Credit and financial expert Emily Card describes a frantic woman who telephoned her one morning for advice. After a 25-year marriage, the woman's husband wanted a divorce. He closed the couple's department store, bank and other credit card accounts, which were in his name, and gave her $500 in cash "to tide her over" for an indefinite period, and left. Fearful of using up her limited cash on daily necessities like gasoline, the woman was thinking of asking her son to co-sign a gasoline credit card application.
Except for referring the woman to a sympathetic attorney, Card said she was unable to help. Even Emily Card, whose name is almost synonymous with equal credit rights for American women, cannot conjure up a way to get immediately needed credit for people who have never established a credit record.
These situations dismay Card. It has been 11 years since she first began confronting this kind of problem--dating to the federal Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, written by Card, which outlawed credit discrimination based on sex or marital status. But, as vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro said in her endorsement of the new book Card has written about credit, "A law becomes a right when people learn how to use it. . . ."
Making Women Aware of Rights
Since passage of the law that was designed to end discrimination against all women and permit married women to establish credit records in their own names, Card has continued to crusade to make women aware of their rights. She founded the Women's Credit Project while on the faculty at USC, founded the Women's Credit and Finance Project at Harvard University, writes a weekly column on finance for Ms. magazine, hosts a cable television program on financial advice for women and recently published her book, "Staying Solvent: Comprehensive Guide to Equal Credit for Women."
Interviewed recently in Los Angeles, where she does her television program, Card was still reiterating her most essential advice: "All married women should request credit reporting in both names (unless the husband has really bad credit, she adds). I advise women to keep credit in their single names. Men don't change names, so they have credit stability. Every woman should have one separate bank account in her own name and one bank card in her own name. We don't like to think about it, but it's true that 50% of marriages end in divorce," Card said.
She suggests that engaged couples obtain and go over each other's credit reports to learn, for example, if one prospective spouse has a bad credit record. "It sounds horribly crass and unromantic, but if you don't want someone's credit on your record, you might want a prenuptial agreement."
Women can't depend on credit granters to look after their rights, Card points out. "As late as 1983, Bank of America had (application) forms out for Visa cards that required the husband's signature and credit report on a married woman's application (illegal since 1974)." Upon divorce, "the law says (a credit granter) can't change credit on account of a change in marital status unless there is evidence of unwillingness to pay," Card said, "but what creditors are doing is canceling first and asking questions later."
Do You Need Credit?
In her book, a concrete guide to how credit works and how to get various kinds of credit, Card wrote the following test women--or anyone--might give themselves if they wonder whether they need credit: "(1) If you found yourself suddenly without income, could you exist for three months using existing lines of credit and credit cards? (2) If your refrigerator broke, could you easily charge a new one? (3) Can you cash a check virtually anywhere? (4) Can you always be assured that the credit cards in your wallet work for any normal situation of day-to-day living, or do you have to go from store to store to find the credit card that would work for the situation? (5) If you were given a job assignment and asked to travel to a distant city immediately, even though it was Sunday night, and there was no time for the company to issue you an advance check, could you cover all necessary expenses with the plastic in your pocket?"
This is the "up" side of credit, considerations that might have saved the divorcing woman Card described a good deal of anguish if she had considered her personal credit standing while she was married.
Woman are also facing the down side of credit--overextension--as is reflected in the title of Card's book, "Staying Solvent," and a chapter on what to do when you can't pay all the bills, including information on which creditors will report late payments to a credit agency and which will not. Card said that according to Chase Manhattan Bank research, "at any given time 10% of Americans will be in financial difficulty. . . . Women had no experience of credit. Now they have to experience the down side, the risk. In business, men frequently take risks and are overextended. Very few women have experienced this."