It’s Time to Come Clean
Several years ago, a friend of mine admitted she had a bank account her husband didn’t know about so that she could spend from her secret stash on the sly. And recently, an acquaintance who owns a luxury jewelry store revealed to me that some of her clients purchase the high-end gems with cash in order to keep their spouse in the dark about their indulgences.
These breaches of trust are surprisingly common: According to a recent survey by the National Endowment for Financial Education, one in three adults who have combined their money in a relationship admit to committing financial infidelity against their partner. And 76 percent of those people concede that their deception has affected the relationship.
Why all the fibs about your finances? We dug into the reasons behind some of the biggest fiscal lies couples tell, and the steps you can take to get back on track.
The Lie: “Yes, I paid that bill.”
Where it Comes From: There are two primary reasons why people hide money moves from their significant other. Number one: “You might feel controlled by your partner, so you act out as a form of rebellion,” says money coach Deborah Price, CEO and founder of the Money Coaching Institute and author of “The Heart of Money.”
If one person is in charge of the purchasing decisions (picking apart every detail of the credit card statement, deciding what their spouse can and can’t buy, imposing a spending limit), while the other doesn’t have much of a say, anger and resentment can build up — which results in deceptive behavior.
Number two: “You feel ashamed about your financial situation, so you try to cover it up, hoping you’ll be able to get a handle on things before your spouse finds out,” says Price. “You’re afraid that your partner won’t be able to cope with the truth.” Maybe you’re in debt, and are worried your husband wouldn’t want to be with you if he discovers what’s really going on. Or perhaps you feel guilty about splurging, and don’t want your partner to judge you.
Break the Habit: The first step is to get to the bottom of the lie. “Most money problems aren’t actually about money — they’re symptoms, and the problems are truly about something else,” says Price, who advises to look into when and why the behavior initially emerged. One method: Write what she calls a “money biography.” Did the fib predate your marriage or start after you wed? How does lying make you feel — guilty for being dishonest, thrilled about getting away with something, or afraid that your partner will learn the truth?
“Most of our money patterns are formed in early childhood and get acted out in our relationships unconsciously,” says Price. “Once you understand your patterns, you have some power over them and can begin taking measures to correct them.
Next, consider what it would feel like to come clean. Ask yourself, if you were sure that your partner wouldn’t freak out, what would you ideally like to happen? Now, how can you start to move toward that? “In order to tell the truth, it’s important that you feel safe in your relationship,” explains Price. “You can’t be worried that your partner will run out the door.” She suggests starting the conversation by saying, “There’s something important I need to talk to you about, but I’m afraid that it will upset you. Before I tell you, will you promise to stay calm and help me work through it?” Yes it will be a tough discussion, but coming forward will ultimately help you build a stronger bond.
The Lie: “I’m terrible with money — you handle it.”
Where it Comes From: This is an incredibly common phenomenon: People who are perfectly competent mistakenly believe that they are financially inept. “You feel powerless and are fearful that you will make a mistake,” says Price. “Maybe you were told you weren’t smart growing up, or had parents or teachers who made you feel insecure.” She also points out that sometimes there’s a subconscious benefit to not being powerful with money, in that it lets you off the hook about having to be the “responsible one” and sets the stage for you to be rescued by someone more "capable."
Break the Habit: Is it true that you don’t have a good grasp on finances, or is it a projection based upon your fears that you’ll mess up? To find out, list your fiscal skills: Are you aware of how much you have in your checking and savings accounts? Do you know how much you earn? Are you contributing to a 401(k) or IRA? When you were on your own, did you pay your bills on time and spend within your means? You might realize that you’re more in control of your money than you thought. Or, you will identify what areas where you need need some guidance. (Check out our DIY Financial Planning Guide.)
Even though you haven’t done something in the past, it doesn’t mean you can’t become proficient,” stresses Price. “And while it’s okay for one person to have the role of ‘family CFO,’ both of you should be involved in your finances to some extent.” In the worst-case scenario, if you lose your spouse or get divorced and they have the keys to your fiscal life, you’ll be in a bind — especially if there are kids in the picture. So, no matter who takes the lead with financial decisions, make sure to sit down together at least once a month to discuss where your joint finances stand.
The Lie: “Sure, we can afford that.”
Where it Comes From: This one might not be an outright lie. Many people simply aren’t connected enough to their daily financial accounting to know whether or not they can afford a new car or trip to the Andes. And once you’re married, money cluelessness can get even worse — assuming that your spouse will handle the finances gives you an excuse to grow more out of touch.
Plus, when there are two of you, it’s easy to pass the buck so you won’t be the one at fault for having made an irresponsible decision. “Some people might also avoid telling the truth [that a certain item is out of your price range] in order to avoid a potential fight,” adds Price. (Of course, that backfires: You might end up pointing the finger at each other later on when fiscal remorse sets in.)
Break the Habit: Part of the problem here is that we are hard-wired to want to spend money. “We are largely governed by a part of the mind called the instinctive brain, which is driven by desire and is wholly distinct from the prefrontal cortex, the section that processes rational thought,” explains Price. As a result, money decisions are often guided by emotions, rather than logic. So, before making a major purchase you and your spouse should list all of the positive and negative consequences of the decision. “This slows down your neural processing centers and activates the prefrontal cortex,” says Price. Not only will you be less likely to get carried away in the excitement of the moment, but it also forces you to take a hard look at your financial situation.
The Lie: “My money is your money.”
Where it Comes From: The survey mentioned earlier found that three in 10 adults with joint finances have hidden a purchase, bank account, statement, bill, or cash from their partner. So what’s with all the covert ops? “Concealing fiscal information is a self-protective response to feeling unsafe in the relationship,” says Kate Levinson, PhD, author of “Emotional Currency.” “Even though you may like the idea of merging your money with your spouse’s on an intellectual level, you ultimately don’t trust that your partner will be there for you.
This sense of insecurity might be triggered by past experiences with someone who abused money (for example, a parent who gambled away the rent or burned through the grocery budget to fund a shopping addiction). It can also be a sign of emotional unrest — if you were betrayed by an ex or had an emotionally unavailable parent, you might have learned that you can’t rely on others. “Money represents an internal need to stay independent, and squirreling it away reassures you that you aren’t overly vulnerable,” says Levinson. Thanks to your cash stash, you feel like you have a way out.
Break the Habit: Begin by investigating the underlying cause of your deception on your own — write about it, talk to a friend or therapist, or meditate until you understand what’s going on underneath. “You need to recognize that your behavior is being driven by elements outside of your awareness,” explains Levinson.
After you gain some insight into the underlying causes, work through the issue with your partner. To begin the discussion, try focusing on the relationship with an opening like: “There’s something that I’ve been afraid to talk to you about. I know you’re going to be mad, but I need you to help me figure out what’s going on because it’s getting in the way of me being close to you.” You may also want to preface the conversation by asking your partner to just listen without interrupting so that you can tell him the story in full. “Keep in mind that the core problem might have nothing to do with money, but rather can shine a light on something that’s missing in your relationship — be it that you need more one-on-one time with him, or want him to help out more around the house,” adds Levinson.
The Lie: “I’ve had these shoes for years.”
Where it Comes From: Denial of spending is a fear-based reaction. “You’re worried that your partner might judge you for being indulgent, selfish, frivolous or undeserving — and that they won’t love you for it,” says Levinson. Your response might be an accurate reflection of your current bind, say, if your partner is financially controlling, or you have a problem with overspending. Or it might be a byproduct of your upbringing; according to Levinson, you could be modeling behavior that you saw play out in childhood (for example, your mom encouraging you to hide new purchases from your dad.
Break the Habit: Do a realistic assessment of your financial situation: “Clarify your financial goals and priorities and establish a specific budget based on your fixed expenses and discretionary spending,” Levinson recommends. Knowing exactly how much you have to splurge will alleviate any fear that your partner might disapprove. Stick to that budget, and review it monthly or bimonthly to make sure it’s still working for you.
The Lie: “I don’t have any debt.”
Where it Comes From: Thirteen percent of survey respondents said they’d committed a serious infraction, like lying about the amount of debt that they owe. “This fib stems from shame, feeling overwhelmed, or a fear of being judged by your partner,” says Levinson. You might also be in a state of denial — subconsciously, you feel like if you haven’t told your partner the truth, then the debt doesn’t exist and you won’t have to face the consequences of it.
Break the Habit: It’s time to confront your financial situation head-on. “Own your debt,” urges Levinson. “Talk to someone you trust — a counselor, financial advisor, or family member — to begin figuring out how to get debt-free.” That way, when you come clean to your partner (try using the same conversation technique as before), you’ll have a plan of action in mind, which sends the message that you’re finally taking control of things. “You also might want to consider separating your finances to show that you understand the debt is your responsibility,” adds Levinson.
The Lie: “I don’t have that much money.”
Where it Comes From: On the flipside, some people claim they make less than they actually do. “You may keep an inheritance or large salary from your partner while you’re dating because you’re concerned about being taken advantage of, or loved only for you money,” says Levinson. “Then you hang onto the lie because you don’t want to rock the boat.” This whopper also unleashes a cascade of tough personal questions: How will I be able to handle having so much more than my spouse? What kind of person will I become if I tap into this money? What will it do to our relationship to go from being financially equal to unequal?
Break the Habit: In this case, Levinson strongly suggests seeing a counselor, because it can be unsettling to have huge wealth discrepancies in a relationship. “Some couples are naturally financially compatible and agree on how to spend and save,” says Levinson. “But for many, it’s difficult. Your spouse might be scared of wealth, judgmental about rich people or afraid that having money will turn them into a different person with different values.
There are also questions about how your dynamic changes: If one of you has a lot more money, does what you say hold more weight? “Issues of feeling better than or less than your partner are very tricky territory to navigate, especially when there’s a sense of betrayal on top of that,” says Levinson. “Just be sure to find a couple’s therapist who’s comfortable talking about money.