Financial matters, including money secrets, can be a major source of stress and conflict in marriages and other long-term partnerships. Keeping finances separate is one thing, as an estimated 38% of U.S. adults have never combined finances in a current or past relationship, according to the National Endowment for Financial Education. However, of the 62% of U.S. adults who have combined finances, as many as 41% have kept a money secret from a partner.
Why Do People Keep Money Secrets?
There are all sorts of reasons why people may hide financial matters. Tendencies of financial concealment could mask other problems in a relationship, such as affairs, expensive habits, illegal behavior or abuse. As with other types of deception, keeping money secrets can erode security and, as research from the Journal of Financial Therapy indicates, even destroy trust in a partnership.
Consider these hypothetical examples that illustrate how money secrets could lead to difficulties:
- Matthew made some impulse purchases last year, but he got his credit card debt under control before Lucy even noticed. He never let her see any of their bills or brokerage statements. Lucy remains unaware of how he paid down the debt by withdrawing from the 401(k) they were counting on for retirement.
- Rajni kept her student loan debt from Brad. He came from a wealthy family, and she thought he wouldn't understand. Now, as a newly married couple, Brad's inwardly seething because Rajni keeps changing the subject whenever he mentions buying their first home.
Keep in mind that not all financial deception between partners is driven by mistakes, embarrassment or ill-will. Other folks simply believe that keeping an anxious spouse in the dark about finances might be the best or only way to maintain peace. Also, people in abusive relationships may need to create a secret nest egg to escape to safety. However, when two people are combining their resources to accomplish a shared goal, such as building a new home or preparing their retirement planning, financial infidelity can create more conflict than it deters.
Recognize the Signs
Spotting the signs of money secrets can allow couples to take necessary steps toward creating a more secure foundation for their future. Keep an eye for these red flags that can signal potential causes for concern.
Does your partner:
- Refuse to talk about finances?
- Insist on maintaining total control over shared financial accounts and passwords?
- Make sure you never see any documentation even though your name is supposed to be on the accounts?
Remember, periodically reviewing an account with your name on it for activity you don't know about is something everyone should be doing to protect their finances. If your partner gets upset at you for this, you may have reason to be concerned.
Preventing and Recovering From Money Secrets
The smallest deception can snowball fast, so be proactive with financial awareness and push to have potentially challenging conversations about finances throughout a relationship. It's important to understand how money matters work and maintain a current view of all aspects of your financial situation so you can take an active, informed role in the management of shared resources. Set up a time each month to go over the household books, and remember to put all cards on the table, regardless of the difficulties that might come with them.
To encourage personal freedom and autonomy, you may want to agree on mutual discretionary spending limits. Regularly discuss short- and long-term financial planning goals, and consider setting up financial and legal plans to handle assets and liabilities in the event that one partner becomes sick or the relationship ends.
If a financial or retirement planner handles your accounts, meet with them as a couple and ask questions about anything you do not understand. Financial advisors should be open and able to engage with both spouses. If this is not the case in your situation, you may want to find a new advisor.
If financial infidelity has already disrupted your shared finances by the time you discover it, you can bounce back, even if it takes some time to do so. In these cases, the sooner you take action, the better it will be for everyone. Start by triaging your immediate cash needs, and then figure out your cash flow and identify problematic spending that needs to stop. If an issue has caused sizable debt, assemble your financial professionals, including your lawyer, if necessary. Be candid with these professionals, and tell them all they need to know to devise a plan to stabilize the situation.
If you're experiencing money secrets in your relationship, take action as soon as possible to open up lines of communication with your partner and your financial advisors. By doing so, you can take steps to resolve any troubles and move forward with a solid plan for your future.
Note: The Top Women Financial Advisors program is a Bankers Life internal incentive awarded to top performing women financial advisors based certain defined criteria.