You’d never cheat on your partner but money’s a personal matter, right? Though some people take that view, money is actually one of the issues that powerfully impact trust and honesty within a relationship. Keeping money secrets, whether it’s an undisclosed saving account or a hidden debt, is a form of infidelity that can be just as destructive to the relationship as an affair — if not worse.
Financial infidelity is a dirty little secret people don’t want to talk about, even with their financial advisor. It’s not uncommon though. In a recent poll conducted by CreditCards.com, 19% of respondents in a marriage or live-in relationship admitted to concealing an account. Previous studies of partnered adults have found numbers ranging from 27% to 41% that report keeping financial secrets from long-term partners.
What makes keeping money secrets so compelling?
The reasons people choose to hide money from their significant other vary widely, and they aren’t always nefarious. Since money represents security and safety, keeping a private fund that no one but you can touch provides a sense of protection against the unexpected: financial emergency, job loss, death or divorce, for example. A secret bank account can also reflect a desire to avoid conflict or to maintain personal control.
Money is power, at home as well as in the broader world, so having sole access to money helps partnered individuals feel comfortable that they can pay for what they want even if their spouse wouldn’t agree with the expenditure. At its extreme, the need for private money can reflect shame about addictive shopping, gambling, or other types of compulsive or illicit habits that demand a constant supply of funds.
Many times, however, secret accounts are only paying for innocent activities or sitting in the bank untouched. In fact, a number of economists strongly support the idea of women having private accounts for their sole use. Dr. Ronni Tichenor, Associate Professor of Sociology at SUNY Polytechnic Institute, explains, “That’s one of the arguments around microeconomics and giving money to women, globally. They’re more likely to actually invest in their children, particularly in their children’s education, and that provides a long-term boost for the economy. Men are more likely to spend it on themselves and things that they want.”
However the money is used, the account owners usually don’t consider themselves in the wrong. In a Harris Poll survey that asked about financial deceit within committed relationships, 36% of respondents said it’s appropriate to maintain some financial privacy from their partner.
If it’s so common to want a private stash of money, do secret accounts really matter?
The desire to maintain privacy, independent control and have a buffer against financial calamity isn’t negative as such. The major problem with financial infidelity is that it is a violation of trust and that always spells trouble for relationships. Twenty percent of those who responded to CreditCards.com’s poll said it’s actually worse to keep an account secret than to cheat on a partner, with another 35% viewing financial and sexual infidelity as equally bad.
If that surprises you, think about what’s involved in the two different styles of cheating. Sex is sex. We all love it, we all want it, and when we want it we sometimes do things we regret. Cheating on your partner can kill a relationship, but more often it’s understood and forgiven, albeit eventually and perhaps grudgingly. But financial infidelity is about cold, hard numbers. There’s no sudden loss of control or single moment of poor judgment to blame this on; it’s a calculated act that takes place over months or years and requires multiple lies. That’s a far more serious violation of the trust between partners than a single act of extramarital passion.
Financial infidelity hurts relationships another way, too. Making financial decisions together, planning a budget, setting and working toward shared goals — these activities build connection and strengthen a relationship. I advise my clients to sit down together and engage in a household financial discussion weekly, or at least monthly. It’s a way to keep both partners informed, aware and involved in the family money, and provides an opportunity to identify and resolve financial conflicts as soon as they arise.
When somebody’s hiding money, either the two are not participating in financial discussions as a team or one partner is bringing lies to the table. Neither situation bodes well for the relationship.
Separation leads to secrets…and secrets create separation
As a financial advisor, I’ve observed that financial infidelity is correlated with certain methods of household financial management. My clients use a variety of different systems for distributing the family money. Among the couples that opt for independent management or partial pooling, it’s particularly common to see accounts that are hidden from one partner. Not coincidentally, it’s also these couples that tend to exhibit pervasive trust issues, less blissful relationships and a higher rate of divorce than I see in clients that choose other methods of money management.
Does a less partnership-oriented system of financial management lead to financial infidelity, or does it simply reflect a lack of trust and open communication that would result in secrets under any system? In my opinion, both are true, and one leads to the other. Choosing to keep some or all money separate may not always lead to divorce, but it’s a sign that for whatever reason, a lack of perfect trust exists on at least one side.
Money can’t buy love, but the way we approach financial issues within a loving relationship can definitely affect how enduring — and how satisfying — the relationship is. Don’t make the mistake of seeing love and money as unrelated elements in a partnership, because the two are interdependent to a much greater degree than most of us suspect.
Meredith Moore is a 20-year veteran of the financial advisory industry who specializes in bringing a customized approach to support the highly personal dynamics that govern her clients’ relationship with money and success. She is the recipient of numerous industry awards and a noted speaker and writer focusing on the intersection of power, money, and gender within relationships. Ms. Moore can be reached at www.moorewealthmgmt.com.
Meredith C. Moore, Registered Representative, offering securities through NYLIFE Securities LLC, Member FINRA/SIPC, A Licensed Insurance Agency. 1125 Cambridge Square, Suite C, Alpharetta, GA 30009 (770) 587–0281. Financial Adviser offering investment advisory services through Eagle Strategies LLC, A Registered Investment Adviser. Moore and Associates Wealth Management is not owned or operated by NYLIFE Securities LLC or its affiliates. Moore and Associates Wealth Management, as well as NYLIFE Securities LLC and its affiliates, do not provide tax, legal or accounting advice. Eagle Strategies LLC and NYLIFE Securities LLC are New York Life Companies.