Financial Infidelity and the Damage it Does
Financial infidelity is when someone lies about or withholds important information about money. This dishonesty can happen within romantic relationships, between roommates or business partners, or within a larger family structure. For the purposes of this article, I’ll be largely focusing on romantic relationships. (If you’d like me to write about financial infidelity within other relationship structures, let me know in the comments!)
A 2016 Harris poll for the National Endowment for Financial Education revealed that 42% of Americans admit to deceiving their spouses financially, up from 33% in 2014.
What counts as financial infidelity?
Acts of financial infidelity are wide-ranging. They can be seemingly harmless, or severely damaging. This is different than having your own separate financial accounts. My boyfriend and I keep our finances separate right now, but we know what accounts we each have and generally how much we have and owe. I actually recommend to my clients that they have some of their own money, even if they’re married (this will help them down the road if the relationship ends). Financial infidelity is very different than financial independence. Wondering what counts?
1) Secret accounts
I’m all about having and using your own money, but your accounts shouldn’t be a secret. If you feel like you have to hide your spending from your partner, something is wrong. Having secret bank accounts or credit cards could mean there’s overspending happening, which could end up hurting the whole family. There could also be more sinister motives behind these secret accounts. Some people feel the need to hide money from their partner if that partner is abusive. Others might have secret accounts that they use to spend money on an affair or an addiction.
2) Hiding large purchases
This could consist of making and hiding large purchases, or just making the decision to purchase unilaterally. Again, I’m all about everyone having their own money to spend as they like, but when you’re in it together, big purchases should be okay-ed by both partners. An example of this could be if your partner decides to buy a new car without discussing it with you first. It’s especially damaging if you can’t afford the payments for that new car.
3) Spending joint funds
If you have joint bank accounts, you should create guidelines for how you each spend that money. For example, you may decide to use joint funds to pay the mortgage, or pay off debt. If you or your partner are pulling from your shared cash to spend on things that are not mutually agreed upon, you’re committing financial infidelity. This act could be particularly alarming to the other partner, because it’s partly their own money that is being spent.
4) Lying about spending
I’ve heard of people saying that they’re paying the rent or utility bills, and then spending the money on something else. Then when the lights get turned off, or they get evicted, their partner is completely shocked and caught off guard. Saying your money is going one place when it’s really going somewhere else is dishonest and can lead to debt and credit problems.
There are many other actions that can be considered financial infidelity. Learn more here.
Why is financial infidelity harmful?
1) Loss of trust
Money is already one of the leading reasons for divorce. When two people are not on the same page when it comes to money, there is a lot of potential conflict. Financial infidelity makes things even worse. Seventy-five percent of people who have experienced financial infidelity say that it has negatively impacted their relationship. Infidelity of any kind can erode trust within a relationship, and financial infidelity is no different.
2) Financial ruin
Yes, financial infidelity can hurt your interpersonal relationships, but it can do a lot more damage than that. If your partner is racking up debt in your name, or not paying the bills, your credit can be severely impacted. This can lead to having to file bankruptcy, losing your house, having your credit score tank, and more. These types of financial issues can follow you far beyond your relationship.
What you should do now
Your next steps obviously depend on the severity of the financial infidelity. If you or your partner have been stealing from each other, things might not be salvageable. But if you just need to start being more truthful with each other, there may still be hope.
1) Have the money talk.
First of all, if you’re new to a romantic relationship, you should have the money talk ASAP. Even if you and your partner differ when it comes to money, you should both be aware of where the other is coming from. It’s important to get on the same page, so that no one feels like they have to be dishonest later on. And if you can’t work through the differences, it’s better to find out early on in the relationship.
2) Confront or confess.
If you’re already in a serious relationship and you’ve discovered financial infidelity (or committed it yourself), approach your partner. Don’t throw wild accusations or go into the conversation angry. Sit them down and explain what you found (or what you did). Try to stay calm and allow your partner (or yourself) to explain themselves.
3) Get on the same page.
Talk about your financial goals and restrictions together. If you never had the money talk at the beginning of your relationship, have it now. Put it all out on the table. If your financial goals differ, how can you compromise? Is there a way that all your goals can work together? Being in agreement means you can be more honest and communicative with each other moving forward.
4) Start rebuilding trust.
If you think your relationship is salvageable, you and your partner need to begin to rebuild trust. Once you’re back on the same financial page, you should set up ways to prove that you can trust each other. Perhaps you can set a “money date” once a week to sit down and go through your finances together. Or you can set up a joint Mint or LearnVest account so you can see what the other person is up to. If you can take the small steps to prove that you’re trustworthy, you can start rebuilding trust within your relationship.
5) Walk away.
If things have gone past the point of no return, sometimes the only option is to walk away. If you know you could never trust your partner again, it’s okay to admit that. Be as kind as you can, protect yourself (financially, emotionally, physically), and start the process of leaving.
*If you have experienced financial fidelity, please share your story in the comments!
I want to point out that financial infidelity and financial abuse are not necessarily the same thing. If you are in an abusive relationship where money is being used against you, please get help. If you are in this situation, you are not alone. One in four women experience domestic abuse in their lifetime. 99% of those women also experience financial abuse within the relationship. Abusers often use money as a weapon against their victims, making it difficult for the victim to leave the relationship safely. For more information and resources on financial abuse, visit Purple Purse.*
This post originally appeared on Maggie Germano Financial Coaching and was shared with permission.
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Maggie is a Certified Financial Education Instructor and financial coach for women. Her life’s mission is to give women the support and the tools that they need to take control of their money, break the taboo of discussing debt and income, and achieve their goals and dreams. She does this through one-on-one financial coaching, monthly Money Circle gatherings, and speaking engagements. Passionate about many issues affecting women, Maggie also serves on the board of Collective Action for Safe Spaces, is a member of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington’s Developing Leaders Program, and was trained as a salary negotiation facilitator by AAUW.