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The secret lives of America's debtors

By Julianne Pepitone, staff reporter

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Americans are loaded up with credit card debt. What's worse is that some husbands, wives and even children hide those money woes from their families. The results are often devastating.

Hidden debt is a common and insidious problem. "It's a form of cheating so subtle you don't even know you're doing it," said Bonnie Eaker Weil, a relationship expert and author of the book Financial Infidelity. "It's a power struggle that can be more harmful to a relationship than adultery."

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Take Johnny and Audi Deas, who live in Dallas.

Johnny runs a nonprofit that teaches local youth how to handle money. He had no idea that his wife, Audi, was racking up thousands of dollars in debt behind his back.

Audi, 37, opened up a credit card without telling her husband and started shopping to relieve stress, buying clothes for herself and toys for her 8- and 10-year-old children.

"I thought that I'd just pay it off each month," Audi said. "But it was $100 here and $200 there, and soon it was spiraling out of control."

Audi quickly found herself a few thousand dollars in debt and eventually maxed out her credit card. She couldn't sleep.

"I lay awake at night with numbers running through my head," Deas said. "It was constantly on my mind: How am I going to pay this off?"

But when Johnny pulled the family's credit report, her secret was exposed. It was a slap in the face, he said.

"This is something I'm passionate about," said Johnny. "This is money meant for our whole family."

After paying off the card with savings, the couple agreed to tackle a monthly budget as a team.

"It's better to be honest," Audi said. "Sure, you'll probably cause a fight -- but at some point you've got to stop fighting."

'No cash flow and no way to plan your life'

When one half of a couple tries to hide debt, it rarely stays a secret forever.

Melanie Jordan began racking up credit card debt to get her career as an independent contractor off the ground, which was tougher than she anticipated.

"It's hard ... you think the deal is set, but then it doesn't go through, which means no cash flow," said Melanie, who lives in Las Vegas.

She financed her business through savings and a credit card for two years, and it was easy for Melanie to hide the debt from her husband because they keep their finances separate. Melanie's business ultimately flopped, and she spent a year trying to pay off her bills secretly.

But the jig was up when the couple applied for a loan to build a house. Melanie's husband was shocked. They decided for other reasons not to rebuild, and Melanie agreed not to run up any more debt.

"It led to a lot of soul searching," she said, "and I won't do it again."

$250,000 lost - and most was Mom's money

Of course, it's not only spouses who lie to each other about money matters. Children often try to hide their spendthrift ways from their parents, too.

Blake K., who declined to use his full name, lost $250,000 day trading. He got interested in the stock market when he was 8, and by age 18 he was day-trading stocks.

Blake's parents divorced in 2002, and his mother gave him $150,000 to manage for her. At the same time, Blake took out $100,000 in personal credit card and business loans to start a software company while at college in Seattle.

"Like any gambler would say, at first it went very well," said Blake, now 27.

Then the market turned, and Blake routinely lost $10,000 and even $30,000 a day. He'd stay up all night to trade on the 24-hour currency market, feverishly trying to make back the money.

"I was in denial," Blake said, "telling myself I could make it all back on the next trade."

Meanwhile, Blake was generating fake statements for his mother's account to cover up his mounting debt. After four years, the entire $250,000 was gone, and he had to tell his mother what he'd done.

He filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in January 2007 and did a short sale on a home he had just purchased. He lived in his office for two months.

These days Blake pays cash for everything and never trades stocks or currencies. He runs his own software business, and he has so far repaid his mother $50,000. He blogs anonymously about his experience at debtkid.com, and only his family and fiancée know about his secret past.

"I'm very careful with anything related to money now," Blake said. "It became like alcoholism: Once you recover, you don't risk taking another drink." To top of page

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