Financial infidelities — like hiding a shopping spree or gambling away home equity — can blow up a relationship, but they’re surprisingly common.
About 42% of people who share bank accounts with a partner admitted to cheating financially, according to Harris Poll funded by the National Endowment for Financial Education.
- 22% hid a minor purchase.
- 20% hid cash.
- 12% hid a bill.
- 6% hid a bank account.
- 7% hid a major purchase.
Cheaters who own up to transgressions and work through money problems often improve their relationship, says Tina Tessina, author of Money, Sex, and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage.
An accountant who went on to become a therapist, Tessina says there are two situations in which you probably shouldn’t confess financial infidelity:
1. Your motive is to relieve guilt, vent anger or get back at your partner, rather than improving your relationship.
2. You have a partner who will respond violently. Don’t put yourself in danger.
Figure Out Why You Lie
Before blurting out the truth, start with a little introspection. What problem did you think you were solving by lying about finances?
“When someone is committing financial infidelity, it’s often a symptom on something going on in the relationship, or something from your childhood,” says Bonnie Eaker Weil, author of Financial Infidelity: Seven Steps to Conquering the #1 Relationship Wrecker. “People often don’t realize they’re using financial infidelity as a stand-in for pain, loneliness or stress.”
Shopping can deliver a dopamine high, and research has connected credit card debt to disorders in the brain’s reward center. Figuring out what’s behind the emptiness you’re trying to fill with inappropriate financial behavior prepares you to discuss the issue with your partner, Eaker Weil says.
Your parents’ financial relationships can also influence your financial behavior as an adult, adds Thomas E. Smith, director of the Financial Therapy Center, Tallahassee, Florida.
One woman he counseled came from a family where men always controlled the money. When the client lost her job in a downsizing, she didn’t tell her husband because she didn’t want to admit she wasn’t able to handle her money.
Is a lack of money smarts the issue? Get someone outside the relationship to help you understand what’s happening and find a solution you can present to your partner, Tessina says.
Finally, make sure you “own the number,” she adds.
“If you got yourself into $10,000 of credit card debt, which is not much compared to some of my clients, understand that you did that. If someone scammed you, it was your choice and your mistake. You can’t defend yourself and apologize at the same time,” Tessina says.
Pick Your Time Carefully
Ready to confess all? Pick a time when your partner is rested and happy – after a run or a cuddle is a good choice.
Ask them to put on a figurative bulletproof vest and not to be hurt, angry or defensive about what you share. Start with a positive statement:
I love you and value our life and our kids. You’ve been out of town a lot for work and I’ve felt lonely and missed you. I think I’ve been using money for a stand-in for love.
I’ve run up $10,000 in credit card bills. I’m not excusing what I did or asking for a pass, I just want to let you know I have emptiness inside me and I want to connect to you instead of going shopping when I feel bad.
Then explain how you plan to stop, or if you can’t stop, where you’re going to go for help.
I’m doing three things to fix this: I want to Skype every night when we’re apart. I’ve also shredded my credit cards and made an appointment to meet with a therapist who can help me.
Responding to Financial Infidelity
A confession of financial infidelity usually goes over about as well as a confession of sexual infidelity. “It’s shocking to find out your partner did something really stupid,” Tessina says.
“You have to take whatever reaction your partner has (and it’s not going to be good). Get some humility and understand they have a right to be upset with you,” she adds. “The degree to which you can do that make the process go easier and faster.”
To heal the rift, discuss what would restore trust in the relationship. Maybe it’s sitting down together at the computer and getting off shopping or porn websites. Maybe it’s attending Gamblers Anonymous meetings.
“You can get to an even stronger place by learning to talk about money,” Tessina says. “It’s slightly different for everybody, but the person who made mistakes often gets put on a budget and the partner gives them a certain amount to spend.”
Make a money contract laying out your joint financial goals and agreements. Discuss progress at a weekly meeting. “You’ll be surprised how a person who committed financial infidelity can work toward goals,” Eaker Weil says.
“If you bought something you shouldn’t have bought, you can confess and talk about what happened,” Tessina says. “That way nothing gets so out of hand that you can’t deal with it.”
Overcoming financial infidelity isn’t a quick or easy process, but it is possible, even in cases of serious transgressions. One of Tessina’s clients found her husband had forged her name on a home equity loan against a home she owned free and clear before the marriage. She discovered the forgery after he lost the money gambling.
The couple stayed together and the husband agreed to open up his computer passwords and promised never to speak to a banker without her permission. “You have to get totally open to each other and let yourself be monitored to make sure you’re not breaching the trust again,” she says.