Financial Infidelity: Are you dishonest about money?

As the economy tightens, handling of finances in families is increasingly at the core of family fights and conflicts presented to therapists. Financial strain may greatly increase family stress which in turn affects all aspects of the relationship and family life. Even worse, is the introduction of what therapists are now calling “financial infidelity” – not being truthful with your spouse about money earned, money spent, or assets you be holding.

A survey that and Redbook magazine commissioned from HarrisInteractive in 2005 tells the tale. Harris interviewed 1,796 adults, ages 25 to 55, who were married, engaged or living together. Among the findings:

  • Virtually all the people interviewed (96%) said it was both partners’ responsibility to be completely honest about financial issues.
  • Nearly 1 in 4 (24%) believed so strongly in this principle that they said openness about money is more important than being faithful. (As legal editor Alan Kopit put it, “They’re saying, ‘It’s one thing to fool around. It’s another thing to fool around with my hard-earned cash!'”)
  • Still, almost one in three (29%) admitted they had lied to their partner about finances, most often about personal spending (21%) or spending on the kids (12%).
  • One in four (25%) said a partner has withheld financial information — again, usually about personal spending (20%) and spending on children (11%).
What we lie about
Spending on ourselves 21% How much we make 6%
Spending on children 12% Our investments 4%
Household finances 9% Our retirement accounts 2%

Source: HarrisInteractive

When financial indiscretions are discovered by the partner, the usual reactions are similar to discovering sexual infidelity: feeling violated, having your “trust” foundation shaken, wondering what else you may have been lied to about, having doubts about wanting to be with a person who lied to you, and perhaps feeling foolish that you didn’t see it happening when perhaps it should have been obvious.

In my experience as a marital therapist , most people who “cheat’ feel justified in doing so. They justify and rationalize their behavior to “make it right” in their own minds, so they don’ t have to feel guilty. It is like their “self-talk” goes astray. For instance, they tell themselves their behavior was OK because:

  • “I spent the  money on the children or the family;”
  • “My own parents or a relative  needed the money;”
  • “My  partner is a miser; I’ll repay it later;”
  • “Since my partner bought so and so, I deserve to buy this for myself; he/she didn’t tell me- why should I tell them? ” ( a balance-the-scale expenditure)
  • I have to drive the old car, so I’ll buy myself a $2000 _____” (a revenge expenditure)
  • “It is my money; I’ll spend it any way I like” (The entitlement expenditure)

Some people, however, financially cheat because they are addicted to alcohol or drugs, to gambling,  to shopping,  to an expensive hobby or interest, or to costly sex. Or, perhaps they simply are dishonest people with poor character. They really can’t justify their actions. They know it is wrong, but either don’t want to change, or can’t change without professional help. Persons at this level of financial infidelity often ultimately destroy the relationship if the behavior continues. After all, partners can only put up with so much; at a certain point, they say “enough” and either end the relationship or establish firm boundaries around financial issues within the relationship. Persons who knowingly allow severe financial abuse to continue probably suffer from low self-esteem.

Fixing Financial Infidelity:
So, how do you fix financial infidelity? As we teach in our local marriage therapy sessions, and in our new Online Marriage Education Program, many marriage problems such as this are born of not aligning expectations to begin with (including setting boundaries) and not assertively and honestly communicating with each other around financial issues. Couples should have serious discussions around the following financial topics:

  • What are the ground rules?
  • What is joint money vs. personal money?
  • What are the parameters for spending? For instance, “we consult with each other before spending over $100”)
  • Do “personal money” expenditures need to be reported to the other?
  • Do we blend money or keep earned money separate?
  • Who physically pays the bills ?
  • Should one or both partners be placed on an “allowance?”
  • Should one partner who is better with money “control” the family expenditures?”

Often a skilled therapist is needed to help couples deal with these issues because most financial issues have a strong emotional component attached to them. As one couple told me recently, “It isn’t about money itself; it is about power and control in our relationship.” In other instances, money conflicts are about clashing financial values, colliding life goals or dreams, or perhaps the inability of the couple to be flexible enough to deal with changing life circumstances (e.g., loss of employment, illness, etc).

Some Financial Thoughts by Benjamin Franklin:

Here are some thoughts to chew on as you and your partner discuss financial expectations and financial values:

  • A man may, if he knows not how to save as he gets, keep his nose all his life to the grindstone, and die not worth a groat at last
  • Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship
  • Buy what thou hast no need of, and before long thou shalt sell thy necessaries
  • A fat kitchen makes a lean will
  • Always taking out of the meal-tub, and never putting in, soon comes to the bottom
  • When you run in debt; you give to another power over your liberty
  • The second vice is lying, the first is running in debt