Financial infidelity is one of the most dangerous things that can happen in a marriage. When one spouse is making significant financial moves without the knowlege of the other, it endangers the financial future of both people and exhibits a disregard for the most fundamental parts of a healthy marriage: trust and communication.
Financial infidelity can simply wreck a marriage when it is uncovered. When a partner discovers a credit card statement that's charged up to the limit without ever knowing that card existed, their trust for their partner and their idea of financial security are tossed aside simultaneously.
The tricky aspect of financial infidelity is that it can be very hard to detect at times. You might have a sense that something is amiss with your finances, but actually finding out what's wrong can be a real challenge.
Here are ten potential signs of financial infidelity. The presence of one or two of these doesn't directly indicate a problem, but if you see a variety of these things and they pop up persistently, you need to consider taking some steps in response (see below).
You Find Statements for a Credit Card You Know Nothing About
This means, of course, that your spouse has a credit card - presumably with a balance - that he or she chose not to tell you about. The spending on that card was disguised from you, as were the interest fees.
Why is that a problem? Someone is going to have to pay off that card. The money for that payoff is going to have to come straight out of the family budget in some way, shape, or form. It's going to take away from the other goals in your life. It's also an indication of indirect dishonesty (at the very least), as your partner isn't telling you about significant expenditures.
If I ever found a credit card statement that I didn't know anything about, the first thing I'd do is photocopy it and put it back to where I found it. Then, I'd study the expenditures so that I understood what was really happening, and I'd follow that up with a meeting with my wife.
You Have Been Removed from a Joint Credit Card
If you are an authorized user on a credit card with your spouse and then suddenly find yourself removed from that card for some unclear reason, that's a sign that the card is in the process of being used for something you may not like - probably unnecessary spending.
There can be situations where it makes sense to do this. Perhaps you're in a situation where you're trying to improve credit scores or a wallet has been stolen. In those situations, the choice to be removed from a joint credit card is a mutual one with a good reason behind it.
Sarah and I each have our own card where we are the primary user, but the other person is a secondary user on that card. This is because our buying habits are different - she buys far more gas than I do, for one. However, if I were to be removed as a user from her card, I would immediately want to know what was going on.
Cash Has Gone Missing
Is your checking or savings account lower than you expected it to be? Does your statement indicate a bunch of ATM withdrawals that you didn't expect? Where did that cash go?
If you are on a shared savings or checking account with your partner, you have the right to know where the cash goes from ATM withdrawals. Sure, one or two a month might not be a big deal - people withdraw cash for things like work dinners sometimes and forget about it. What you're looking for is a real consistent problem where there are a number of sizable withdrawals without any real explanation for them.
Our solution to this is to largely go cashless. We rarely use cash, which means that ATM withdrawals are usually a pretty rare thing. That way, all ATM withdrawals are unusual items on our statements and they're usually addressed very quickly.
Your Partner Is Paranoid About Getting the Mail
If your partner is obsessive about getting the mail and "filters" it before letting anyone else see it, then something is amiss. If your partner suddenly insists on getting a post office box but can't offer any real reasons for doing so, then something is amiss.
Mail should be something that is fully accessible to both partners with only rare situations (such as a gift or something similar) preventing that openness. If your spouse is showing severe discomfort with your access to financial statements, then you have a clear sign of a problem.
Sarah and I keep all of our financial statements in one place with open access for both of us whenever we'd like to look. Nothing is kept hidden. We each get the mail a few times a week as well.
Your Partner Has a Lot of New Possessions and Experiences
Does your partner suddenly have a new phone or a new tablet that you didn't talk about? Is your partner suddenly enjoying lots of nice restaurants when traveling for work - or, even better, enjoying them at lunchtime? Does your partner suddenly have a ton of new clothes or shoes?
Who is paying for these items? Are the expenditures showing up on your bills? Are they impacting your budget? Have you talked about them at all? If not, then your partner is bumping up spending without talking to you about it, which is highly problematic because you're a big part of the solution for paying for those items.
The best solution to this is to give each person a reasonable amount each month for complete "free spending" within the budget, but have some serious discussions if that amount is regularly overcome. A "free spending" amount gives individuals the chance to buy desired things and enjoy experiences, but keeps them under control.
Your Partner Suddenly Begins Worrying About Financial Hardship
This actually can be a very good thing. It can be extremely positive if your partner suddenly has a change of heart when it comes to your finances. It can also be indicative of a hidden spending problem.
How can you tell the difference? The big sign is how they handle that worry. Do they handle it by being paranoid about balances without looking at or caring about the statements? That's usually not good. On the other hand, it is good if they start evaluating statements line by line, are interested in budgeting, and admit some of their own spending mis-steps.
When I made a complete turnaround when it came to our finances, I did it the latter way. I was much more interested in fixing our problems over the long term than just throwing dirt over my own previous spending errors.
Your Partner Gets Extremely Emotional When Money Topics Come Up
Does your partner react with extreme emotion - tears, unnecessary anger, cold avoidance - whenever you bring up the idea of talking about your finances? This is a definite sign that something is amiss - and financial infidelity is one very strong possibility.
Sure, some people are less enthusiastic than others when it comes to talking about financial issues, but a strongly emotional response - especially a negative one - points a strong finger to a deeper issue. Regardless of what the cause, a strong emotional response to financial discussion is something that needs to be understood by both partners.
If your partner is willing to talk about it but struggles with emotional control, be patient. Rome wasn't built in a day, after all. If they're refusing to talk at all and still respond emotionally, then you need to consider new approaches.
Your Partner Engages in a Financially Addictive Hobby
Perhaps your partner enjoys gambling. Maybe your partner enjoys playing the lottery or has a taste for alcohol or cigarettes. All of these hobbies - and many others - can be incredibly financially addictive. You can easily find yourself spending far more than you may have ever expected.
If your partner has a hobby that can be a constant financial drain, be vigilant. It's not a guarantee of financial infidelity by any means, but it does leave the door open to it in the future. Often, other personal pressures can cause people to throw money into their hobbies and if there's a hobby sitting there that can absorb a lot of cash, that can be a real temptation.
I've had several financially addictive hobbies over the years. Thankfully, I have them all in check today, but in the past, they've led me as close to financial infidelity as I've ever been.
Your Partner Lies to Others About Expenditures
If you hear your partner misrepresenting your financial state in conversation, this could be a warning sign that they're willing to mislead you regarding your shared financial situation.
Most of the time, people choose to say little about their finances or choose their facts selectively. Actively lying about one's finances is a large step beyond that and indicates a willingness to engage in active financial deception.
When finances do come up in my social situations, I almost always avoid the topic when it comes to describing my own state. If I do talk about it, I usually focus on our frugal strategies - no need to lie. I don't think I've ever heard Sarah say something false about our finances, which is something I'm thankful for.
Your Partner Suddenly Becomes Overly Financially Generous with You - And You Can't Figure Out How
Sometimes, people will feel guilty about their financial infidelity (or other forms of dishonesty) and will try to "make up" for it by being overly generous. Think about the traditional image of bringing flowers home when a mistake is made.
If your partner is suddenly buying you a lot of things out of the blue, if nothing else it means that they're spending money in unusual ways, which is worth considering. It may also be a sign that there's something else at work.
Sarah and I are overly generous with each other at holidays (I confess... we are big "suckers" for Christmases and birthdays), but not outside of those times. If we want to "give" our spouse something, we give something in the form of time by making a meal or simply watching the kids for an afternoon.
What Can You Do?
Financial infidelity is not the end of a marriage in any way, shape, or form, but it is a sign that your marriage needs some work. There are many things that you can do if you suspect financial infidelity.
If you're suspicious of financial infidelity, one of the worst things you can do is levy a big accusation or go on the attack. The first thing you need to do is figure out exactly what the problem is. What exactly is happening? How exactly is that event (or group of events) standing in the way of something else that you desire?
In the end, that's what financial infidelity is. Your partner is working toward a different goal than you are. Perhaps they are focusing wholly on short-term goals. Maybe they are looking forward to a different future than you are.
An accusation is simply saying that you view your goals as more important than their goals, so you immediately turn it into a value fight. Don't accuse. Instead, gather facts and try to understand how those facts are preventing progress toward the goal you thought you were both working toward. It's a lot harder to get mad at that type of perspective.
Be Completely Financially Open
If you want financial openness from your partner, you need to bring openness to the table. Every single statement with your name on it should be open to your partner and every line item should be open to question. If you expect to be able to do this to your partner, you must be completely open to these kinds of probing questions from your partner.
If you're finding this uncomfortable, why? Are you carrying on some kind of financial infidelity yourself? If you are not willing to open up fully to your partner, you're creating as much of a problem as your partner is.
Break through your own blockades. If you can't reach full honesty, how can you really expect that of your partner?
Propose a Full Financial Checkup for Both of You
Once you feel ready to open up and you actually understand what your concern is, suggest meeting with your partner to go over your finances and talk about where you want to be going in the future. I strongly suggest focusing on life goals at first because, as you dig into life goals, the financial issues will inevitably come up.
Pick a time where you have a healthy portion of the day to talk about these things. You should assume that there will be some breaks and probably something healthy for your relationship afterwards, like a date.
Work on Goals You're Both Passionate About
Like any couple, you are going to have some shared goals and you're going to have some goals that diverge. That's healthy and normal. What's not healthy is when you allow your personal goals to grow to the point where they push out shared goals.
Make absolutely sure that these are truly shared goals and that you're not just pressing your own ideas for goals onto your partner. If your partner doesn't value this goal from the inside, it's going to be hard for your partner to stick to those goals.
Try this approach. Sit down separately and make a list of ten goals that are truly important to you. Don't worry about your partner in the least. What things do you want out of life in the next five years or ten years or the rest of your life? Make a list of ten things. They can be bigger, they can be smaller - whatever.
When you each have a list, get together and see which ones overlap. Most couples will have some that overlap well and some that don't overlap at all. Agree to focus together on the items that overlap above the others. That way, you're working toward big goals that you care about internally and that your spouse cares about. It's a goal that's both internally and externally motivated.
Think about a situation where you've made a mistake. You have - let's be honest. We're all human. We all do things that we regret, usually because we put a very short term emotion or desire above a long term plan or goal.
How would you like your partner to respond to that mistake? Think about it. In your ideal world, what would your spouse do when confronted with a big mistake you've made.
Likely, you'd want your spouse to truly forgive you.
Now, if you want a spouse that does things that way, the first step is to do things that way yourself. Forgive your partner's mistakes. Let them go. Look instead at how to move forward from here.
Discuss Revised Spending Expectations
When you start making changes to your goals, you're going to directly need to make changes to your spending. Very few big life goals exist without some sort of financial consequence, so you'll need to make sure that your financial choices support those big life goals that you share.
It can be hard. Don't expect it to go perfectly. Just talk together about things you can both do to make that goal a reality. If you're asking your partner to cut back on spending on a hobby that they're passionate about, look for ways where you can give something important to the goal, too. If it is a shared goal and you're expecting your partner to stretch to reach it, you need to stretch to reach it, too.
This is made much easier with budgeting software. For that, I highly recommend You Need a Budget. It does a great job of helping you work through the realities of your spending and figure out how to achieve the big goals you want to achieve.
Start a Personal Emergency Fund
If you're concerned that these efforts won't get things back in order, you'll have to resort to some more extreme measures.
The first step I suggest is starting a "personal emergency fund." This is money that you've set aside for yourself so that your partner's disastrous financial choices do not wreck you personally. Put aside a little money each week into this account so that if things come to a head, you're not caught in the disaster.
Don't hide it, but don't make a big deal about it. Simply say that you're building a "safety net" and leave it at that.
If you find that financial discussions aren't working and financial infidelity is still occurring, you should seek marital counseling.
What marital counseling provides is a structured system where people can talk about the challenges of their relationship without having to come up with that structure themselves. For some couples, that can be incredibly helpful as they dig through their marital challenges. For other couples, it might not be useful at all.
If you're truly struggling with financial infidelity and the trust in your relationship, give counseling a shot, particularly before you give up on the relationship.
Financial infidelity can be a very challenging matter to overcome in a relationship. It's often a core symptom of two people who aren't communicating well and have different visions for their future, which adds up to a damaged relationship that is only limping forward.
Financial infidelity can be overcome, of course, but it requires honest effort from both members of the relationship. Accusations won't solve the problem, nor will anger. It takes time, it takes communication, and it takes calmness. If you can't bring those to the table yourself, you are a big part of the problem.
Moving forward isn't about "winning" or "losing," it's about finding a new direction that works for both of you.