Financial Infidelity: Lose Trust, Lose Money

You’d never lie to your partner. You’d never cheat on them. But would you tell them about your credit card debt?

With arguments about money ranking as the number-one predictor of divorce, keeping secrets about finances can be incredibly damaging. It’s so corrosive to relationships that it’s been nicknamed ‘financial infidelity.’ According to a poll by NEFE.org, 3 in 10 adults with joint finances have hidden a purchase, bank account, statement, bill, or cash from their partner. Another poll from CreditCards.com found that 1 in 20 people who are living with a spouse or partner has or has had a secret bank account or credit card that their partner knows nothing about. The same poll also showed that 1 in 5 people have hidden a purchase of more than $500 from their partner.

Maybe you think you’d never keep such a big secret from your partner. But have you ever told your partner that an item was on sale for much less than you actually paid? Have you ever swept an unpaid bill under a pile of junk mail so your spouse wouldn’t see it? Some might call you a financial cheater.

Even where partners are not actively concealing financial information from each other, many are less than transparent. A recent survey by Fidelity showed that 43% of Americans don’t even know how much their partner earns, and of that 43%, 10% guessed wrong by $25,000 or more.

Financial Infidelity: Lose Trust, Lose Money

Some people may have good reasons not to trust their spouse with money – but really, 30% of partners need to hide financial information from their spouses? Why are so many people reluctant to share finances with their partners? Three reasons jump out:
1. Giving money to a spouse may feel risky because he or she could take the money and run.
2. Many partners value autonomy, and having to explain and potentially compromise about every purchase may be unappealing.
3. Divorces are unfortunately common, and partners may be inclined to secretly protect their money or assets just in case.

But there are plenty of situations in which you might increase your household income by trusting your partner. For example, by combining your savings, you may be able to earn a higher interest rate on your money. When one of you is short on cash, you might be able to avoid taking out expensive loans by using the other’s funds. And you might prevent poor investment decisions or costly splurges by discussing it with your partner first. Financial infidelity, in other words, could end up costing you money.

The key to preventing financial infidelity is openness. That statement may seem self-evident: the way to be more honest with your partner is… to be more honest with your partner. But psychological research suggests that it also matters how much other people know about your finances.

One study, for instance, shows that when you receive a small windfall (e.g., a bonus), you’re more likely to share the money with your spouse if others know about your windfall. Another experiment assigned small prizes to married people in a lottery; sometimes the winners’ names were announced publicly, other times the prizes were distributed discreetly. When the gains were public, the winners were more likely to spend the money on household goods and improvements, rather than individual expenses. The takeaway: be more open about your finances, generally, and you’ll probably be transparent with your partner.

There are other, more obvious ways to increase transparency with your partner. Joint bank accounts can help, though not everyone feels comfortable with taking that step. You can also improve openness by discussing a shared budget or simply agreeing on ground rules, like how much money you can spend without telling your partner and what money is ‘yours’ versus ‘ours.’ The main goal is to get into the habit of speaking frankly about money. In turn, you will reduce the temptation to commit financial infidelity, which can save marriages and it turns out, money.

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