Keeping Money Secrets From Your Partner May Not Be Such a Bad Thing

It's Valentine's Day, and the air is filled with roses, chocolate and the typical pollster fear mongering that financial infidelity is rampant and likely to ruin your romantic relationship.

Consider just a sampling of the most recent surveys. A poll earlier this month found that 44 percent of respondents were financially two-timing their partners by hiding a checking, savings or credit card account, secretly being in debt or spending money their loved one wouldn't approve of. Various surveys agreed that millennials are the worst offenders, when it comes to keeping money secrets, although the percentages varied widely: from 27 percent in a TD Bank poll to 57 percent in the survey. And no matter what their age, people agreed that lying to your partner about money is a serious risk to a relationship, with 60 percent of those recently surveyed by U.S. News claiming it's as bad or worse than physical infidelity.

Before you start digging through your partner's credit card statements for evidence, though, take a step back and recognize that the truth is more complicated than these surveys suggest and telling a financial lie to your romantic partner doesn't automatically make you a dirty, rotten cheater. The key, as with so many aspects of a relationship, is to understand why you or your loved one feels the need to keep money secrets, how much real harm is being done and to come to an agreement about when it's okay to be hush-hush and when you should bare it all.

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Financial Infidelity Isn’t Always a Relationship Dealbreaker Stephen Swintek/Getty

Why Lovers Lie About Money

A few years ago, academics at the University of Southern Mississippi wanted to look more deeply into what financial infidelity actually means and what partners tend to lie about.

They asked 415 participants a series of questions about money and their love life and found that only 27 percent admitted to keeping a financial secret from their partner. The researchers then followed up with questions that dug deeper into this idea of unfaithfulness; for example, have you ever lied to cover up debt or opened a credit card without telling your spouse?

When put that way, more than half of the participants fessed up to one form of cheating or another. Egad, screams your inner Puritan, we're a nation of fiscal heretics!

Not so fast. After all, noticing an attractive person who isn't your spouse doesn't rise to the same level as, say, clandestine trysts in highway motels, just as fudging how much it cost to get highlights in your hair or failing to mention a new video game you bought isn't equivalent to running up thousands of dollars in charges on a secret credit card.

The four most common "sins," in fact, were all about seemingly minor spending infractions: hiding a purchase, lying about the price paid for an item, spending money on the kids without telling a spouse and buying something for full price, then saying it was on sale. Less common were activities like covering up a secret money stash or siphoning cash from a savings account.

In other words, a lot of the time, financial "infidelity" isn't that big a deal. Telling your spouse you paid $50 for a new watch instead of the actual $100 it cost you doesn't mean you're living as a fraud. Maybe you're a grown adult who doesn't need to explain and defend every financial decision you make. I write about this stuff for a living and I didn't tell my spouse the last time I shelled out a couple of hundred bucks on a new travel rewards credit card. Call the cops!

In fact, concern about being judged is often the reason people don't reveal a particular purchase or a price to their romantic partner, along with wanting to maintain control and a measure of independence. As long as you're in an otherwise solid relationship and your finances are reasonably secure, an impulse purchase here or there, such as a new pair of shoes or a toy or treat for your kiddo, isn't likely to break the family budget—or your feelings for each other.

That said, since hiding the truth often feels bad to both parties even the money secret is fairly innocuous, why do it if you don't have to? Instead, get rid of the reason you feel compelled to obfuscate or outright lie by establishing a small judgment-free spending zone. You might, for example, agree on a set amount you're each allowed to spend each month, no questions asked, and put the money into a separate checking account you each maintain for exactly this purpose, suggests Sarah Behr, a financial planner in San Francisco.

"A freedom fund helps keep you feeling independent," says Behr.

When Money Secrets Reflect Deeper Issues

The salient question to ask yourself: Why are you keeping a secret—and is the secret doing real harm to your finances as a couple?

Shame over seriously mismanaging money or otherwise being in financial trouble is one reason some spouses keep financial secrets, says Baltimore certified financial planner Brent Weiss, co-founder of the online financial planning service Facet Wealth.

He remembers a young newlywed couple who walked into his office with a big problem: It was only after their wedding that one spouse learned the other owed about $100,000 in student loan and credit card debt.

"They weren't trying to be malicious," says Weiss. "There are a lot of insecurities around money, and people are embarrassed about not understanding finances or being in control."

Another reason is sloppiness or not having a shared financial vision for your relationship. Couples who don't have a financial plan are more likely to keep a financial secret than those who have a structured budget, says Weiss. The solution, he adds, is simple but rarely easy: Start a conversation.

Getting the nerve to even bring up the subject is hard, so start by taking down your self-consciousness with a deep breath and reassuring yourself with the mantra that you're not alone and your situation is probably normal.

When you do talk with your spouse, whether to reveal an "infidelity" or simply to get on the same page about your spending styles, remember your partner has his or her own barriers and insecurities, so try to be understanding if defensiveness crops up.

Start small—and don't raise the subject on Valentine's Day. Instead, arrange a monthly "money date" when you check in with each other to see if you're spending within your means and saving what you should for retirement and other goals and responsibilities, such as caring for kids, parents or pets. You needn't fix everything at once.

Not only will you come to an agreement on the future, but you'll naturally establish money management roles that will bring you more happiness. Satisfaction with your role, says University of Georgia associate professor Kristy Archuleta, is more important than the role itself as long as you're both clued in to the overall plan.

Get Help If You Need It

Sometimes, however, lying about money can be a symptom of even more serious problems in a relationship. That's especially true if one partner is using money as a way to control and exert power over the other. Financial abuse is very different, of course, than the occasional white lie about how much something cost, and has been found to occur in 99 percent of domestic violence cases. If you feel that your partner is controlling the money in order to control you, reach out to a trusted friend or a domestic violence organization for help.

But what if this is more of a case of your own secret spending as a result of feeling unseen or your needs going unmet? Are you going on shopping sprees or opening a new credit card as a way to reclaim some authority in the relationship or your life? If so, providing help isn't a job for a financial planner. A licensed marriage counselor may be better able to help.

What's critical to keep in mind in all of these cases is that a financial lie, even a biggie, isn't necessarily a death knell for a relationship. In the case of Weiss's clients, for example, though the blindsided spouse was shocked, their response was compassionate, and with Weiss's help, the couple was able to alter their financial plan and work through the problem.

A lie, even one about money, should be the start of a conversation, not the end of it.

Taylor Tepper is a senior writer at Wirecutter Money and a former staff writer at Money magazine. His work has additionally been published in Fortune, NPR and Bloomberg. You can find him on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram.