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What Is Financial Infidelity?
Updated: July 15, 2023 |
Taylor Kovar, CFP

Financial Infidelity and How it Can Break up Trust in Marriage

Handling money and marriage is often more complicated than you think. Apparently tiny indiscretions can add up to mistakes with huge consequences, including financial dishonesty in marriages that should have been flawlessly happy. What is financial infidelity, though? Instead of some academic definition, let’s start with an example:


Robert grabs his jacket and heads toward the door. “No thanks, running late,” he says when his wife, Janice, holds out a fresh cup of coffee. “Love you!” Robert yells as he kicks the door shut behind him. 


Robert gets on the freeway, eager to beat traffic. He’s got a 9 AM conference call and he’s already cutting it pretty close. Fortunately, and to Robert’s great surprise, the roads are almost empty. Turns out it’s the first day of Spring Break for the school district, so all the usual school bus and student traffic is gone. Robert flies to work and gets there about 20 minutes earlier than he expected. 


He’s elated. He’s also in need of caffeine. There’s the cheap stuff at the office that tastes bad and, in Robert’s opinion, doesn’t actually perk you up. There’s also the Starbucks on the corner. Robert thinks for half a second then pops into Starbucks and hops in line.


Stepping up to the counter, he feels a tiny pang of guilt. He obviously had the time to take the coffee Janice had made. He certainly could have poured it into a traveler mug. Now he’s enjoying an $8 drink while the homemade stuff, made from beans they’d already paid for, goes to waste. 


Janice would be pretty annoyed if she knew about this, Robert thinks. Better pay in cash so she doesn’t see the bill. Not worth fighting about. 


And just like that, in the most innocent of ways, Robert has committed financial infidelity. 


Now, this is a pretty innocuous example. Not a lot of money was spent and there were no bad intentions involved. However, this little anecdote shows how easy it is to start sliding down the slope of financial deceit. Robert doesn’t want to upset Janice so he chooses to lie by omission; we’ve probably all done something similar when it comes to money and marriage. What you may not realize, though, is that it only takes a few such instances for sneaky spending to become habitual and actually start to damage your spouse’s trust in your marriage.


Financial infidelity is way more rampant than most people think and a bigger problem than most people are willing to believe. Since money is deeply woven into the fabric of our daily lives, there’s a huge domino effect when a husband or wife shows even a little financial dishonesty in their marriage. Buying too many coffees on the way to work can literally derail a couple’s future planning. 


The first step is to understand what financial infidelity is. The second step is to root it out. The third is to recover and figure out how to make sure it doesn’t happen again. It’s a long, sometimes painful process, but it’s always worth it. 


What Is Financial Infidelity Exactly?

If you’re drumming your fingers on your legs right now, nervously wondering if you’ve ever committed financial infidelity, there’s a good chance you have. Don’t worry, you’re not a terrible person, you’re just like everyone else who’s told a little fib about their spending at one time or another. 


Before you berate yourself too much — or before you dismiss your indiscretion as harmless — take a minute to understand the different levels of financial dishonesty in marriage and how they come to pass.


Honest Mistakes Affecting Money and Marriage

A person can commit financial infidelity entirely by accident. In Robert’s story, he didn’t set out to lie about buying a coffee. Similarly, a spouse may open a department store credit card to get the sign-up bonus, then completely forget about it and later get hit with interest charges or late fees. If they never disclosed the new card to their husband or wife, this qualifies as financial infidelity. 


It’s really easy to commit these financial misdeeds. Life is busy and expensive and everyone makes mistakes. Again, you’re not a bad person because you bought lunch after turning down the leftovers your spouse suggested you pack at home. As long as you’re honest about it, at least after the fact. Money and marriage only work well together when there are no secrets.


The lies and deceit are the entire issue with financial infidelity. A compulsive coffee drinker who uses a secret credit card to hide the signs of financial infidelity is committing a graver sin than a compulsive gambler who comes home with ATM receipts to show their spouse exactly how much they lost. Yes, the gambling is more irresponsible, but lying about mochas can be just as detrimental to your shared trust in marriage. 


If you’ve done some innocent spending that your spouse doesn’t know about, or you just remembered an outstanding debt you forgot to pay, you should seriously consider coming clean about it. Let your spouse know how your money has been or is being spent. It may be an uncomfortable conversation for 30 seconds, but then it’s done. You get to move on. Rip the band-aid off so it doesn’t turn into a bigger problem. 


Dishonest Routines That Harm Trust in Marriage

Arriving early for work, Robert decides to go to Starbucks. Robert really enjoys his latte. Robert feels like he’s treated himself. The next day, Robert leaves three minutes earlier for work so he can treat himself again. Six months later, Robert has spent $1,000 on daily lattes and Janice is none the wiser. 


This second stage of financial infidelity is one that people fall into innocently enough, but then they refuse to correct their problematic habits. There’s a lot of justification going on in the mind of the spender: I deserve this coffee; I made the money so it’s mine to spend; Janice probably buys herself things that I don’t know about. As true as those thoughts might be, none of them get to the core issue — you’re lying about spending. Why are you lying? Because it’s hard to fess up to dropping $50 a week on coffee. 


It’s so easy to spend $5 or $10. We do it in an instant without a second thought. It’s not until later, when you add up all the small purchases, that the big picture becomes scary. 


Just like with honest mistakes, the solution is to come clean. “I had no idea how much I was spending on protein shakes, I’m sorry, I’ll cut back.” Until you have that moment of disclosure, it’s too easy to keep up the ruse. You’ll keep thinking, what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her — but when she finally finds out, everyone gets hurt.


It’s a lot easier to apologize for a one-time thing. It takes some real courage to fess up when you’ve gotten into the habit of discreet spending. Just remember that lies beget lies; the longer you avoid confessing, the more things you’ll likely have to confess. 


Full-Blown Financial Infidelity Scandals

At some point, for some reason, things go entirely off the rails. It might be a catastrophic event, like getting fired or an investment going belly-up. The financial woes get so bad that it seems unfathomable to share the news, even though the signs of their financial infidelity can’t be hidden for much longer. 


In this case, people’s desperation sometimes takes control of their decision-making. I need to fix this before he finds out. The idea of owning up to whatever happened is so appalling that, illogically, a person decides to try to solve the problem in brazen, implausible ways. If you lost your retirement money on a bad investment, the solution is not to head to the race track and try to win it all back. 


It’s a struggle for couples to come back from this kind of infidelity. Financial advisors and couples’ counselors are brought in to try to salvage the wreckage of a relationship where trust and future prospects have been obliterated, and it doesn’t always work. In almost every instance, though, a little more honesty up front could have saved the marriage. It sucks to only see this clearly in hindsight.


If you’re harboring a secret that you just wish would go away, you have to open up about it. The hole is only going to get deeper and the repercussions will only get worse. Honesty won’t come easy, and the road to recovery might be bumpy, but it will always be better than the alternative.


Specific Signs of Financial Infidelity

A secret credit card is usually the first thing that comes to mind when people think of what financial infidelity looks like. However, it’s not always so cut-and-dried. Mistrust drives these fidelity issues, meaning it’s less about the money and more about the personal tensions that lead to financial misbehavior. 


Basic Infidelity

In its simplest form, financial infidelity looks like stuff most people do every day. Adding a coffee or meal at the end of a grocery run; picking up the tab after lunch with a friend; ordering some stuff off Amazon before bed. 


At face value, these things are harmless. Who cares about a $5 coffee? What’s wrong with a little generosity here and there? Amazon is convenient and we all need to buy stuff, right?


Remember that it’s less about what gets bought and more about the one-sided decision-making. A $5 coffee isn’t a big deal unless only one half of a married couple is enjoying that reward. We should all show generosity, but is it coming at the cost of your spouse’s bank account? When those Amazon packages arrive, does one person cringe while the other smiles?


These might not feel like examples of anything. In fact, a lot of couples live happy lives while buying too many coffees and shopping online too much. When it comes to the most innocent, basic forms of financial infidelity, you have to ask yourself: do I feel guilty? Am I being deceitful? Is my spouse judging me, and why? It’s not about how much is being spent or what it’s spent on—it’s about honesty and transparency and trust. 


Intermediate Infidelity

At this level, you have exaggerated examples of basic infidelity—instead of a morning coffee, it’s a $30 lunch with co-workers—as well as more manipulative behavior that might not involve specific purchases. 


We tend to think of financial infidelity as something perpetrated by the purchaser, but that’s not always the case. This is about a breach of trust, and a person can create that breach without spending a dime. Imagine a spouse who becomes incredibly controlling with financial matters. They take over all the decision-making, pore over their husband or wife’s receipts, and set strict budget limits without much input from their partner. Doesn’t sound like a fair or fun way to handle money, does it?


It’s not uncommon for one person to end up in the accountant role in a marriage. Some people are admittedly bad at math or disorganized or forgetful and don’t seek out financial responsibility. Unfortunately, this can lead to an imbalance of power that tends toward financial infidelity when left unchecked. Trust is a two-way street; you have to give a little to get some in return.


When looking for signs of financial infidelity, don’t ignore issues of control and manipulation. People can be quick to dismiss a problem that’s actually aggravating all the other conflicts money and marriage entail.


Advanced Infidelity

The gravest form of financial infidelity is a combination of the basic and intermediate examples. A blend of secret spending and distrust conflates into a terrifying mismatch of debt and lies and doubt and shame. It’s bad news.


The signs of this type of infidelity are usually obvious but ignored, because such a loss of trust is typically coupled with a lack of communication. Instead of asking about credit cards or withdrawals from savings, couples just keep their heads in the sand and ignore their glaring financial issues. 


When you get to this point, you’ll know it. The trouble is, most people just don’t want to deal with it—and deal with it you must.  


How To Overcome Financial Infidelity

The longer financial infidelity is left to fester, the harder it is to resolve. Whatever the signs and whatever stage you’re at, you have to step into a world where honesty reigns. Put everything on the table, reconcile every purchase, lay your entire financial self bare. 


This process of full disclosure will be daunting, but it will be worth it. 


Honest Recovery

It’s really easy to make amends for a simple mistake. Nine times out of ten, saying, “I made an honest mistake” solves the problem. Even so, confessing is much easier said than done.


We teach our children to be honest. We all accept that lying is wrong. Nevertheless, when it comes time to apologize for something, even something small, it can be really difficult. When you do, it’s very freeing. Best of all, owning up to a mistake makes it much easier to tell the truth in the future.


Dishonest Recovery

Two apologies need to be made in this situation. First, there’s the mea culpa for whatever errant spending took place. After that’s out in the open, you have to explain and ask forgiveness for the cover-up. 


It’s usually the second half of this that people find most difficult, which is why so many people choose to push the lie further instead of telling the truth. A lot of spouses have a hard time explaining to themselves where the dishonesty came from. Why did I lie about that round of golf? It was 30 bucks, why not just tell the truth? 


Financial infidelity is always part of a vast patchwork of emotions, circumstances, and reactions. If you and your partner have contrasting Money Personalities, that can be a driver of financial infidelity. If you come from a strict household where your parents lambasted every purchase you made, you might find yourself instinctively lying about your spending because of that childhood programming.


Whatever the cause, you have to come to terms with it and develop some tools that will help you avoid making the same mistakes in the future. You could seek out a professional counselor to help you work through these issues with a delicate, tactful touch. 


Scandalized Recovery

More than half of married couples cite money as their reason for divorce. In all of those cases, it’s a safe bet that financial infidelity played a role. 


Even if it feels like hope is lost, it’s possible to find some light in the darkness. Use the same approach from the previous examples and multiply the effort by a thousand. Trace things back to the root of the issue and work on rectifying it. It takes a tremendous amount of sticktoitiveness, but determined couples can work their way back from the brink. 


Most important, as always, is to acknowledge your mistake and be honest about how things can change. Money Personalities are set in stone; you can’t flip a switch and have a new relationship with money. You have to work hard to quell your worst tendencies and build in personal checks and balances. 


Most relationship troubles are connected to communication issues, and financial infidelity is no different. To fix what’s broken, it has to be a team effort. Decisions have to become mutual. Transparency needs to go both ways, and each person has to try to walk in the other’s shoes from time to time. 


Small or large, innocent or intentional, financial infidelity can cause a rift in the most trusting marriages. With a little awareness of how these problems start and how much they can escalate, you stand a much better chance of course-correcting before things get bad.


Make it happen!

Taylor & Megan Kovar

The Money Couple


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