Could the latest iPhone or a new pair of platform heels signal marital trouble?
It could, if you hide the purchase from your spouse.
Research shows that roughly a third of couples admit to lying to their spouse or partner about money at some point in their relationship. Many married couples might suggest that figure is somewhat low.
The falsehood is often a sin of omission related to unplanned spending.
An unannounced splurge at Macy's or impulse purchase at Best Buy doesn't exactly mean a break-up is near — but frequent fibbing could be a sign of trouble ahead.
"If you're hiding a purchase because you're afraid of a strong reaction from your partner, it can be indicative of bigger issues," said Ted Beck, president of the National Endowment for Financial Education.
Such issues can include having different attitudes about money or a lack of trust between partners. Often, however, the problem is simpler: a lack of communication and planning.
"Managing money is very much like dieting or exercise. We work best with firm rules," said Jonathan Clements, director of financial guidance at Citi Personal Wealth Management. "Everybody has different financial habits and it's really important to figure out where your spouse is coming from."
Set ground rules
Couples often don't have conversations about money until problems arise. It makes more sense to map out a plan both partners agree on.
They might decide to pool earnings and share bank accounts and credit cards, but that doesn't work for every couple. What's important is agreeing on how money is handled.
A key element in any plan is including spending money for each partner that need not be accounted for to the penny. "You shouldn't have to report back when you get a cup of coffee," Beck said. Having a personal stash for incidentals or whims also removes the temptation to hedge about that unplanned restaurant lunch, because it's in the budget.
Agree on goals
The temptation to overspend is stronger if you don't have a set of goals to work toward together. Clements advises couples to sit down and discuss what to save for — and to be as specific as possible.
Agreeing on a date to target for retirement, for example, may not provide as much incentive as mapping out what you hope to do and where you want to live. "Make that dream of retirement as specific as possible," Clements said. "That will provide the motivation to save. Nebulous goals aren't as motivating."
Make sure it works
Putting together a plan is only the first step. Just as important is taking time to make sure the agreement works on a regular basis.
One good opportunity to have a discussion or go over financial goals is tax time, especially if you're filing a joint tax return.
A periodic review can be especially important if the household expenses are not handled together.
"Just because somebody is always paying the utility bill and somebody is always paying the mortgage, doesn't mean you stop talking about what that utility bill is like or whether you should refinance the mortgage," said Kristy Archuleta, co-director of personal financial planning clinic at Kansas State University.
Taking time to review the expenses can help build trust in a relationship, she said. Or it can help to uncover problems, like problem gambling or even hidden unemployment. While atypical, it's not unheard of for a spouse to be afraid to announce a job loss for fear of being seen as a failure or unable to provide for the family.
But not confronting the issue will usually make things worse — both financially and on a marital level.
Spouses should watch out for sudden changes, like not talking about money as much as in the past or phone calls from debt collectors that are shrugged off. Those are signs that something has gone wrong and their partner may be trying to hide it.
"I tell couples it's always best not to keep secrets from each other," Archuleta said. "Because they can get bigger and they can get more out of control."