Scenario: There's a credit card in your wallet your better half knows nothing about. You got it because you were in a financial jam you didn't feel like 'fessing up to, and to this day the amount of debt you're carrying is, well, a little higher than you'd like it to be.
Little white lie? Or financial infidelity? Perhaps a bit of both.
An estimated 12 million Americans have hidden a bank or credit card account from a live-in significant other, partner or spouse, according to a new CreditCards.com survey. Baby boomers, the research found, are four times more likely than millennials to have concealed an account.
Whatever you think that says about those respective generations, “that’s a lot of people who are keeping a secret that could really do a lot of damage both to a couple’s finances and to their relationship,” says Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com.
Focus on the Problem, Not the Symptom
What should you do if a secret account rears its head in your relationship? (Or if you've got one your partner still doesn't know about?) Shutting it down may seem like the right move, but it doesn't address the underlying problem. The precursor to secrets is often secret resentment, says consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow.
Many people are “upfront about how they’re spending their money but not upfront about how they feel about it,” she says. Resentment about how money is spent can mean there might be a power imbalance in the relationship or that both partners aren’t on the same page.
“Behind the resentment is usually someone’s presumption about what they ‘should’ be doing with their money,” Yarrow. Be as honest as you can with your partner and yourself about your feelings regarding being able (or unable) to spend freely.
Schedule Time to Talk About Money
That sort of honest communication about your money is easier said than done, particularly if you've been hiding things in the past. So, schedule time to talk and then don't back out. Go over your budget and see if there’s anything you need to update or change.
“The real issue with these hidden bank accounts is that most Americans live on a budget or live paycheck to paycheck, and that doesn’t really work if somebody is hiding a bunch of money,” says Schulz. “The only way to have a meaningful budget is to know exactly how much money is coming in and how much is going out each month.” Then move on to discuss obligations that are upcoming in the next couple of weeks or months and how you're going to meet them. And talk, long-term, about your goals and your hopes when it comes to your finances.
Note: This is not a one-and-done kind of event. If you're in rocky territory, do it weekly. As things become smoother — and they will, over time — move to biweekly, than monthly.
Related: Top Fights Couples Have About Money
How to Move Forward
If you’ve already experienced financial infidelity: For some couples, a few heart-to-hearts can fix the problem. If someone is hiding money, sometimes it’s due to shame and wanting to spend money on something the partner thinks is a waste. So get it all out in the open, and compromise on a new budget that works for both of you.
Yarrow has found in her research that men tend to spend larger amounts of money on larger expenses, while women are more likely to spend smaller amounts secretly due to fear of being mocked (sometimes this is about clothes, makeup products, etc.).
“Guys sometimes think their view of what should be done with the money is more valid somehow,” says Yarrow. So own up to what brings you joy, and make some room for it in the budget if both parties are able.
If the case of financial infidelity is more serious, it’s a good idea to seek out a financial or marriage counselor. “Communicate honestly and openly, and work towards repairing that breach,” says Schulz.
With Hayden Field