about a new Federal Reserve regulation that severely restricts non-working spouses’ access to credit. The new rule represents a blow to the financial independence of stay-at-home moms and dads in the U.S.

Enacted on Oct. 1, 2011, the crux of the new regulation is the distinction between household and individual income. Household income can no longer be considered when analyzing an applicant’s creditworthiness. This change may prevent many stay-at-home parents from being able to open a credit card account.

While I’m not a big fan of credit cards in general, knowing that I probably no longer qualify to open an account in an emergency is a little alarming.The new rule dictates that only the applicant’s individual income may be taken into account by the credit card company when deciding whether to grant credit. So that means that a stay-at-home spouse with no income or only a small income (like me) would probably not qualify, even if the household income is substantial.

For those seeking to establish a credit history, improve a credit score, or gain financial independence, this is a knee-buckling change.The new rule is part of the CARD Act, the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009, discussed in detail in this article. The CARD Act makes the ability to pay off debt the paramount consideration when issuing credit. It is designed, in other words, to protect consumers from themselves. The act’s goal is to prevent cardholders from racking up mountains of debt that they can not repay effectively. Sounds good, right?

Living in a Material World

As we all know, even if you are opposed to making purchases on credit, having a credit card is virtually unavoidable. From simple transactions like renting a DVD or making a car reservation, to major transactions like qualifying for a business loan or a home mortgage, having a credit card is essential.

This change, although intended to protect consumers in general, places stay-at-home spouses at a distinct disadvantage.Imagine the case of a newly divorced or widowed spouse trying to get through the day without a credit card. In many cases, these people may have adequate resources, job skills, and assets to qualify for credit, but without individual credit history, a sudden change in marital circumstances could leave them high and dry, credit-wise.

This amendment also represents a major setback for stores that offer on-the-spot credit with a simple form filled out at the register. No longer will big retailers like Target, Home Depot and Kohl’s be able to offer customers credit cards at the point of sale—and they are not happy about it. While this rule may help curb impulse purchases, for consumers like me, there is a major downside.

Living abroad, I visit the United States a few times a year and normally arrive with a long shopping list in hand. Many items are dramatically cheaper in the States than here in Costa Rica, and other items are simply not available here. Last summer I racked up a big bill at Target, applied for the instant credit card, pocketed the 10% sign-up discount, and then zeroed-out the balance on the next bill cycle. Under the current regulation, I won’t be able to do this unless my husband is with me. Not a nice feeling.

Charging Ahead

If you didn’t apply for your own credit card before the Oct. 1 deadline, all is not lost. There are still several ways for a stay-at-home spouse to obtain a credit card, albeit with restrictions and caveats:

Authorized User: A non-income-generating spouse or child can be added as an authorized user on an existing account without being legally responsible for repayment of debts incurred on the account. The authorized user status does help establish credit history and so this is a workable option for many consumers.

Co-Signer: Just the word “co-signer” conjures up all sorts of credit horror stories, but for some people, it may be the only option. As a co-signer, you are legally responsible for debts incurred, so proceed with caution if you choose this route.

Work It: If a stay-at-home spouse has even a small income from a home-based business or part-time job, this may be sufficient to obtain a credit card with a very low limit. Properly managing a credit card account with a low limit can be a good way to establish credit history.

Hang On: If you have an existing credit card in your name, but anticipate a break in employment for any reason, consider zeroing out the card, but leaving the account open. Once your income ceases, it will be difficult to obtain a new account in your own name—so don’t close that account!

Note: In community property states such as California, Texas and Louisiana, different rules apply that may allow a non-earning spouse to receive credit in his or her own name. On the flip side, non-earning spouses may also be held liable for debts accrued by their partners.

This article was written by contributing author Laurel Gray.