We were hours deep into the bachelor party and the man of the hour was pure fire with the dice. He and everyone else at the craps table were on hot streaks. Sixes hit. Eights, too. Bets were pressed. Chips stacked. When he rolled big, the crew erupted in cheers. It was exactly what a casino night send off should feel like.
But, the glow of camaraderie was instantly snuffed out when the bachelor, stack of chips mounted in front of him, turned to the party and warned us not to tell his soon-to-be-wife about the winnings. You could feel the circulated air get sucked out of the casino. The guy’s knee-jerk reaction to a jackpot was to hide it from the person with whom he would share his life.
It was the first time I’d seen someone consider what’s referred to as “financial infidelity”, the act of lying about purchases, bank accounts, or other such money matters with their partner. But, as I’d come to learn, it’s an all too common facet of modern marriages. We associate cheating with romance, but it’s just as common — and damaging — with finance.
Consider some numbers: Forty-two percent of respondents to a February 2016 Harris Poll admitted to committing some kind of financial infidelity, up from 33 percent in the previous poll. In a survey conducted by CreditCards.com, 12 million people admitted to having a credit card or bank account they keep secret from their spouse.
Paul Golden, a spokesperson for the National Endowment for Financial Education, the group behind the Harris Poll, said the number of admitted money cheaters has steadily ticked upwards in the eight years NEFE has run the poll. While he couldn’t say why the numbers are growing, Golden could say that a root cause was a widespread unwillingness to talk about money.
“The big reason at the top of the list is that there’s a general lack of frequent and effective communication about money taking place within the couple,” Golden said. Indeed: In the Harris Poll, three out of ten respondents said their partners wouldn’t approve of the decisions they’ve made or were embarrassed about what they’d done and didn’t want their partner to find out.
Such behavior caused Golden to slip into language often used in conversations about substance abuse to describe financial philandering: hiding purchases and large credit card bills, he said, act like “gateway deceptions” that can lead to more severe money lies, such as lying about the amount of debt or amount of income they earn to keep money on the side.
“The deceptions might seem kind of minor or benign in nature but they can certainly lead to more extreme circumstances,” Golden said.
Tina B. Tessina PhD. understands the severity of financial infidelity firsthand. A California-based psychotherapist and author of How to be Happy Partners: Working it out Together and Money, Sex, and Kids, she has not only worked extensively with couples facing money-related deceptions over the course of her 30-plus year career but also had a marriage implode when she learned about her husband’s money secrets.
“My then-husband was a gambling addict, and I found out because tough guys came around to repossess the car or demand payment,” she said.
Tessina said that while neither men nor women have a monopoly on financial infidelity, there’s a gender split in its causes and features.
“When men get into financial trouble, it’s often through gambling — cards, stock market, fantasy football — or spending on drugs, porn, or male toys like automobiles,” Tessina said. “Women tend to overspend on fashion, household items, or on the kids.”
Obsessions with grown-up toys can help keep a secret hidden in plain sight. Earlier this year, Jalopnik reported on a man so obsessed with vintage BMWs that he embezzled hundreds of thousands from his employer. He appeared to all the world as a trustworthy suburban husband whose only vice was hitching his belt up too high. After buying a jaw-dropping 50 BMWs, both his marriage and life were destroyed.
Financial deceptions can destroy marriages and cause problems that linger long after the union ends. A person interviewed for this story told me that after splitting from her husband, she learned her ex had been evading taxes for years. She was shocked: she had seen him filing and mailing tax forms but it had been a pantomime. He’d really filed nothing. When she found out, the IRS was threatening to garnish her wages to recoup unpaid taxes. Adding insult to injury, her ex cleared out their joint savings account.
Sometimes the secret spending takes sad, sordid turns. Tessina remembered a young couple who lived with the wife’s mother until the mother-in-law noticed that thousands of dollars worth of calls to porn sites had been charged to her phone bill.
Another couple split after the partner blew through their savings and lost their house gambling on the stock market.
“The spouse didn’t find out until the foreclosure notices began coming in,” Tessina said.
Aaron Anderson, owner and counselor at the Marriage and Family Clinic in Colorado, said that he once saw a husband who told his wife he made about $60k annually when he was actually making about double that. “When the wife found out it was extremely difficult for them and the case was a lot like a real infidelity in how they responded to treatment,” he said.
According to a 2015 study conducted by Fidelity, couples are often unaware of their partner’s finances. This isn’t done with malice, but rather ignorance. While 72 percent of couples said they discussed financial matters, nearly half couldn’t identify basic information about their partner’s bank account or general income.
Preventing financial dalliances, then, comes down to simply keeping up with your household finances — and staying alert, says Tessini. If something on a credit card statement or receipt seems out of the ordinary, then couples need to discuss it. And, while marriage is built on trust, out-of-the-ordinary spending does need to be flagged.
Researching this story led me to a surprisingly benevolent example of financial trickery. A friend confessed to secretly diverting his wife’s $2,000 bonus from their shared checking account into a savings account. He held onto the cash as a cushion for the future.
“Had she known the money was there, her thoughts would have been about a renovation/upgrade we’ve been putting off,” he said. “Believe me, the repairs we’re putting off cost way more than two grand.”
The story illustrates the classic money philosophy clash of savers vs. spenders. While that story ended happily, money differences often become money disasters. To avoid the acrimony, frequent and honest conversations are necessary. The prospect may sound unpleasant, but clashing approaches to money can be resolved through patient talk.
“Everyone’s a little different, if not drastically different, in their money personality,” Golden said. “The only way you’re going to understand your partner is through regular conversations that aren’t confrontations.”
Because when everyone’s on the same page, no one can go off the books.
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