We all know that any cheating is hurtful. Financial infidelity packs the double whammy of a partner feeling emotionally betrayed and possibly causing some lasting damage to financial stability.
The term “financial infidelity” covers a broad range of hidden financial behavior in a partnership. It can be as simple as routinely making purchases without it being in line with you and your partner’s financial plans or could be the larger issues of privately racking up debt. A 2017 poll found that 1 in 20 Americans admitted concealing a bank account or credit card from their partner, and it is unfortunately becoming increasingly common among younger partnerships.
Why is it so harmful?
Financial infidelity is harmful because it takes away from having a trusting relationship with your partner and means that you aren’t communicating about finances. In fact, a 2018 survey found that 31 percent of adults thought financial infidelity was worse than physical cheating.
Moreover, it can move you far way from your joint long term financial goals. Financial infidelity also often covers up other patterns of behavior that could point to larger issues in your relationship. For example, financial infidelity unfortunately often accompanies physical cheating as a partner uses resources to meet, entertain, or otherwise impress someone outside the relationship.
Watching For Warning Signs
Experts note there are a number of signs you can keep an eye out for to spot financial infidelity. Not all of these have to be happening for there to be financial indiscretion in a relationship. (And if you personally can see yourself trending toward any of these behaviors, it’s worth it to take a time out and take stock of these behaviors.) These tips aren’t about going on a witch hunt, but can give you a sense of where financial behavior might deviate from your own collective relationship norm.
Relationship finances should be a team sport. You don’t have to conform to particular roles in jointly managing money, but you should both maintain a pretty consistent understanding of where your finances go. If in your joint accounts you are newly noticing withdrawals or expenses that seem out of pattern, it’s worth a discussion.
Change in Money Habits
Maybe your partner used to use the debit card for lunch every day, but now you’re noticing big cash withdrawals at the beginning of the week instead. This type of behavior might mean they are using the money for other purchases that they wouldn’t want you to know about.
Single Control Over Finances
Is your partner extremely committed to being the only one who manages your collective finances? Again, it’s a team sport. While each person can have specific responsibilities in money management, you should always feel like you can check in on any aspect of your finances. This includes having access to all login information and passwords for any of your joint accounts.
Never Wants to Talk Money
In a relationship, even personal, single accounts are on the table for conversation. If you start a discussion about managing debt with your partner and they routinely change the subject or get defensive, it could be a sign that something is wrong. It’s perfectly normal — in fact, healthy in many ways — to maintain your own personal accounts in a relationship, but these still need to be able to be discussed in a constructive way. This is especially important if you and your partner are considering marriage or other longer-term financial commitments.
Keeps Close Tabs on the Mail
Though almost all of us prefer paperless statements nowadays, if you happen to still be getting credit card or account statements in snail mail, watch for your partner being uncomfortable about you getting mail or having access to these. The e-equivalent here is not having your email address associated with electronic statements. Be sure you’re added on all relevant accounts or set up a joint email where you have all of your collective statements sent.
New Possessions Bought Without You
Society seems to like to perpetuate the little joke of a woman coming in from a day shopping and hiding her shopping bags from her husband. While we’re all entitled to shopping autonomy, if you or your partner are routinely coming home with new purchases that you feel compelled to hide, or trash the receipt, or act as if you’ve had it forever, a little transparency is in order. Being honest about finances starts with being honest with yourself about what’s in your budget and what purchases align with your long term goals.
Recovering From Financial Infidelity
Suspecting your partner of financial infidelity should be treated with the same patience, thoughtfulness, and compassion that you would use to discuss your suspicions of other types of infidelity.
Consider Reaching out to a Professional Therapist or Mediator: Depending on the scope and scale of the issue, consider reaching out to a therapist or mediator to assist you through these conversations. Not only are there likely a number of emotional factors that underly a partner’s inclination to engage in this behavior, you’ll also want some emotional assistance processing what is still certainly a betrayal.
Create a Trust Strategy: This solution will be incredibly personal and, again, depending on the degree of the issue, might be best aided by some professional counseling. This could look like agreeing to review all account statements periodically, or making you the sole signer on certain accounts for awhile. Remember the goal is to rebuild trust, repair any financial backsliding that resulted from the behavior, and move forward. If you’ve decided to stay in the relationship, the trust strategy is never about “punishing” your partner.
Establish a Shared Financial Goal: One of the best ways to get back on a positive track with a financial trust strategy is to work toward a shared financial dream. Are you hoping to take a dream vacation together in the next few years? Are you saving for school or a down payment on a new car or home? Revisiting these shared goals will help remind you why you’re deciding to do life with this person and ideally bring a positive end game to focus on as you recreate trust and stability in your joint finances.
How Can Financial Infidelity Be Prevented?
If you’re just getting into a relationship, it’s important to start with as transparent and communicative money habits as possible.
Be completely upfront in money discussions
As a relationship gets serious, make money discussions as important as any other “big talks” like supporting each other’s career, whether or not you want children, and where you ultimately see yourself living.
Schedule Time to Talk
Get in the habit of establishing a finance “date night” and talk through any expenses and financial goals. Most of us only talk to our partners about money when things are going really great (hello raise!) or when we’ve encountered an unexpected stressful expense. Making finances a regular part of your relationship discussion makes it less likely that financial infidelity will have room to creep in.
Share Similar Structures for Individual Accounts
Being in a relationship doesn’t mean that you give up all financial autonomy and your own personal financial goals. It does mean that all of that needs to be agreed upon and transparent. For example, if you’re keeping separate accounts, consider an amount of “fun money” that each partner gets monthly that they don’t have to account for.
Taking on major commitments like moving in together or relocating without being married can put you in a tricky position financially if you run into trouble and lack the legal recourse to act on financial infidelity issues. Consider starting out in these decisions thoughtfully with cohabitation agreements that outline each other’s respective financial commitments.