Dealing with a Partner That Hides Money Problems

It’s a sad story that I hear time and time again. One spouse is trying very hard to get their financial life back on track, while the other one is hiding a bunch of spending under the table. When it comes out – a misplaced bill is found, a credit card is rejected, a check bounces – it results in a mountain of hurt feelings and is usually coupled with some serious fighting. On at least one occasion I’m aware of, it’s resulted in divorce.

It’s always going to be hard if you set clear personal goals and then later find out that your spouse, either intentionally or otherwise, has been taking actions in the opposite direction of your goals. You feel betrayed, let down by the person you care for the most. You often feel angry that all of your efforts have been tossed aside so effortlessly. You feel helpless – after all of your efforts, you’re right back where you started.

This moment is make or break time. It’s one of those times in your life when you figure out what you’re made of – and what your spouse is made of, too. Here’s how I would handle it.

How to Deal with a Partner Who Hides Money Problems

1. Take a breather

As soon as you find out that your spouse hasn’t been on the same financial page as you, you’re going to be upset in some fashion. You might be angry. You might be sad and disappointed. You might want to just walk out and not come back.

Don’t.

Sit back and breathe for a while. Don’t say or do anything about it for a day or so, but don’t let it boil up, either. Instead, find another medium to vent. Write down what you’re feeling. Punch a pillow if you need to. Go for a long walk. Just don’t start discussing this when emotions are overwhelming you or else it won’t end well.

2. Think about what caused the situation

It’s also important to give some consideration as to what caused this situation. Obviously, if you’re upset right now, you’ve got a different vision of your finances than your partner. This leads to some important questions.

Are you sure your spouse was aware of your feelings about money?

In many relationships, a partner might adopt a new set of ideas about money without ever properly discussing it with their partner. If you’ve turned over a new leaf of frugality without really discussing it with your spouse and they’ve just done like they’ve always done – spending money if it’s in the checking account, etc. – then you need to communicate with your partner a bit more. Your partner’s probably completely confused as to why you’re so upset right now.


Is your partner actually on board with financial progress?

Another potential situation is that you talked things over with your partner, but without your partner’s buy-in. You might have had all of these big plans, but if your partner wasn’t really invested in all of these plans or if they felt like you were just preaching ideas at them, they probably have no real motivation to change anything.


Did your partner simply make a mistake?

Everyone is human and makes mistakes, and overcoming a pattern of spending is a very difficult thing. Perhaps your partner is committed, but their will faltered a time or two. It’s a very human mistake, and forgiveness is always the correct path to take here.

If they were intentionally lying to you or misleading you, deeper marital issues may be involved. You may want to consider seeking a counselor, or at the very least address these concerns face to face. If your partner is being deliberately misleading, there’s likely a deeper problem that needs to be addressed.

3. Have a rational discussion about it

Once you’ve calmed down and reflected on the situation, have a discussion about it. Explain why you were upset and listen to the reasoning that your partner gives to you. Most of the time, the problem is the result of a lack of communication or confusion in communication, so make sure you both understand what the other is thinking.

The key is listening. Clearly, if you were shocked and surprised by a financial choice that your partner made, he or she is thinking differently than you are. Sit back and listen to your partner’s perspective without comment and make an effort to understand their perspective.

Don’t get angry. Anger solves nothing in a long-term relationship. Save your anger for later when you have a healthy channel for it. If you find yourself getting angry, excuse yourself and deal with it in another room, then return when you’ve calmed down.

4. Re-evaluate your shared dreams and goals

One common problem that often triggers such a divergence in behavior is that you’re not on the same page with your goals and dreams. You might think your partner has the same dreams that you do, but in fact in their heart they want other things. Or, perhaps you feel a goal can be achieved pretty quickly, but your partner feels that the goal is far off in the future.

Be honest, and ask your partner to be honest, too. If you’re planning things that he or she is not fully committed to, they’ll undermine those plans, whether consciously or otherwise. A long term shared goal doesn’t work unless you both want it, and you won’t know whether your partner truly wants it unless you’re committed to being honest.

Recognize that your partner may have different dreams than you. You might desperately want a bigger house, for example, but your partner might have no interest in such a thing and was simply acknowledging your dream. Instead of dragging your partner along for the ride, look for big dreams that you both share.

Let your partner lead. Let your partner identify the goals he or she finds deeply valuable, then identify the ones that you can share. Letting your partner lead in this process gives him or her a sense of ownership over setting the goals and defining the plans, and that means more commitment and emotional investment in success.

If all of this fails… If you try all of these things and nothing seems to help the situation, a marriage counselor might be in order. Long-term relationships are built on trust and communication, and if either of those two aspects are failing without a clear root cause, you need to find someone who can help you find that root cause.

Good luck.

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  1. Leisureguy says:

    Minor point: It should be “a partner who,” not “a partner that.” (Assuming the partner is a person, not a thing. :) )

  2. justin says:

    you need to be a little more leisurely leisureguy.

  3. Carlos says:

    Actually, I have to disagree, here. If your spouse is hiding things from you (bills, et. al.) it is time to move on. Things don’t get better in my experience. Third time is the charm (for me).

  4. writer dad says:

    This can be such a devastating thing for a marriage. My wife’s best friend found out (shortly before their one year anniversary) that her husband had tens of thousands of dollars in hidden debt. And this on top of the copious amount of financial aid they already owed. Needless to say, they are in counseling.

  5. MoneyBlogga says:

    Yikes, I see myself in this article. It’s a horrible feeling to wake up and realize that I’ve frittered away not only the money that I worked for but the money my partner worked for, too. I wish I hadn’t been so pig headedly ignorant and I wish I hadn’t been such a bulldozer. The unfortunate part is that for whichever person in the relationship is hiding money problems, THAT is the person who needs to realize the error of their ways via hitting rock bottom. THAT person must realize what they are doing and be fully committed to change. What if that person hasn’t reached that point? That’s the problem. As with any self destructive behavior, unless the perp realizes what they’re doing not only to the relationship, themselves and their partner, there cannot be a lasting, acknowledged, and committed change.

  6. clint says:

    My story is like this one but I was the one with the money problems. At some point I needed to say it was time to change.

    I did and now life is good.

    Clint Lawton

    http://www.a-debt-free-life.com

  7. Char says:

    Here is my situation: 15 years ago I had led our family to financial ruin without my husband ever knowing. I love him very much, always have,maybe too much. I did this to him not because I was selfish but because we had decided I should stay at home with the children and I felt tremendous guilt about not contributing more to the family and that he worked so darned hard. When he would ask (since I did the finances) if we had money to buy that new fancy stereo I couldn’t bear to tell him no, and so it went 8 years later we were buried in debt and I couldn’t buy groceries for the family – he had no clue until that day. It was so hard not keeping up with the Joneses. Now, you can all throw all kinds of criticism our way, his negligence, my ignorance but I truly believed that “once I started working” “once he got a raise” etc that things would get better and we would pay off the debt. It never happen. I finally told him and thanks to him (Who did pretty much what you are advising Trent) we are completely debt free and still happily married 15 years later. Were there tough times – absolutely- but we also grew stronger, closer and a WHOLE LOT wiser. Marriage is a commitment and I am so thankful that my loving husband took responsibility for his part and forgave me a ton for my part. Thank you Trent for giving great advice on this, couples should feel hope in a terrible situation.

  8. Nate says:

    This post really highlights the importance on sitting down with your partner before you start any financial overhaul. Righting the financial ship as team is crucial. Working together will not only will it make the trip easier, but also bring you closer together.

    If your partner is “going along”, but secretly is sabotaging the team’s goals, then money most likely isn’t the real problem and a marriage counseling would be your best hope.

  9. Ann says:

    I disagree with Carlos. Walking away isn’t the answer.

    And thanks Char for your story of hope. Good job to you and your husband. Thank goodness he didn’t subscribe to Carlos’s plan, huh?

  10. Taylor says:

    This post and the comments about it brought to mind “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant
    http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/gdemaupassant/bl-gdemaup-diamond.htm

    I feel like I’m the one hiding money from my spouse. I’ll take out money from the ATM so what I buy doesn’t show up specifically, but since we have a joint account, he still knows how much I take out. So I don’t think I could spend too much without him knowing.

  11. Mike says:

    I’m a while away from marriage, but my girlfriend and I talk about things like this a lot. If either of us has a spending problem, it’s me, but reading this site daily has helped me start my own financial turnaround. We’ve talked openly about everything from the get-go, and finance is not excluded.

    I’m so glad there are people out there who support being frank about this sort of thing, instead of separating their money into separate funds and say “this is mine, that’s yours.”

  12. Anna says:

    Justin:
    Leisureguy is right about “who” rather than “that.” Trent is doing everything he can to become a better writer, and if we in this little community can help him, why not? Publishers expect writers to use correct English. In fact, many a manuscript or proposal is rejected immediately because of poor grammar or poor usage, no matter how good the idea.

  13. Caren says:

    Sometimes I feel that my husband is the clueless one. I leave many hints, I even check out books for personal finance. I work full time and he works part-time. He told me that he worked for his money and he should be able to spend it any way he likes. I think that type of thinking is what is getting us in trouble. There are times where he will spend his paycheck in a couple of hours. He sees me saving and making budgets and it doesn’t phase him that I’m putting all this effort. As if this is my job to worry about finances 24/7. I tried to offer counseling but he says he doesn’t need it. So what should I do if I have tried and EVERYTHING fails? He pays for two bills and I pay for everything else, rent, food, car, student loan, utilities. There’s really nothing left for blow money. Then he has the audasity to ask me for money after he spent his. I am not a money tree, nor am I his mommy. What do you suggest.

  14. When money becomes a problem in relationships it needs to be dealt with right away! Communication is the key.

  15. almost there says:

    Caren, read the article “How to divorce your husband” in Women in Red msg board. Unless you really love him, why enable a deadbeat that won’t grow up? A sign of manliness is being a responsible adult, without that he is a boytoy.

  16. Julie says:

    Actually, according to “A Way With Words,” the NPR word podcast, the “who” vs. “that” question is a style choice. It used to be grammatically correct to use “who” for a person or animal and “that” for an inanimate object, but now so many people are using “that” exclusively that the style guides now say both are okay. That being said, many people (including the podcasting linguists) prefer “who” for a person even though it’s not technically incorrect to use “that.”

  17. Cathy says:

    Well, I had a boyfriend who made more money than me, left me with a $35,000 credit card bill. No amount of talking or whatever could change him. I paid for things like livings expenses on my credit card because he would drain the cash account. Those bills had to get paid somehow. He drained the cash account because he knew that I wouldn’t let the bills lapse – sigh.

    I left him, took about 5 years to pay it off completely, and now have a positive net worth plus some. But I wasn’t going to wait for him to change. And I wasn’t going to marry him because that was a sure path to bankruptcy.

  18. Anna says:

    Caren:

    I left.

    That doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

    You say you have offered counseling but he says he doesn’t need it. That, plus your hints and efforts that go unheeded, indicate that he has a bigger problem than you can deal with alone–so don’t try. May I suggest that you do your own research to find a counseler, then issue an ultimatum: either he goes with you to counseling, or you leave.

    Life is too short to live it with a deadbeat.

  19. James says:

    I think Trent is right on the money here. Trust has definitely been breached, and that is a serious issue, but take a reasoned and thoughtful approach about it. Give your relationship as much thought as you do to your finances.

  20. Good advice. Staying non-accusatory is key. If the spouse with the money troubles feels accused and attacked, s/he will quite likely regret ever saying anything and, if the same things happens in the future, may be hesitant to bring it up.

    Try to figure out *why* the over-spending spouse was doing that. Does s/he feel like the other person gets to spend more money? Does s/he feel like the personal spending money allotment isn’t big enough? Are certain things being budgeted paid for out of spending money that s/he thinks should come out of another category? Figure out the cause and try and work something out. For example, if one spouse frequently needs to eat food out because s/he gets unexpectedly called in to work or a volunteer activity, should that food be paid for out of the personal spending money or should there be a separate “No time to bring lunch” category?

    Sometimes it’s an issue of self-control, sometimes it’s not having the same goals, and sometimes there’s another issue at work.

  21. Sisterfunkhaus says:

    I totally disagree with the idea of walking away. Repeatedly walking away from people shows that you cannot work out problems and that you do not take the for better or worse part seriously. It’s sad to me.

    This kind of issue can be worked out. from what I have seen and experienced the issues often come from spouses simply not being on the same page. sometimes, it is best to just split up the finances, so each partner can manage some of the money the way that works for them. Too often people play the my way or the highway routine. Marriage is about compromise, working things out, and being there when things get rough.

  22. Cathy says:

    My opinion is this kind of betrayal isn’t unlike adultery. It’s possible to work through it and have a happy ending, but you have an uphill battle that cannot be solved unless both parties are FULLY committed to it. If the betrayer is fully committed to changing their wrongdoing and the betrayed is fully committed to forgiving, then there is hope. Everyone’s circumstances are going to be different, but those two things are key.

    Starting with dialog is the first step. But if the other party is not interested in talking, you’ve got choices to make. I don’t think someone who is content to have someone else pay the bills while they have party time is going to be motivated to change until you yank the rug out.

    It all really comes down to intent. Is the other person hiding the debt out of materialistic entitlement? Or are they hiding the debt because they don’t want you to know there’s no money for groceries (which can be embarassing)? Both of these are wrong, but I know which of these two circumstances I’d be willing to work through and which one I’d walk.

  23. Christine says:

    I wouldn’t say that my fiance was deliberately hiding money issues from me, but more so that since he hated – no, abhorred – talking about money, he just never brought up the fact that he was digging himself deeper and deeper into debt and didn’t know how to deal with it.

    We’ve always kept separate finances, but it wasn’t until we bought a house together and started talking about finally getting married that I inquired about his credit cards (because I knew that he had credit cards and he had mentioned that he had debt at one point). That was when I found out about the nearly $17k in debt. We ended up taking care of that and he had a clean slate for a while, but then he racked up another $3k on a Discover card.

    The reason behind that mistake was putting him in charge of all of the finances when he was never used to budgeting – so he was putting groceries, entertainment, and other little things on the Discover. At that point I took over all of the finances.

    But rather than taking them over and keeping him out of the loop, I talked about setting up a budget, showing him exactly how much he was spending on certain things via Wesabe (that really opened his eyes), and teaching him how to save for things he wanted instead of buying now and trying to pay later. His credit debt is now officially gone and he finally has a savings account that is actually growing with my help.

    It did get hard at times, mostly because I needed him to be open about money so that we could deal with the problem and all he wanted to do was not talk about it at all – but we’ve both learned and grown a little more from it.

  24. Keith Hudson says:

    Trent, I would add one more idea to your excellent article. It is possible that your spouse or significant other agrees intellectually with your goal of handling money better, but is addicted to uncontrolled spending. In that case, all the talk in the world (including many of the counselors you can find, if not most) will not help. AA, or another 12-step program like it, might change your lives — encourage him/her to go with you. (I don’t know if there is an Overspenders Anonymous, but any of the 12-step programs works for any addiction — just substitute your own challenge in the place of “alcoholic” or whatever that group addresses).

    Of course, if they have no desire to change, nothing will help, and you will have to decide whether to stick with them until they hit bottom and decide it is time to seek help, or bail.

    If you do decide to stick with them, a group like Al-Anon (for families and loved ones of alcoholics) might be tremendously helpful for you in learning how to hold them responsible for their choices so they might come to their senses more quickly.

  25. luvleftovers says:

    Caren @ 6:19 am July 27th, 2008 (comment #13)

    Sheesh, that sounds a lot like my ex. I’m not saying that it won’t work out, BUT… Anna has a good idea. In the meantime, you need to prepare to leave, both financially and mentally. It took me nearly a year. He is childish and irresponsible.

    Why is he only working part-time? If he’s in school, he should be working full-time and go to school part-time. He’s not living with Mommy anymore.

  26. Rachel says:

    My Mom played this game through three husbands and “just the one” bankruptcy. Now the $$ she promised me towards my wedding (I am the oldest child of six) has been re-nigged. I offered (and she accepted) my help in creating a budget, but i wasted my time (as usual)–she won’t follow it. The money went to shoes, manicures, coffee, adn other piddly garbage. If I were the hubby to this chic, I would leave her homeless. There is ZERO excuse to essentially “cheat” on your marriage (and your family) via financial means. They (the kids and spouse) almost always derve better than that.

  27. reulte says:

    “If you find yourself getting angry, excuse yourself and deal with it in another room, then return when you’ve calmed down.”

    I would suggest letting your partner know that if things get ‘too heated’ that you’ll go into another room, but this discussion is important and will need to be continued. Otherwise, it comes off very badly to start an argument and walk out, leaving the other person hanging. Yes, I know it started as a discussion, but if you need to go into another room because you’re angry — its turned into an argument.

  28. econobiker says:

    Cathy wrote: “My opinion is this kind of betrayal isn’t unlike adultery. It’s possible to work through it and have a happy ending, but you have an uphill battle that cannot be solved unless both parties are FULLY committed to it. If the betrayer is fully committed to changing their wrongdoing and the betrayed is fully committed to forgiving, then there is hope. Everyone’s circumstances are going to be different, but those two things are key.”

    The term is “financial infidelity” which is what happened to me in my first marriage. My college educated/degree now ex-wife had a MLM business that wasn’t working and she was leveraging bills through credit cards without telling me. Hidden credit cards, past due phone accounts, potential car repos, going behind my back to get a loan from her parents to attend a sales event, stealing the tax return check to get the past due car loan up to date, owing money to a friend, purchasing new contact lenses versus using the vision plan I had from my job, etc. Every issue was always a “small finacial mistake” in her words- “nothing to get worked up about- everyone makes them.”

    She was always after the “big sale” versus working diligently to make money. I had to threaten her with divorce for her to get even a temp job. Funny thing was that the first temp placement she had was at a bank call center calling people who had just missed their first auto loan payment!!!

    I threatened to kick her out a second time when I found yet another hidden credit card with $1300 on it. The time when we should have been DINKs- double income no kids- we were OINKs- one income no kids- because her employment was going to pay off credit bills only.

    She always wanted to live beyond our means. I wrangled the new SUV for her in late 2001, I wrangled the 80% loan /20%ARM for a home for us, I wrangled the refinance to get out of the 20% ARM, but it was never enough.

    The pressure built over the years even after we had paid off the debt she incurred. I nearly went crazy over time. I was misdiagnosed as being depressed and perscribed anti-depressants. The meds assisted me to commit physical adultrey when I had been faithful for over 8 years even when all the credit debt craziness was going on. The only reason I tell you this is that when I was in the “exit phase” of the marriage, the ex-wife went and bought $8,000 to $11,000 worth of brand new furniture for what would become “her house” (no equity of course due to the two financings within three years). She said she got the new furniture because I had kept her “down” financialy and had us using old hand-me-down furniture gifts from various family members. While that new furniture was solely her debt, it was the marriage’s final indication that she had no concept of financial management. Neither of us had that type of money nor did her parents pay for it.

    Even after the divorce, she is all about the money and lack of foresite. We had two children together. I am happy to pay the child support but when I was laid off and looking for new work, she sued me for almost a full years amount of child support. This was even though she had garnished my meggar temp job wages and I was paying support when I fixed up and sold old cars. The court granted her a sum under $100 (yes one hundred as in between 99 and 101) in back support and required us to each pay our own lawyer fees.

    I live under my means. I have a new spouse (unrelated to the prior marriage adultrey) who has the same financial values as I do. I am currently planning that I will have to pay my childrens entire college even though my ex and I are supposed to pay 50% each as I figure my ex will be bankrupt by that time.

    It is “financial infidelity”. I almost could have dealt with it easier if the ex-wife had gotten a boyfriend behind my back. I would have just kicked her out and been done with it rather than try to be the “good husband” and kept the coupleship together by fighting her and the debt…

  29. Emily says:

    econobiker

    “The meds assisted me to commit physical adultrey when I had been faithful for over 8 years even when all the credit debt craziness was going on.”

    That’s a lame excuse.

  30. piglet says:

    This is the last straw. I have found out that the other half has obligated us to 50k in debt for a failed business of his that he did not talk to me about. He financed it through other men; insurance man and his other friends that assured him it would be a success.

    We/he either gets it together or I am in a shelter with my daughter, as he has told me that he wants his part of our family home my mother left to me at her death. He has nothing to show for all the three credit cards he has refinanced here through are house, but his grown children are doing very well for themselves now. My daugher and I drive in a old 1997 car with over 100K miles on it, he has a new pickup. I am praying that God will show me a way out of this destruction that is supposed to be a loving marriage. There are no more straws left. He’s used the last one.

    I hang clothes out to line dry and he has accused me of squandering money. I am praying every day for a new life, I am just tired of this one.

  31. Rosemary says:

    This is why my 19 year marriage didn’t work. He burned me several time and the last straw was when I found out he had spend 20 thousand from his IRA. He hid everything and I left the marriage with 82 dollars. 5 years later I’m doing ok but working real hard and he has nothing, and probably will never have nothing.

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