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Lying About Money to Your Spouse? How to Move Forward From Financial Infidelity
Money is pretty personal for many Americans, so talking about your finances with your partner may not come naturally.
“We grow up in a society where no one teaches you about money and spending,” says Michelle Jeanfreau, Ph.D., an associate professor of child and family sciences at the University of Southern Mississippi who focuses on relational research. “You’re usually not talking about money with people, so you’re left to fend for yourself and from what you’ve seen growing up.”
In relationships where money isn’t a topic of conversation, it’s more likely for partners to lie about money or spending -- also known as committing financial infidelity -- Jeanfreau says.
Actions such as hiding credit card debt, hiding purchases/receipts, keeping a secret bank account, lying about spending money, and lying about the amount of money you spent on a purchase, can all be considered warning signs that you or your partner has committed financial infidelity.
How common is financial infidelity?
Unsurprisingly, keeping financial secrets from your significant other isn’t conducive to a healthy relationship -- but it does happen. In a Journal of Financial Therapy study that Jeanfreau conducted of more than 400 participants, 27% of them admitted to having kept a financial secret from their partner. Couples that had dealt with financial infidelity also reported lower marital and life satisfaction.
“Money means safety and security,” says Megan McCoy, Ph.D., director for the personal financial planning master’s program at Kansas State University. “When a partner lies about money, it can feel like they’re betraying your future.”
The reasons behind financial infidelity
Kelsey DiCarlo of Westchester County, New York, used to lie about the amount of money she made at the beginning of her relationship with her boyfriend.
“A big part of why I felt the need to conceal it at first was because it was a trust issue,” DiCarlo said. “My guard was up a lot, not just with money but with everything.”
DiCarlo kept multiple financial secrets from her boyfriend. She also didn’t tell him about the side gigs she worked apart from her full-time office job or the student loan debt she shared with her mom. He didn’t have student loan debt.
“I didn’t want him to know I had any sources of extra income,” DiCarlo said.
After dating for a year-and-a-half, the trust in their relationship grew, leading to more transparency with her finances.
This type of situation is not uncommon. In fact, 40% of people who responded to an OppU survey said they had lied to a significant other or household partner about the amount of debt they had accrued 1-3 times in the past year. Thirty-eight percent of respondents said they lied 1-3 times about the amount of money they earned.
Looking at these stats, it’s easy to see that talking about money is not always easy for people. But why?
Reason No. 1: Shame
Shame can factor into why some couples don’t talk openly about money and become secretive with their finances.
“Many people often shop mindlessly and impulsively,” McCoy says. “They might feel shame around their purchases, so they don’t feel safe talking to their partner about money.”
Reason No. 2: To avoid controversy
Another reason why some married couples might avoid talking about money is to avoid arguments.
Regardless of the initial reason for keeping money secrets, when financial deception occurs, there’s usually an underlying issue related to intimacy, trust, power, or a loss in communication, McCoy says.
How your money mindset impacts your relationship
Whether you’re a savvy saver or a big spender, understanding how you truly feel about money can help navigate your financial decisions with your partner.
Financial psychologists refer to the motivations and behaviors that unconsciously shape our thoughts about money as money scripts. Money scripts are often developed in childhood and influenced by family finances and culture.
“A lot of us are unaware of our beliefs about money,” McCoy says. “Money scripts drive our underlying behavior of why we bought something and why we felt the need to lie about a purchase.”
There are four types of money scripts that can negatively affect your relationship with money:
The belief that money is bad and people with a lot of money are greedy.
Your self-worth is your net worth. People with this money script often feel the need to buy the latest and greatest things.
If only you had more money life would be better. Money worshipers believe the more money they have the happier they’ll be.
This population is stressed about saving money in case of emergencies and identifies as being frugal. They are also discreet about how much money they earn and how they spend it.
Handling financial infidelity in your relationship
Whether one partner made a large purchase without consulting the other or hid credit card statements because they were embarrassed about overspending, keeping money secrets can be hurtful and lead to a loss of trust in the relationship.
It’s important for couples to build trust in their relationship about money and communicate; this way,when financial blunders happen, partners don’t feel deceived.
“The conversation should be focused on how you’re going to prevent and fix this instead of belittling your partner for their mistake,” Jeanfreau says.
Disclosing an act of financial infidelity -- such as hidden credit card debt or a secret account -- to your partner can be difficult. However, starting the conversation with a plan can help you be more optimistic about the future, and your partner can feel more comfortable, McCoy says.
“Once you come clean, you’ll have a partner to help you create a better financial future,” McCoy says. “They can help you reach your goals faster and hold you accountable.”
The below four steps can help guide the conversation when dealing with financial infidelity:
Step No. 1: Explain and apologize
The person who committed the financial infidelity needs to explain how it happened and ask for forgiveness.
Step No. 2: Have a conversation
Discuss together how communication was lost. It’s important to uncover why your partner was behaving the way they were to determine if this is a symptom of an underlying problem.
“If the same issue continually [rears] its head, see what’s underneath the surface,” Jeanfreau says.
If the issue keeps coming up, it might be time to see a financial advisor or financial therapist to identify the money-management issues in your relationship.
Step No. 3: Create a plan
Put together a plan to answer how the partner who committed the discretion is going to recoup the financial consequences and how you will remedy the financial situation.
Step 4: Set household goals
Determine new financial goals together and how transparency can improve between you. It’s also essential to create a new budget, as the former budget didn’t work because financial infidelity occurred, Jeanfreau says.
Financial planning for the future
Having a plan to help you and your significant other agree on financial decisions can promote communication regarding personal finances and spending habits, Jeanfreau says. It can even help facilitate a happier relationship.
“It will increase intimacy and commitment to one another to talk about the financial future and long-term goals you’re building with each other,” McCoy says.
DiCarlo and her boyfriend eventually worked towards having honest discussions about money. They shared rent and household expenses such as groceries, utilities, and HOA fees. Talking about financial goals together led them to be more open with each other.
Michelle Jeanfreau, Ph.D., received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Wright State University and her master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from The University of Southern Mississippi. She completed her doctorate degree at Kansas State University in human ecology, also with an emphasis on marriage and family therapy. Jeanfreau is a licensed marriage and family therapist and an associate professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her research interests include but are not limited to financial and marital infidelity.
Megan McCoy, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist and a Level-1 certified financial therapist, is the director for the Personal Financial Planning master's program at Kansas State University where she teaches courses for the financial therapy certificate program. She is also the secretary for the board of financial therapy and the associate editor of profiles and book reviews for the "Journal of Financial Therapy."