In the LearnVest Personal Stories series, everyday people share the details of their money lives, discussing the individual choices they’ve made and how it’s impacted their financial journey.
Today, one man explains how a lopsided financial relationship with his ex-wife landed him thousands of dollars 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.
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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 in order 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.
Putting My Good Name—and Credit—on the Line
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 together 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 small 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.
Every six months, whenever we needed extra cash, I’d simply take out another student loan to cover our bases.
Excited about our new place, 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% or 5% 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.
Unsurprisingly, Leslie and I struggled to make ends meet as homeowners. Almost 100% 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.
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 Money, More Money Problems
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.
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.
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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.
I always believed we’d pay off everything—Leslie would outgrow her excessive spending habits, and I’d get a good-paying job.
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.
Paying for My Mistakes
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.
Feeling overwhelmed at the idea of paying back our debt with my income as a freelance designer making about $20,000 at the time, I decided to move back to Indiana to live with my parents in order to save money. I took a job as a professor at a local college, while also working as a waiter at night to pad my income. I also took on other odd jobs, like working as a sign-holder for a cell phone company.
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 her 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 actually 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.
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.
My credit score has been steadily climbing—from 530 to over 750. It feels amazing to regain control of my life again.
Rebuilding My Money Life
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 college 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 ever, my savings account is growing. I’ve also started investing heavily in my 401(k), and even learned how to trade penny stocks.
I'm working hard to rebuild my credit too. 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.
*Name has been changed.