What is financial infidelity?
Financial infidelity goes beyond overspending on a new pair of shoes without your partner.
Financial infidelity implies two key elements: concealment and disapproval. It’s when you’re actively engaged in behavior that:
- You know your partner will disapprove
- You hide in some way.
Both of these behaviors need to be present for it to be considered financial infidelity.
For example, if you spent $400 on an exercise machine, but you told your partner about it and they disapproved of your purchase, financial infidelity didn’t occur. The second part of concealment must be present, too. But if you and your partner agreed to not make purchases above $300 without discussing it first, and you lied about spending money on the exercise machine, and told them it was only $200, then you’ve committed financial infidelity.
Signs of financial infidelity can include behaviors such as:
- Hiding credit card debt
- Lying about the price you paid for an item
- Keeping a secret bank account
- Hiding credit card statements
Over half of Americans currently in a romantic relationship (56%) have kept financial information from their spouse/partner at some point, according to a survey of over 1,000 U.S. adults currently in a romantic relationship conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of Float and OppU, a financial literacy blog that specializes in loans, credit, and budgeting.
Why do partners keep financial secrets from each other?
In general, when it comes to talking about personal finance, it’s common to feel a sense of shame, discomfort, or anxiety. While committed couples may feel comfortable talking about money with each other, not all financial topics are created equal.
For example, only 45% of Americans felt comfortable talking about student loan debt with their partner, according to a TD Ameritrade Survey.
When a person doesn’t feel comfortable talking out money with their partner, there’s typically a reason behind it. It also opens the door for financial infidelity to occur.
“When you’re betraying a partner financially, it’s a breach of trust that often symbolizes some other underlying issue in the relationship,” says Kathleen Burns Kingsbury, a wealth psychology expert.
Financial infidelity can harm your wallet and your relationship
Financial infidelity can lead to problems later down the road, both financially and relationally.
“If you’re doing something behind your partner’s back, it can not only negatively impact your finances,” Kinsbury says, “but you’re betraying trust and not being transparent, which can hurt intimacy.”
Financial issues may arise when you file taxes jointly or take out a loan together. Even though spouses don’t share credit scores, both scores will be taken into consideration when you apply jointly for a mortgage or joint credit card. If your spouse has taken on debt and lied about it, you may feel blindsided when the interest rate you qualify for is higher than you expected.
“Financial infidelity can hamper financial planning,” says Jenny Olson, Ph.D., an assistant professor of marketing at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. “If they’re not communicating about money, it impacts their ability to make optimal decisions for their future.”
If the discretion is big enough and remains unaddressed, financial infidelity can impact trust in the relationship. According to the same Float and OppU survey conducted by The Harris Poll, 76% of Americans currently in a romantic relationship would lose trust in their spouse/partner in other areas of the relationship if they hid financial information from them.
4 ways couples can prevent financial infidelity
1. Merge your finances
Nearly one-in-five Americans currently in a romantic relationship (19%) think it’s acceptable to keep financial account information from their spouse/partner, according to the Float and OppU survey.
But sharing accounts, such as checking accounts, savings accounts, and credit cards, makes it more challenging to hide purchases or debts.
“It’s easier to get away with financial infidelity if you have separate accounts,” Olson says. “If you have merged accounts, it’s a little harder to hide it and there’s more transparency.”
When your finances are merged with your partner’s, it represents a shared financial future. A joint account can represent the ‘two-becomes-one,’ sense of unity.
“On average, we find that couples are happier and better off merging their finances,” Olson says. “The money is coming from the same pot and there’s a sense of community there.”
Every relationship is different, so merged accounts may not be the best option for your financial situation.
The key is financial alignment.
2. Align on financial goals
Part of a committed relationship and life together includes managing money together. You don’t have to ask for someone’s credit score on your first date, but the sooner you start the money conversation with your significant other, the better.
“Each partner has to be aligned to reach financial well-being,” Olson says.
When couples aren’t in sync when it comes to saving and spending habits, it can impact their long-term shared goals like saving for retirement, as well as short-term goals like saving for a vacation.
3. Commit to talking openly about your finances
Having open discussions about your money histories and where your values about money come from may seem uncomfortable at first, but transparency will lead to a better partnership and prevent secrecy.
Kingsbury suggests couples schedule a money date night with each other, where couples talk about money for 20-30 minutes and then do a fun activity. During money talks, couples can establish money norms in their relationship.
When it comes to being of one money-mind in a relationship, it also means divulging and apologizing for past money secrets or instances of financial deception.
“The current way you deal with money in your relationship didn’t work, so you’ll need a different way moving forward,” Kingsbury says. “You’ll need to create a plan moving forward to rebuild trust.”
4. Seek professional guidance
Even if you’re not having money issues, it doesn’t mean you can’t still talk with a financial professional to receive financial advice. Consider financial therapy or meeting with a financial planner. A financial therapist, money coach, family counselor with a focus in family finance, or a financial advisor are all options to investigate to help couples become more open with money and financially stronger.
Doing preventative maintenance may help avoid future problems. It’s not helpful to study after the exam has occurred.
“Seek professional guidance before a breach has happened,” Olson says. “It’s less likely to happen if you’re on the same page from day one.”
This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of OppU and Float from May 25 – 27, 2021 among 1,395 adults ages 18 and older currently in a romantic relationship. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wealth psychology expert Kathleen Burns Kingsbury, founder of KBK Wealth Connection and host of the Breaking Money Silence® podcast, is an internationally published author, speaker, consultant and coach. Her firm’s mission is to empower women, couples, and families to shatter money taboos and communicate more effectively about financial matters. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, PBS NewsHour, Money Magazine, TODAY Money, Forbes, and CNBC.
Jenny Olson, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of marketing at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. Her research centers on consumption in interpersonal contexts, such as the interplay between financial decision-making and relationships. Olson’s research has been published in the Journal of Consumer Research, International Journal of Research in Marketing, and has received coverage in the Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post, MSN Money, Time Magazine, and The Washington Post.
Ashley Altus covers financial planning with a focus on money management and household finance for OppU. She has been a journalist since 2013 and has investigated issues related to consumer finance and student debt. She has been contributing personal finance content to OppU since 2020, where her articles feature interviews with top experts and researchers in a variety of personal finance spaces, including credit scoring, consumer spending habits, and lending. Ashley’s work has appeared in O: The Oprah Magazine and Cosmopolitan Magazine, and online with The Smart Wallet and Float. Her articles have also been cited by the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Washington University in St. Louis. Ashley holds a Bachelor of Business Administration from Baylor University and a Master of Science in Journalism from Northwestern University.