A Matter of Credit

“And what is Jeff to you?” the female voice with the Southern accent asks over the phone. “We are married,” I respond in the best matter-of-fact tone I can muster. My declaration is followed by a curt “hold on” and a silence that seems to go on and on. I picture the woman from the call center leaning over her cubicle wall and hollering to her supervisor, “You won’t believe what this guy just told me.”

The scene took place a few years ago, just after the best of all husbands and I had decided to take the plunge and buy our first home together. At this point we had lived together for four years and had a pretty good understanding of our finances but hadn’t yet dived deeply into our respective credit histories. Even after sharing a bed with my hubby for years, I was hesitant to ask for a copy of his credit report. That just sounded too much like “trust but verify.” But I really didn’t want any surprises in front of a loan officer, so I just asked.

Jeff’s credit history is much longer, a benefit of being born in this country, but not as squeaky clean as mine. No big deal. I knew that, and frankly few people are as compulsive about finances as I am, people I work with excluded. I assume it has something to do with engineering and understanding compound interest, in addition to having a stable job that pays reasonably well. But what was that collection item for $57 from the local cable company? Jeff had no clue what it might be, and I know we pay our bills on time since I’m in charge of that. A visit to the cable company office reveals that the charge was for an allegedly unreturned cable box at Jeff’s mom’s place that somehow was still in his name years after he had moved out. Since I had no way to prove that they had indeed returned the item, I took the seemingly easy route and paid off the total amount on the spot. I got a receipt for my payment and the assurance that it will be reflected on the account and the credit report within a few days. Back at home, I got some grumbling from Jeff for giving in to the broadband bandits. He was sure the box was returned. At least, I thought, it’s taken care of now. And if $57 was the worst that was to be found in his credit record, so be it.

Several months go by and we finally are ready to close on our dream home. As we are working our way through the loan paperwork, the loan officer brings our attention to a collection item for $57. Thankfully, Jeff limits his response to a look that says, “See, I told you. Paying wasn’t going to be the answer.”

This is how I end up on the phone with the collection agency. I tell her my name and that I am calling for an item in Jeff’s name. While I’m on hold I’m wondering about alternatives. Should I have just pretended that I am Jeff? Should I have picked a more gender neutral first name? Pitched my voice to a falsetto to sound more like someone who might be married to a Jeff? Or should I pretend that I’m a 6’ 2” buxom blond who chain-smoked for decades? But wait. Jeff and I really are married, so the woman on the other end just will have to deal with it. Whatever consultation happened while I was on hold seems to have come out in my favor. At least the woman now consents to talk to me. I explain that we had paid the amount directly to the creditor and if she had any proof that we still owed this amount I’d be happy to pay it right now. Not unexpectedly that led to the assurance that she would check and that this should disappear from Jeff’s credit record in a few days.

Point, match and game for German efficiency. Further proof that taking action is preferable to my hubby’s tactic of “it might go away if I bury this letter on the bottom of my desk.” I quietly savor this victory until I read through our final escrow closing statement. Why is there a $57 charge for paying off an outstanding debt? And when we refinance two years later and go through the entire loan paperwork again, why am I asked about $57 for an outstanding collection item on Jeff’s credit report? I’m starting to think efficiency is overrated.

This article was first published at Frontiers LA.

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