When you share your finances with a spouse or partner, every purchase has the potential to spark a discussion—which may explain why some people keep financial secrets, otherwise known as “financial infidelity.”
According to a recent user survey from CreditCards.com, financial infidelity in a relationship may be more common than most people think. Approximately 13 million Americans admitted to keeping a secret credit card or bank account without their partner’s knowledge. Dr. Terri Orbuch, relationship expert and author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great, agrees that these secrets can lead to feelings of mistrust or betrayal difficult to repair.
“[Money] is the No. 1 source of conflict for couples,” she says.
If you find yourself faced with financial infidelity in your own relationship, it may not be too late to recover and make positive changes to your joint money habits.
The source of financial infidelity
When most people think of infidelity, they imagine a third person, but financial infidelity has nothing to do with secret trysts. It simply means spending large amounts of money without your partner’s knowledge or consent.
Creditcards.com cites a secret purchase of $500 as large enough to qualify as financial infidelity, but this amount may vary based on the situation and frequency of spending. In some cases, the real issue at hand may be that the spending is hidden at all.
“Any big secret is a problem for a relationship,” Dr. Orbuch says.
Secret spending may stem from misunderstandings in money management. Dr. Orbuch adds that money often means different things to each partner—for example, something to be saved for the future vs. something to be spent when available—and those different points of view may translate into resentment if one partner is unable to spend money in the way they feel is best.
“For some people, it can mean security. For some people it can mean love. And it can mean control, as well,” she says.
A strict budget might make you feel more secure, but if your partner isn’t used to living thrifty, they might hide their own purchases as a way to feel more in control of their money. These habits might seem harmless, but could eventually impact the relationship if left unchecked.
Couples with joint finances are likely to have combined budget or money goals, like contributing to savings or paying off debt. Combining finances makes teamwork a necessary skill to ensure the bills get paid and you aren’t spending more money separately than you earn combined.
But if money is consistently spent without the knowledge of both partners, it raises the chance of throwing this balance off. Whether it’s one partner’s credit card debt or secret checking account, Dr. Orbuch says that hiding these habits breaks the expectations you had as a couple.
“When those expectations aren’t met, we feel hurt, and we feel betrayed,” she says.
Imagine the additional stress you’d feel if you’d just discovered a large debt your partner has accrued without your knowledge. Financial infidelity can cause not only financial problems, but anxiety for the relationship itself.
These mistakes don’t have to be the end of the relationship, but it may take some serious work to reverse bad spending habits and rebuild lost trust.
“You want to sit down and try to hear each other,” says Dr. Orbuch, pointing out that it’s especially important to hear why one partner felt the need to hide their money habits in the first place. “You want to then identify the underlying meaning of money and your expectations of money [in the relationship].”
Once you better understand each other’s individual money perspectives, you can move forward as a couple by talking regularly about money, sharing financial responsibilities, and setting hard rules and limits, Dr. Orbuch says.
In some cases, couples may find it easier to maintain separate personal accounts or credit cards, but these accounts should still not be a secret. If you or your spouse feel more comfortable keeping some spending private, you don’t have to divulge every purchase, but consider setting a limit of, for example, $250, where any purchase over that amount has to be mutually agreeable.
Finding a system that works for both of you, as with many aspects of a healthy relationship, probably won’t happen overnight, but that’s not a problem as long as you are open with each other and discuss issues when they do arise.
There are multiple methods for managing joint finances, “but none of that should be secret,” Dr. Orbuch says.