Spending

51% of millennials are keeping a major money secret from their partner: Here’s what they’re hiding

"It's almost impossible [to meet money goals] if you’re pulling in different directions.”

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More than half of millennial adults are hiding something from a loved one. Data shows 51% of those between ages 25 and 40 have committed "financial infidelity" against their current partner — meaning they have been deceitful about something money-related.

That's according to a recent Bankrate and CreditCards.com survey, which polled nearly 2,500 American couples in January to find out what money secrets they're keeping from each other.

While millennials were the biggest offenders, they were not alone. Almost half, 44%, of couples across generations who are married or partnered admitted to committing financial infidelity against their significant other. About 41% of Gen Xers made that admission, and 33% of baby boomers said the same.

"This is a big deal because it's hard enough to meet your financial goals when you're working together," says Bankrate analyst Ted Rossman. "It's almost impossible if you're pulling in different directions."

The money secrets Americans keep

Across the board, according to the survey, the biggest secret is spending. Three in 10 respondents said they've spent more than their partner would be OK with. The second-most-common secret was debt, with 11% saying they have some sort of hidden balance or expense they are paying off. Another 9% admitted to having an undisclosed bank account, and 7% said they have a secret credit card.

While it may not seem so, even secret savings can be harmful. Rossman says. "It's basically a secret pot of money they can take with them … and it assumes that your relationship won't last," he says. "There's also an opportunity cost to that money. Maybe it would have been better used to pay down expensive credit card debt or save for retirement or your kids' college educations."

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The most common reason for secrecy was privacy. Three in 10 poll-takers said they had "a desire to control my own finances." Slightly fewer people, 25%, said the money secret "never came up" or they "never felt the need to share." Another 23% said they were ashamed of how they handle finances. And the same share said they don't trust their partner with money.

It's best to talk openly about money with your partner, Rossman says, but maintaining some privacy can work if both people agree on the parameters. "A lot of couples like the 'yours, mine, and ours' approach. So, if you decide that you each get a percentage of each paycheck to spend as you wish, no questions asked, that can be a reasonable solution as long as it's mutual and it fits into your budget.

"What doesn't work is when one or both partners are squirreling money away or spending without the other's knowledge," he says. "When you're in a committed relationship, your financial lives are intertwined. Even if you keep some privacy, you have shared household bills and money goals."

It's hard enough to meet your financial goals when you're working together. It's almost impossible if you're pulling in different directions.
Ted Rossman
Analyst for Bankrate

The pandemic fueled financial infidelity

Money infidelity is not a new phenomenon, but some experts think the pandemic made the problem worse. Nearly 80% of the respondents who said they have ever kept a financial secret from their partner did so in 2020.

It makes sense considering that the pandemic has put many financial matters out of Americans' control, and led to financial changes that they might feel shameful about disclosing. More than half of Americans, 54%, said they missed at least one bill payment last year, according to Clever. Since March, an estimated 46 million adults in the United States have wiped out their emergency savings. And as of November, the average American had fallen $7,512 deeper into debt.

"Money stressors combined with a changed or strained relationship with our partners is a perfect recipe for things like financial infidelity," Hanna J. Morrell, a financial coach at Pacific Stoa Financial Wellness, told CreditCards.com. She said many of her own clients' underlying financial obstacles have gotten worse because of job losses, wage cuts, and other economic trouble brought on by the pandemic.

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Instead of engaging in financial deceit when it comes to money struggles, communicate openly with your loved one. Honesty could lead to accountability and help you reach a milestone you've been going after.

"Money communication is incredibly important in a long-term relationship," Kristin O'Keeffe Merrick, a financial advisor of O'Keeffe Financial Partners, told CNBC Make It. "I have seen several cases of financial irresponsibility and infidelity that have ruined relationships. If you and your partner are having a hard time communicating about it, I suggest engaging a third party."

It can be uncomfortable to discuss money, "but we have to do it," adds Rossman. "Get all of these cards on the table before you get married, and I think even before you start living together. Keep the conversation going with informal money dates, maybe once every month or two. Everyone's goals are different, but the most important thing is to get aligned with your partner and make sure that your money is going where you want it to go."

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