Spending

44% of Americans admit to financial infidelity: Here's how to avoid a 'breakdown of trust' over money

Financially cheating on your partner can hurt your relationship and your wallet.

Twenty/20

If you're considering buying a slightly overbudget gift for your sweetheart this holiday season, no one is likely to blame you, least of all your significant other. But if you're consistently hiding expensive purchases from your romantic partner, you're among the growing number of folks admitting to a form of deception known as financial infidelity.

In a survey earlier this year from CreditCards.com, 44% of respondents admitted to financially cheating on a spouse or live-in partner. The most common offense: spending more on purchases than a partner would be OK with. Other, less common forms of cheating couples admitted to included harboring secret debt, and hiding checking, savings, and credit card accounts from partners.

You don't have to be Dr. Phil to guess that this kind of dishonesty can put a strain on a relationship. When the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) conducted a survey on this topic in 2018, 44% of respondents said that discovery of financial deception had led to an argument, and 10% said it led to separation as a couple.

"We found that a breakdown of trust often occurs," says NEFE spokesperson Paul Golden. "And in some cases, that can damage a relationship irreparably."

And being out of sync can set you back as a couple, says Ted Rossman, an analyst at CreditCards.com. "It's hard enough to reach goals like saving for a house or paying off student debt when you're both pulling in the same direction," he says. "If you're pulling in different directions, it becomes that much harder."

It's hard enough to reach goals like saving for a house or paying off student debt when you're both pulling in the same direction.
Ted Rossman
Analyst, CreditCards.com

How to avoid financial infidelity

There are any number of reasons why someone may financially "cheat" on their spouse: It can be as simple as inertia, says Brad Klontz, a financial psychologist and professor at Creighton University. "Something like debt could be hidden from the very beginning," he says. "It could be that when you were first falling in love, you never really disclosed your financial situation."

Other reasons for deception might include a need for privacy, or feeling embarrassed or fearful about your partner discovering aspects of your financial life.

It may very well be that you and your partner have differing philosophies about managing your finances, Klontz adds. "It's not uncommon for people to have totally different upbringings when it comes to money," he says. "The odds of you lining up perfectly are pretty rare, but that's not necessarily a sign that you're poorly matched."

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To avoid the headache of financial infidelity, experts agree that communication is key. "If you're combining finances, you need to be having regular conversations about what's taking place," says Golden. To avoid secret spending, he suggests couples try a "yours, mine, and ours" approach, with a combined account to cover joint expenses, such as household bills, and separate accounts for personal spending.

If holding separate accounts doesn't feel transparent enough, stick together in a joint account but set a spending threshold. Any purchase over that threshold must be jointly discussed first, but anything under "comes with no judgment from the other person," Golden says. "Maybe you allow yourselves a 'get out of jail free' card, too. That way if one person financially strays, there can be forgiveness there."

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How to bounce back from financial infidelity as a couple

If any of the behaviors above sound like you or your partner, consider making things right and getting yourself on the right track. To overcome a case of financial infidelity, Klontz recommends a four-step process that comes with a handy acronym: SAFE.

  • Speak your truth. Come clean and tell your partner what you've done and why you've done it. Allow your partner to express their feelings about your behavior.
  • Agreement. Whether it's putting in a spending limit, finding a new way to divvy up the budget, or some other strategy, work as a couple to come up with a financial plan.
  • Fidelity. Stick to your plan by checking in with one another every couple of months or so. "Sit down and ask, 'Is this working for me? Is this working for you? Is this working for us?'" Klontz says.
  • Emergency plan. If one or both of you fails to follow the agreement or commits financial infidelity again, have a plan. "Have the name of the person you're going to talk to ready to go," Klontz says. This should likely be a couples therapist rather than a financial professional.

Overall, being patient and communicative with one another early on can save a couple a lot of heartache down the road, says Klontz. "The average person who goes to couples therapy, that couple has fought for seven years," he says. "Don't wait for seven years to work out your differences regarding money."

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