More than three decades ago, when things were a lot simpler, I stood up before a minister and took on the name of a man I fell in love with. Nobody at the time mentioned there was any disadvantage to going through life known simply as his wife.
Shortly after his death, I woke up to discover that I, like many another woman who married before the era of two-salaried families, had lost, along with my husband, my credit rating.
I still had the same fistful of charge plates at places like Neiman's and Garfinckel's. Nine of them together, and they continued to work just fine. Nobody inquired if the man on whose credit they were based was still living. But then, because of some work I was doing which required me to travel, I applied for a Visa.
I was turned down. And therein lies a cautionary tale.
I couldn't get a Visa card although I had worked on and off all my married life. I had a house, a car and no outstanding debt; nevertheless I did not qualify. Ever since my husband's death I had been merely keeping up a dead man's credit by calling myself by his name. I, the very same woman, calling myself by my given name, was an unacceptable credit risk.
At Bloomingdale's, Saks and Lord & Taylor, I had been conducting a masquerade. Alone in my wallet, only my library card was mine by rights.
I have a Visa now and a Master Charge, and assorted gasoline charge cards too. But before I got them I learned several things married women are seldom told.
Married women, and especially widows, make a terrible mistake buying and paying for purchases with cards in their husband's name. Though it is illegal to discriminate against credit applicants on the basis of marital status, if the card you hand across the counter has your husband's name on it, the credit is all his. Do not think a card with Mrs. before his name means you have a separate account. You are riding on his credit with no history of your own.
I could have, like thousands of others, gone on forever charging things in my dead husband's name, had I wanted to keep mum about being anyone but his wife. But life moves on, things change, I needed the float and the convenience of a Visa. And there I was, born anew, as credit-unworthy as a baby. Even purchases we had made together were buried in a credit file closed forever, even to me.
I called the assistant manager of the bank that refused my application. He said he was sorry, but rules were rules. Credit applicants were required to have two open accounts, one with revolving credit, of a minimum year's standing. The bank's iinvestigation had not been able to find such accounts in my case, and they would therefore be unable to oblige. He did hope, however, that I would avail myself of some of the bank's other fine services.
In a pig's eye, I muttered, and called my own bank, which does not offer Visa. The woman I spoke with was sympathetic, but not really surprised. I had fallen into an old trap, as many women do. We who use our married names in financial transactions inevitably encounter later difficulties. Perhaps I should call the Credit Bureau.
"A lady," I can hear my English godmother saying, "has her Christian name in the paper three times -- when she is born, when she marries and when she dies."
Things have changed since then, but not so recently nor so completely as you might think. The woman at my bank told me that only in the last eight years have bank officials encountered no resistance when they ask women who have been married some time to use their given names. "I've always been Mrs. William J. Smith," they would murmur uncertainly. Only on the doctor's charts did many of these women have a separate identity. Men do remarry, and it is well to know whose body you are working on.
The Credit Bureau had heard it all before. The line is as busy as Metro's, but I persevered and poured my troubles into the ear of a sympathetic official. My name was on the house. Didn't that count? And I bought the car myself.
It didn't count, any of it. Joint credit dies with the other half of the duo. It would be necessary to produce a copy of the mortgage, which was held by the insurance company underwriting the mortgage and insuring the house. If the mortgage is paid up, all you have is the deed. Joint credit in this case is difficult to check, unless the underwriting company is willing to dig around in their files for your convenience.
As for the car, I had made the worst mistake of all. I paid in full with a check. I could hear the sign on the other end of the line. No installment payments, no credit brownie points accruing. Isn't this discrimination against cash customers, frugally attempting to bypass large interest on loans?
There did, however, turn out to be a little-known solution. In return for a check for $5.40, for one month only, the Credit Bureau would divert information feeding into my husband's closed account into a new one set up for me. At the end of that time, if I hadn't had every card changed, they could do nothing for me.
I sent the check and spent several days calling the credit departments of stores where I had been a customer for 30 years. With the added credit history, I reapplied for credit and eventually a more adventuresome bank awarded me both Master Charge and Visa, not, however, without a peek at my income tax.
All this difficulty is the penalty I and other women like me pay for imagining that their husband's credit iis all we will ever need.