Financial Infidelity: Do Spouses With Secret Bank Accounts Damage Their Relationship?

(Illustration by Gwen Keraval)
(Illustration by Gwen Keraval)

Four years ago near Valentine’s Day, Erika Torres made a very unromantic discovery: Her husband, Eric, was racking up credit card charges.

About a year into their marriage, the two were on a tight budget as they worked to aggressively pay down $45,000 in student loans, car loans and credit card debt.

They had postponed their honeymoon to Costa Rica and moved from a one-bedroom apartment in Orange County, Calif., to a studio – which they shared with their Wheaten terrier, Bentley – so that they could save $500 in rent. At times, they each had only $20 extra to spend per month.

She thought he was sticking to the budget, but instead he was piling on credit card debt to treat himself – and her.

Torres was upset. She also felt guilty: One $75 charge covered flowers for her.

About a third of people who have combined their finances with a significant other say they’ve hidden cash, a purchase, a bank account or a credit card from their partner, according to a survey by the National Endowment for Financial Education, a nonprofit. Some 13 percent have lied about how much they make or how much debt they have. Those in the money management business have a name for it: financial infidelity.

Of those who admitted to lying, 35 percent said they felt that they should be able to keep some aspects of their finances from their spouse. One in four said they worried their spouse would disapprove.

“They know that it’s wrong, but they would rather lie to their partner than talk to them beforehand,” says Patricia Seaman, a senior director for the nonprofit. “That fear of judgment and shame and disapproval is so strong that they are committing financial infidelity rather than talking with their partner.”

Many couples do share financial accounts. The majority, or 82 percent, of people surveyed this winter said they share financial information like salary, debts and credit scores with their significant other, according to a poll sponsored by Citi Cards.

Still, problems arise when people merge lives and bank accounts without talking openly about their spending habits. One in five people living with a spouse or partner have spent $500 or more without telling their significant other, according to a survey by Those impulse buys can be harmless, but they can also cause trust issues, especially when they disrupt the household budget.

Pamela King, 42, says she and her husband, Stephon, began to set real boundaries for their finances on the day 15 years ago when she drove to their Atlanta home in a new Mazda 626 – her fantasy car. In her previous relationship, King had been the primary breadwinner and was used to controlling all of the finances.

So when she test drove the car at the dealership that day and the salesman offered what seemed to be a good deal, she snapped it up. “I never picked up the phone,” she says. “I would never do that today.”

They didn’t need the shiny red car; they already had two. And their combined family, which by then included four kids and a niece, didn’t even fit in the two-door sedan. It took a week for her husband to cool down enough that they could talk about how they were going to pay for the car. The new car payment and higher insurance costs added $500 a month to the bills.

King says she realized that the two of them, who were both working and used to making their own spending decisions, needed to start thinking of their finances together.

“He’s very independent, and I was very independent,” says King, who had been married about a year when she bought the car. “We really had to understand each other’s strengths.”

To start with, she agreed to cover most of the new costs by cutting back on shopping and by making fewer trips to the hair salon. Eventually, they traded the Mazda in for a bigger ride that was a better fit for the family, which now lives in Memphis.

It took some time, but they figured out ground rules. Now they don’t spend more than $300 or $400 without talking first, Pamela King says.

As it did with the Kings, couples that overcome financial secrets can come out stronger. Some people may feel more comfortable speaking openly about money after learning more about what is important to their partner, says Rachel Sussman, a psychotherapist.

“When you overcome a stressor, it creates a collaborative model,” Sussman says. “On the other hand, if you can’t overcome it, maybe that’s a red flag.”

More than three-quarters of the people who had deceived a partner about money said it damaged the relationship, according to the nonprofit report. Ten percent said it eventually led to divorce.

Some grievances, like second mortgages, hidden gambling problems or massive debts, are hard to reconcile, says Bruce McClary, a former credit counselor in the Washington area.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post – Jonnelle Marte

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