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Are you cheating on your partner – with money?

16 April 2018

Brick wall with words on it.

Money & Life team

Money & Life contributors draw on their diverse range of experience to present you with insights and guidance that will help you manage your financial wellbeing, achieve your lifestyle goals and plan for your financial future.

Financial “infidelity” can be just as destructive as the more traditional kind. Discover just what financial infidelity might look like in your relationship and what to do if you find you’ve been lied to - or need to confess.      

Lying about money is on the rise

What hurts more – having your partner hide another relationship from you, or lie about how much money they earn, spend, borrow or lend? According to two recent surveys conducted in the US, financial infidelity is a common problem that’s wreaking havoc among couples, young and old.

In their 2016 poll, the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE), 42% of adults admitted lying to their spouse about money. That’s a jump from 33% in the same survey conducted in 2014[1]. And a 2017 poll of millenials aged 18 to 35 from Centsai, an online financial wellness community in the US, shows the problem could be even bigger among younger couples. Their survey of more than 2,000 people showed that nearly two thirds (60%) had been lied to about money by a romantic partner[2].

Why would you lie?

So just what is it that people are keeping from their loved ones? 39% of adults surveyed for the NEFE report have hidden a purchase, bank account or statement, bill or cash from their partner. 16% have lied about how much money they owe or earn[3]. These results offer a pretty comprehensive list of ways that financial infidelity can happen. Another situation that could land you in hot water is lending or giving money to a family member or friend without letting your partner know.

Little white lies can snowball

When was the last time you told your partner something you bought cost less than the price you paid? A little white lie like this can be pretty harmless if it’s rare and only amounts to a few dollars of underreporting. But once you’re in the habit of covering your tracks, the lies can get a lot bigger. And the bigger the lie, the more effort you’re likely to go to, to keep from getting caught. When your partner finds out what’s been going on, the extent of the deceit can be really damaging.

 The consequences of financial infidelity are often serious for a relationship. In the NEFE survey, when one half of a couple is deceiving the other, it has an impact on 75% of relationships[4]. “It’s easier to achieve joint financial goals when your money is pooled and working together. Yet we’re seeing the implicit promise of collaboration destroyed by financial game-playing,” says Ted Beck, president and CEO of NEFE. “It causes arguments, erosion of trust, separation or even divorce[5].”

According to psychotherapist Katheryn Schafler, it’s the amount of money you’re lying about and the lengths you’ll go to hide it that predict the extent of the damage you’re doing to your relationship[6]. If you find yourself destroying credit card receipts, changing account passwords and asking people to lie for you, chances are you’re lighting a fuse that will eventually blow the two of you apart.

Come clean and make plans

If you’re the one keeping secrets, coming clean can help you rebuild a foundation of trust for your relationship. Or perhaps you’ve caught your partner out in a lie and sense that it’s just part of the story. This is a good time to declare an amnesty, on both sides, and bring all your money mistakes out in the open. Once you know exactly where you both stand, agreeing on some shared goals for your finances can help heal your relationship and to be more honest and responsible with money in the future.

When deceit becomes abuse

A more alarming figure from the Centsai poll was that 60% of those surveyed had experienced financial abuse in a relationship[7]. Financial abuse happens when someone is using money to exercise power and control in a relationship. This could involve refusing access to a joint bank account, running up debts in their name or defaulting on joint loan repayments, or putting them under unreasonable pressure to report or limit their spending.

Financial abuse has been flagged as a widespread problem in Australia, affecting thousands of people, the majority being women. Research from RMIT shows 15.7% of women and 7.1% of men in Australia have experienced financial abuse[8]. If you think you could be experiencing financial abuse in your relationship, support is available. Visit the MoneySmart website to learn more about the signs of financial abuse and get help.

Looking to get serious as a couple? Discover the five important conversations you should have before getting married and learn how to steer clear of five financial issues that can wreck your relationship.

[1] National Endowment For Financial Education, Two in Five Americans Confess to Financial Infidelity Against their Partner, Paul Golden, 11 February 2016, “Among U.S. adults, 42 percent admit to financial infidelity compared to 33 percent just two years ago.” https://www.nefe.org/Press-Room/News/Americans-Confess-to-Financial-Infidelity

[2] Centsai, Nearly Two-Thirds of Millennials are Victims of Financial Abuse or Infidelity – Double Than Previously Believed, 27 June 2017, “(60%) said a romantic partner had either lied about money, or hid money or debt from them.” https://centsai.com/press/nearly-two-thirds-millennials-victims-financial-abuse-infidelity-double-previously-believed/

[3] National Endowment For Financial Education, Two in Five Americans Confess to Financial Infidelity Against their Partner, Paul Golden, 11 February 2016, “Among those surveyed, over one third (39 percent) hid a purchase, bank account, statement, bill or cash from their partner or spouse. Additionally, 16 percent say they have committed more severe deceptions, like lying about the amount of debt that they owe or even the amount of income that they earn.” https://www.nefe.org/Press-Room/News/Americans-Confess-to-Financial-Infidelity

[4] National Endowment For Financial Education, Two in Five Americans Confess to Financial Infidelity Against their Partner, Paul Golden, 11 February 2016, “The survey also finds that when financial deceptions occur, 75 percent say there is an effect on the relationship.” https://www.nefe.org/Press-Room/News/Americans-Confess-to-Financial-Infidelity

[5] National Endowment For Financial Education, Two in Five Americans Confess to Financial Infidelity Against their Partner, Paul Golden, 11 February 2016, https://www.nefe.org/Press-Room/News/Americans-Confess-to-Financial-Infidelity

[6] Forbes, 7 Signs of Financial Infidelity, 2 June 2016, Vanessa McGrady, “New York-based psychotherapist Katherine Schafler says that you can gauge the severity of financial infidelity and its consequences through the amount of spending involved, and the efforts to keep it hidden.” https://www.forbes.com/sites/vanessamcgrady/2016/06/02/infidelity/#64a0d5b83735

[7] Centsai, Nearly Two-Thirds of Millennials are Victims of Financial Abuse or Infidelity – Double Than Previously Believed, 27 June 2017, “almost two-thirds (60%) of millennials surveyed reported that a romantic partner used money to manipulate or gain power and control in a relationship.” https://centsai.com/press/nearly-two-thirds-millennials-victims-financial-abuse-infidelity-double-previously-believed/

[8] The Conversation, Revealed: the hidden problem of economic abuse in Australia, 2 March 2017, Jozica Kutin, Mike Reid, Roslyn Russell, “New research has found that 15.7% of women and 7.1% of men have experienced economic abuse in their lifetimes.” https://theconversation.com/revealed-the-hidden-problem-of-economic-abuse-in-australia-73764