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Financial Cheating, Money Secrets, and Financial Infidelity


"Money is probably the most emotionally meaningful object in contemporary life."

-David Krueger


It smells like melted butter in the house; the popcorn is ready. My wife and I are watching a movie about a husband who takes his wife on a trip to Europe where they encounter a series of strange events.

The main male character in the movie tells his wife that he was promoted and received a nice pay-raise. Further, after some complaining about never going to Europe, he tells his wife that they will go to Europe.

However, he was never promoted and didn't get a raise. He has become quite a cheapskate because his wife thinks they make more money than they do. They don't have the money for the vacation, and he goes out of his way to make sure his wife doesn't find out.

Financial Infidelity

Financial Infidelity

Marital infidelity, more commonly known as cheating, is well known. Lesser known is financial infidelity. Though it's not as known, it's very common. I can think of many examples from movies and television, but the stories from real life are far more impactful. Money is hard to talk about already. People grow up in homes where money isn't talked about, money is seen as bad, or there isn't any money to begin with. There are many negative emotions people associate with money. This is mostly due to our upbringing, and from traumatic, embarrassing, or otherwise highly emotional events having to do with money.

Because money is one of the most difficult topics for most people to talk about, we shouldn't be surprised that hiding embarrassing facts about money is so common. Once something has been hidden, lied about, or otherwise kept secret, people will go a long way to make sure the truth remains hidden.

Here are some real-world examples:

  • Saying you make more than you do and making up the difference with debt

  • Opening secret accounts to hide spending from your partner

  • Being dishonest about the cost of purchases

  • Hiding purchases from your partner

  • Not telling your partner about giving money to adult children

  • Cashing your check and depositing only part of it so your partner thinks you made less and you can spend the rest

  • Having part of your check directly deposited into your checking account and having another portion deposited into an individual account

  • Forging your partner's signature on tax returns so s/he can't see what on them

  • Opening credit card accounts and having statements sent to your office

  • Making purchases outside of an agreed-upon amount

These are a few examples of things people have done to cover up money-issues they didn't want to talk about. It doesn't have to be this extreme to be financial infidelity, though. Some estimate that over 40% of Americans admit to hiding accounts, debts, or spending habits.

It's far too easy for most of us to offer judgments, shame, and blame when others talk about money. As a result, the quality of the conversation falls, if it even happens at all, and it can lead to financial infidelity.

judgement, shame and blame in money conversations

Money Secrets

Money is hard to talk about, so when it does come up, our default mode is to try to get out of the situation quickly. In other words, in the moment we think that if we talk about it, we're going to fight and that's going to lead to shame and blame. It's better, we believe, to just not talk about it and hope it doesn't get brought up again.

It turns out, though, that this short-run solution doesn't work well in the long-run.

When the truth comes out, and it almost always comes out, the partner that was lied to has every reason to wonder, "what else are you lying about." There will be resentment, anger, grief, and a feeling of being heartbroken. Even if the truth doesn't come out, the partner hiding the secrets is likely to feel shame, guilt, worry, apprehension, and nervousness.

It's a high price to pay for avoiding a heated discussion about money.

financial infidelity, short run vs. long run

Financial Bullies

As a side note, it is possible that the reason people may be hiding money issues is that their partner is a financial bully. A financial bully is someone who uses money as a way to control, intimidate, or manipulate others. Wanting to avoid this kind of behavior goes above and beyond the normal butterflies we get when we talk about money.

Still, hiding money matters only compounds the problem. The partner hiding the money issues needs to take responsibility for financial infidelity, but the financial bully needs to accept responsibility for creating the situation that lead to financial infidelity in the first place. Both partners are 100% responsible for their 50% of the relationship.

each partner is responsible for their 50%

SAFE Conversations

What's the best way to bring up issues like this and talk about money?

In their book Mind Over Money, Drs. Ted and Brad Klontz talk about a process they've developed that uses the acronym SAFE. SAFE stands for (S) Speak your truth, (A) Agree to a plan, (F) Follow the agreement, and (E) Establish and emergency response plan.

having a plan is better than winging it

Speaking your truth means to learn to talk openly about money. This may be easier said than done but will help you in the long run. Talk about what money means to each of you, what your early experiences were with money, what your spending and saving preferences are, and what money's purpose in your lives is.

Agreeing to a plan helps those who tend to wing it - and that's most people. For some, this is agreeing to an amount each partner can spend per month (or week or quarter) without having to check in. For others, it's an amount under which spending can happen with no questions asked - but above that amount requires a conversation.

Following the plan sounds simple and obvious. However, following through is where most people struggle. Putting in the hard effort upfront (the "S" and the "A" steps) will help make the rest easier. Knowing there is a plan, rules, or policies in place can help you with your financial decisions. Every so often, you should check in with each other and talk about how the plan is going. What's working? What isn't? Is it working for you? For your spouse? For the relationship?

Establish an emergency response plan is exactly how it sounds. Have a plan B. Plan B will identify ahead of time what will happen if you two can't get on the same page. The plan might be, before the period of high stress happens (i.e., when the trap door is still open), to agree to consult a psychologist, counselor, or marriage therapist.

agree to a plan and follow the plan

Whatever it happens to be for you, do your best to get on the same page as your partner.

You only have one life - live intentionally.

Read Next:


Brad Klontz, Ted Klontz: Mind Over Money

Bradley Klontz, Sonya Britt, Kristy Archuleta (eds.): Financial Therapy

National Endowment for Financial Education: Celebrate Relationships, But Beware of Financial Infidelity


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© 2019 Money Health Solutions, LLC



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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