It starts out innocently enough.
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You treat yourself to another massage at the end of a bad day—and you just happen to not mention it to your partner … either time.
Then you splurge on a new fitness gadget (it was on sale!), and when your significant other asks about it, you shrug it off and say you’ve had it for a while.
You didn’t plan to deceive your partner. It just happened. Besides, you think to yourself, “Does anyone else really have to know my every money move?”
It’s not like you’re accruing massive debt or mortgaging the family home. You’re simply splurging a little now and again … and again.
Guess what? You’ve just joined the ranks of the 33% of Americans who’ve committed financial infidelity.
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And according to Maggie Baker, Ph.D., a psychologist with a specialty in financial therapy and author of “Crazy About Money,” keeping financial secrets from your spouse can be a very seductive type of infidelity.
The reason: It doesn’t really feel like cheating. It often just feels like you are taking care of yourself—whether you’re engaging in secret spending or even secret saving.
“Relationships are fundamentally an attachment, but with financial infidelity, you’re not moving your attachment from your spouse to someone else,” explains Baker.
Sensing that financial secret-keeping is probably pretty prevalent, we tapped money and relationship pros to help us uncover the most common forms of financial cheating—and glean advice on how to keep the financial peace with your partner.
The Infidelity: Secret Saving
Sure, opposites attract, but having opposing financial mind-sets can lead to enormous stress in a marriage—especially when one person prefers to hang on to cash while the other is happiest spending.
But if you think that big spenders are the only financial cheaters in a relationship, you’re wrong.
William Sweet, a Certified Financial Planner™ with Stevens and Sweet Financial in Tuxedo, N.Y., says he’s had many clients just like this. And often, he says, the serious saver in the couple doesn’t feel the need to mention the savings account to his or her partner.
The Financial Fallout … Although it may seem that having a hidden stash of cash is a good idea if you’re living with a serious spender, the experts don’t agree.
When a couple has an agreement on how money will be spent and one of them breaks that promise, says Baker, “it’s very corrosive to trust and creates distance.”
Beyond the emotional harm it can do, it can also lead to logistical problems. As Sweet explains, if something were to happen to the spouse who had funds “squirreled away” and the other person didn’t know about them, he or she might not be able to make the best financial decisions for the family.
But it’s not always so easy to talk money—especially if you’re a saver and your spouse isn’t. Anything you say that even indirectly calls into question your spouse’s approach to finances could be perceived as a criticism or judgment.
How to Keep the Financial Peace … According to Baker, there’s a better way to get on the same page, and it involves seeking professional help.
“The first step would be for the saver to say, ‘I’ve made an appointment with a financial adviser, and I’d like you to come with me. I know we have very different attitudes about money, but if we’re going to be able to plan for the future, I need to know we’re on the same page,’ ” Baker says. “It’s a little less personal than saying, ‘Let’s sit down and talk about your spending habits.’ ”
The Infidelity: Secret Spending
Given how busy life can be, it would be understandable if you’d prefer not to discuss every single purchase with your partner—unless you’re deliberately avoiding drawing attention to certain kinds of spending.
This was the case for Meghan Harris*, a 51-year-old graphic designer in Providence, R.I.
She and her husband have very different attitudes about money. For one, when he was growing up, his family had significant financial issues, so he’s very sensitive to what things cost.
About five years ago, this issue came to the forefront in their marriage when their son was diagnosed with learning disabilities and needed to go to a special school.
At the time, Meghan was working a high-paying consulting job, and since her cash flow was greater, she paid most of the bills.
“It made sense for me to write the $3,000 check for school each month—using a separate account that I kept,” she says. “My husband knew the account existed, but he never saw it.”
If you ask Meghan, she did this with the best of intentions: She knew her husband would react badly if he saw just how much their son’s education cost.
The Financial Fallout … Meghan soon realized that shouldering the financial burden—and protecting her husband from money stress—was taking its toll on her.
Plus, since her husband didn’t have a clear understanding of the family’s budget, he often spent money on other things—money they didn’t have.
“So I said, ‘O.K., let’s switch it up, so you see what it’s like to pay for things every month,’ ” Meghan says.
Around this time, she also took a staff job, and her take-home pay decreased. Since it wasn’t as easy for her to write the school check, her husband had to do it.
Once he became responsible for paying the tuition, there was inevitable conflict—he started complaining about the school, commenting that their son didn’t need to go to such an expensive place.
How to Keep the Financial Peace … As a financial planner, Sweet says, he tries to get couples contending with secret spending back to common ground by digging into the issue at the heart of their dispute.
In Meghan’s case, it would be whether this particular school was truly worth the cost.
“Couples tend to fight about two things, kids and money, and this is a situation where both are at play, so I would approach it very, very cautiously,” Sweet says. “For them, it would be useful to do a cost-benefit analysis to help them weigh how realistic other choices might be.”
As Sweet explains, a decision like the one Meghan and her husband were juggling is both a financial and an emotional one. “And good personal financial planning is actually quite a bit more personal than financial,” he says, “so decisions often need to involve trade-offs.”
The Infidelity: Using Money as a Secret Weapon
When Rebecca Phillips*, 54, of Nashville married her college sweetheart, she was earning four times what her hubby made.
At first, the income disparity wasn’t a problem—until she bought pricey clothes for a new job and her husband got mad at her for wasting money.
But she kept buying them—after all, she figured, it was her money—and would sneak them into the back of her closet to avoid another fight.
Meanwhile, as Rebecca was anxiously guarding her clothing purchases, her husband was spending money on his hobbies and pulling cash from their joint accounts to help fund his fledgling business—all without discussing it with her.
The more she worked, the more he spent. Just before they divorced, she was driven to start keeping money in a separate, secret account.
The Financial Fallout … “Instead of talking to each other, Rebecca and her husband approached the problem with an ‘I’m going to get you’ mentality,” says Baker. “He says to himself, ‘She’s working so much and not paying attention to me that I’m going to get back at her by spending her money.’ And because she knows how he’s reacted in the past, she chooses not to bring it up it, too.”
According to Baker, this behavior isn’t just about money—it’s symptomatic of something in the dynamic of the relationship that’s not right.
“It may be that certain psychological needs are not being met—issues like attention or understanding,” she says. “The spouse who feels that something’s wrong doesn’t know how to express it directly, so they do it indirectly.”
How to Keep the Financial Peace … “The ideal would be to step up to your partner and say, ‘We need to talk about this. I’m not feeling like I’m getting enough emotionally from this relationship,’ ” Baker says.
And although it’s not easy, every couple needs to learn to talk about hard things—and money is persistently one of the hardest, adds Baker.
For example, Rebecca could have said, “I think you’re having feelings about how much money I make and how little time I spend with you.” Or her husband could have taken the lead to talk about their differing priorities, as well as spell out what he really wanted from the marriage.
Instead, the relationship devolved into a passive-aggressive spiral. And what seemed like a purely financial issue was really a sign of a greater breakdown in the marriage.
“It’s a situation that starts with avoidance, quickly gets passive-aggressive—and then escalates into the collapse of the relationship,” Baker says. “But it could have been rectified earlier, sparing them heartache if they’d confronted their differences.”
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