Can you say, with certainty, that you are as confident of your partner's actions in the financial faithfulness department?
According to a recent study conducted by the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE), as many as one third of adults who've combined their finances with a partner have committed some form of “financial infidelity” against that person.
Of course, you could argue that some white lies about money are benign—like "forgetting" to mention that $5 latte you bought after making a pact to scale back on such everyday splurges—but financial dishonesty can have a negative impact on your relationship, creating distrust and resentment on top of any monetary consequences.
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In fact, 76% of people surveyed by NEFE said that the money deception in their relationship affected them in some way. Nearly half of the couples acknowledged that it caused an argument, and one third said it reduced trust in the relationship. And that’s not even the worst of it.
“Sadly, financial infidelity can lead to more severe outcomes—for 10%, the infidelity ultimately led to divorce,” says Paul Golden, a spokesman for NEFE. “It’s a little like sexual infidelity—even something that seems benign can become a gateway to larger deceptions, like lying about debt.”
The good news is that lies about money don’t necessarily have to ruin your relationship—if you know how to deal with them effectively. “Financial infidelity can be a tipping point when couples start to communicate more openly and frequently about money issues,” Golden says. “In the survey, 8% of couples said the infidelity actually caused them to grow closer together.”
Not sure if there's been financial infidelity in your own life? Connect the dots by reading up on these six common money secrets people keep from their partners—and take the experts' advice to heart if any scenario sounds a little too familiar.
Money Lie #1: He Has a Secret Stash
Hiding funds in a separate bank account is one of the most common financial infidelities, says Nancy Butler, a Certified Financial Planner®, Certified Divorce Financial Analyst and author of “Above All Else: Success in Life and Business.”
One telltale sign that your significant other is possibly guilty of this offense is if you unearth a wad of cash stuffed in a book or buried in a sock drawer, Butler says. There's also the very real possibility of coming across a bank statement for an account you didn’t even know existed.
What to Do If You Suspect Your Partner Is Guilty … While many couples in healthy relationships manage their own discretionary income, it’s important to ask your partner about the money if it appears to have been hidden on purpose from you, Butler says.
Of course, you may learn that it’s nothing to be alarmed about—maybe he was saving up for a surprise anniversary gift or even innocently pooling the loose cash from his pocket at the end of each day. But if he fesses up to squirreling the money away for a larger purchase you weren’t aware of, it's grounds for initiating a bigger conversation about your joint financial goals and priorities.
Fortunately, in many cases, a face-to-face money check-in is all it takes to steer your financial relationship back on track. “Being on the same ‘financial page’ is critical,” Butler says. “Coming together as a team, working toward goals that are important to both of you, and making adjustments together go a very long way toward creating a happy and successful relationship and marriage.”
So how exactly do you get back on the same page? Butler says that couples in this predicament have a few options for creating more transparency and equality when it comes to your finances. “One is to agree to maintain only joint bank accounts moving forward," she says.
But if you prefer to keep some money to yourself—provided your partner is aware!—you can discuss each maintaining a single individual account where you deposit money only after joint expenses and savings goals are met.
Many people think it’s easier to ask for forgiveness after the fact than permission before a purchase is made—but that’s not a fair approach to handling money both partners earn.
Money Lie #2: She Downplays Problem Spending
Here's a scenario: Let’s say that shiny new gadget your partner has been eyeing costs $300—but you don't want to shell out that kind of cash. Would she (a) argue with you about it and eventually back down, or (b) fib and say the item actually costs closer to $200—only for you to discover the real price when the credit card statement arrives?
If you answered “B,” your significant other may be committing another very common form of financial infidelity.
Many people think it’s easier to ask for forgiveness after the fact than permission before a purchase is made—but that’s not a fair approach to handling money both partners work hard to earn. “It’s almost like being a child,” Butler says. “You know what you want, and if you don’t get it, you’re not going to be happy. That’s not a mature relationship.”
What to Do If You Suspect Your Partner Is Guilty … If your honey stretched the truth about a pricey purchase, but eventually came clean, it’s probably fine to let this one go—once. However, if you notice a pattern, it’s time for a financial heart-to-heart.
Butler suggests bringing up the evidence you’ve found—a price tag on the back of a shirt or a receipt—and ask why she’s continuing to be dishonest. Then you need to nail down some new spending parameters that will apply to both of you, so it doesn't feel one-sided.
“If your budget allows, allot an agreed-to amount each month that you can each spend however you want—without having to account for it,” Butler says. This way, you don’t have to repeat the same scenario every time your partner walks into the house with a bulging shopping bag.
Another possible solution is to set up a new, joint savings goal that you can each contribute to that will cover the items your sweetheart secretly splurges on. It's a win-win: There's increased communication, as well as a stated plan to openly buy these items in the future.
Money Lie #3: He’s Keeping You in the Dark About Ballooning Debt
Lying about debt—especially any that was accrued before getting married—is a classic financial infidelity, says Los Angeles–based psychologist Barbara Cadow, who estimates this issue is at the heart of about 20% of money infidelity cases.
What are some ubiquitous signs of sneaky debt cover-up? “You may find a wadded-up statement, or maybe your partner tries to get to the mailbox before you to intercept a bill,” Golden says. “Or perhaps every time the topic of finances comes up, the person becomes withdrawn.”
What to Do If You Suspect Your Partner Is Guilty … Although this level of betrayal can be highly upsetting, don't fly off the handle—take a minute to collect your thoughts first. “Being confrontational only makes someone defensive and resentful,” says Douglas Goldstein, a Certified Financial Planner® and co-author of “Rich as a King: How the Wisdom of Chess Can Make You a Grandmaster of Investing.”
Once you're ready to have a calm conversation, start by talking through the details of the debt in a matter-of-fact fashion, highlighting how much the person owes and when the bills are due. Then create a realistic plan for paying off the debt—together.
Cadow suggests saying, “How can we get this paid?” In other words, make sure to use “we” instead of “I” to emphasize you’re going to tackle the payments as a team.
She also says seeking help from a psychologist or couples therapist could be beneficial. “I would recommend that the offending partner examine their motivation for lying and confront the issues involved, which can go all the way back to childhood,” Cadow says.
And contrary to what most people may think, it is possible to recover from such a serious breach of trust. “I have helped couples put together a debt repayment plan that feels fair to both parties and provides closure,” she says. “They can move on.”
If you uncover that she gambled a lump sum of money behind your back—whether it’s at the casino or on the stock market—take this money lie very seriously, since it could indicate a bigger problem with addictive spending.
Money Lie #4: She Dabbles in Risky Investments
The thrill of a hot opportunity may not be appealing to you, but that doesn't mean your partner isn't succumbing to the siren song of a risky stock purchase or loaning money to a friend to fund his new venture.
If you uncover that she gambled a lump sum of money behind your back—whether it’s at the casino or on the stock market—it’s important to take this money lie very seriously, since it could indicate a bigger problem with addictive spending.
The first sign that something may be amiss? You receive a notice from your bank, the I.R.S. or another creditor about bills you'd thought had been paid but actually hadn’t, Cadow says. Butler adds that there are a few other clues to watch out for, including a lack of patience and agitation, as well as if you see valuables go missing or you pick up on unaccounted withdrawals of cash or investments.
What to Do If You Suspect Your Partner Is Guilty … For starters, gently but firmly ask your significant other why she risked so much money, explain your concerns—such as not being able to pay the bills or save toward a mutually agreed-upon goal—and discuss how you can rebuild the broken trust moving forward.
Butler recommends seeking professional guidance to work through this infidelity, as well as looking into such resources as Gamblers Anonymous or Debtors Anonymous. These organizations can help compulsive spenders identify what’s driving detrimental habits—whether it's stress, workaholic tendencies or even familial influence and rein them in.
Money Lie #5: He Secretly Gives Money to Family
You know your partner doesn’t come from the wealthiest home—but you probably didn’t think he’d ever go behind your back and sneak a family member cash each month, especially now that you’ve combined your finances.
Butler says that while this type of money lie isn’t as common as some of the others, it typically crops up when one partner is more concerned about a parent's or sibling’s financial situation than his own—and doesn't think a significant other would share the same desire to help out.
“They don’t tell the partner because they feel guilty, but feel it’s something they must do,” Butler says.
It's tough to feel pulled in competing directions—to know you should be prioritizing your own financial health, while also feeling responsible for someone else. "Odds are they don’t like lying," she adds, "but don’t know what else to do."
What to Do If You Suspect Your Partner Is Guilty … Goldstein suggests approaching this conversation head-on by saying, "I see you've been helping out your sister. Can we talk about how much longer you think she will need this help—and do you think we could wrap it up by next month so you and I can get back on track with our own finances?"
Goldstein says this language is particularly effective because it acknowledges the secret without putting your loved one in a position to defend his family or perpetuate the lie. Plus, it addresses the need for a future plan.
Once you've agreed on a specific timeline to discontinue the giving, you can then work on making sure any money doled out in the meantime is discussed openly and considered a joint expense.
Regardless of how secretive your partner is about her success at work, if you file taxes jointly, you’re bound to find out about this dishonesty.
Money Lie #6: She Didn’t Share Her Raise With You
You'd expect a significant other to run home and toast to a new promotion with you—but Cadow says it's actually not unheard of for someone to stay mum for a while.
“Telling your spouse that you got a raise means you might have to pay more bills, instead of spending money on fun things,” she says. On the other hand, she adds, “If one spouse is making a lot more than the other, and then gets a raise, that person may lie if they don’t want the other person to be jealous.”
But regardless of how secretive your partner is about her success at work, if you file taxes jointly, you’re bound to find out about this dishonesty eventually.
What to Do If You Suspect Your Partner Is Guilty … As always, your first step is to calmly approach your partner and ask why she didn’t tell you about the raise—and make it a point to mention how your family, as a whole, could benefit from the money.
Although you’re probably feeling hurt, try to be understanding and communicate that, at the same time, you support her desire to buy something fun (and affordable) for herself with the hard-earned salary bump.
Based on your budget, Butler suggests working together to define a reasonable percentage of the raise that can be spent guilt-free versus what should be applied to your family's financial goals.
“If there’s a lot of debt in the relationship, most of the raise should probably be applied to reducing the debt,” Butler says. But if your overall financial position is in good shape, she says it may be appropriate to consider putting one third of the money toward joint goals and leaving the rest on the table for both partners to enjoy a celebratory splurge or two.