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How to Assess Your Credit Card Needs After Divorce

Credit Card Basics, Credit Cards
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Of all the things that need your attention after a separation or divorce, credit cards are probably low on your list. But making the right moves early on can set you up for a smooth return to managing credit as a single person.

In a recent survey by the Experian credit reporting firm, 50% of divorced people surveyed said their former spouse ran up credit card debts on joint accounts, and 59% said finances played a role in their divorce.

To get started on the road to financial recovery, you need to get a handle on the accounts you have and evaluate your credit card needs.

Don’t worry — we’ll walk you through the process.

How many accounts do you have?

Even if financial infidelity — dishonesty in the handling of joint money — was not a factor in the breakup, it’s still a good idea to be aware of all the credit card accounts with your name on them. You can request a credit report from each of the three credit reporting agencies once a year for free. You can also sign up to get a free credit score from NerdWallet.

Go over those reports carefully. They’ll show a complete list of your credit cards and loans, along with each account’s status. The account balances shown on the credit report may be a little out of date. To get current balances, you may need to log in to the online accounts or call the credit card issuers.

Once you know what’s there, work with your ex to figure out who will be responsible for which accounts.

Who keeps the existing credit cards?

The impulse may be to close all the shared credit card accounts and start from scratch, but consider the implications before cutting up the plastic.

The average age of your credit card accounts is part of how your credit scores are calculated. Older accounts, especially if they’re in good standing, are valuable for boosting the average age of accounts.

So consider removing one person from each account and letting the other keep it open. The easiest way to do this is for the primary account holder to keep the account and revoke the other person’s authorized user status. Even if it’s a joint account, the issuer may still be willing to remove one of the account holders.

When removing the former spouse from a credit card account, ask the issuer to change the account number at the same time. That way, the existing account stays open, but even the sneakiest of exes won’t be able to use the old account numbers to make purchases.

How will spending change after divorce?

Your budget will probably change as much as your living room decor once you’re on your own. For example, you may spend less on fuel now that your ex’s gas guzzler is parked across town instead of in your driveway.

Once you’ve removed yourself from some joint cards and removed your spouse from others, track your spending for a few months. That will give you an idea of what kind of credit cards will best suit your needs. You may be just fine with the cards you have, or you may want to add a new one.

Here are a few cards that may work well for the new you:

  • If you spend a lot on groceries and gas: The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express pays 6% cash back on up to $6,000 in spending at U.S. grocery stores each year and an unlimited 3% back at U.S. gas stations and select department stores. Terms apply.
  • If you love to travel: The Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card is a flexible travel rewards card that allows you to redeem miles on any airline. Enjoy a one-time bonus of 20,000 miles once you spend $1,000 on purchases within 3 months of approval, equal to $200 in travel. The card has an annual fee of $0.
  • If you have a credit card balance to pay off: The  Chase Slate® doesn’t charge a fee to transfer your balance within the first 60 days, as long as you’re not transferring a balance from another Chase card. It offers an introductory annual percentage rate of 0% on Purchases and Balance Transfers for 15 months, and then the ongoing APR of 15.74% - 24.49% Variable APR.
  • If you don’t carry a balance: The Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer pays an unlimited 1% back on every purchase and another 1% back when you pay those purchases off. It has an annual fee of $0.

» MORE: Use our credit card tool to find the best card for you.

How many credit cards is too many?

We generally recommend that people shoot for three to five cards to maximize rewards and keep their credit score healthy. But if it’s been a while since you were in charge of managing the household finances, it might be better to stick with just one card. That way, you’re less likely to forget to make a payment, something that can deal a heavy blow to your credit score.

If you do have older accounts that you want to keep open to help your credit score, that’s a great plan, especially if those cards don’t have an annual fee. If it’s expensive to keep the accounts open, though, it may be better to close them and use the money saved for something more worthwhile.

Virginia C. McGuire is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: virginia@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @vcmcguire.