Each Friday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance book of interest.
Financial infidelity – in other words, the situation in which dishonesty creeps into a relationship due to money – is probably the most common source of emails that I receive. I’ve heard some incredibly devastating tales of woe – suddenly discovered five-figure credit card bills, closets full of clothes still in their sacks, huge purchases done without discussing things with the partner, guilt about little white money lies, and so on. These issues are ones of dishonesty, ones that can be the earliest cracks in the foundation of a marriage. A little withheld truth about a credit card debt can be the first pebble in an avalanche.
What can you do if these little things are creeping into your own relationship? That’s the topic of Financial Infidelity by Dr. Bonnie Eaker Weil. The book focuses in on both preventative and responsive solutions to relationships where dishonesty and money are an issue – or might become one in the future.
Is the advice solid and distinct, or is it just three hundred pages that can be boiled down to one word – communicate? Let’s dig in and see what the good doctor has to say.
Part I: What Is Financial Infidelity?
The opening section lays out the basics: what is financial infidelity, are you susceptible to it, and how should you react if you discover it (or decide to confess to it).
Understanding Financial Infidelity
Financial infidelity is a pretty wide umbrella term, including any situation where anything less than the full truth about your money situation is shared with your partner. This not only includes outright lies (from the big ones down to little white lies), but also deception by omission and deception by misdirection as well. In short, any time you actively manipulate information to give your spouse a false impression of your personal financial situation, you’re committing financial infidelity, and since it is an act of dishonesty, it interferes with the trust in your relationship.
Financial Infidelity: Are You At Risk?
Unsurprisingly, this portion of the book revolves around a self-assessment – how honest are you with your partner about your money? Weil is actually more forgiving than I actually feel is appropriate – you could be awfully dishonest about money (from my perspective) and her self-test would indicate that you’re doing just fine. My expectation is, though, that many people will either ace these self-tests (meaning they’re pretty honest about their money) or do devastatingly poorly – most of the items here seem pretty interconnected.
Facing Financial Infidelity
Weil focuses on communication technique here, a key piece of the puzzle if you don’t want things to erupt into an angry, resentful shouting match. In short, even if you think the other person is sincerely the one at fault, ask yourself if you’re bringing any faults to the table at all, then mention those when you start discussing it. If you thrust the burden of blame on the other person, they will react emotionally and you won’t get the resolution you want, and it’s because of that fear of a bad resolution that people let these wounds fester. Don’t. A truly excellent chapter on communication.
Part II: The Seven Steps
The next part provides a seven-step plan for healing the wounds of financial infidelity.
Step 1: Calculate the Cost
In order to get honest, you need to sit down and look at the full picture together. The first step is to do a real and thorough calculation of your combined net worth, exposing the complete truth of all of your assets and all of your debts to both of you. From that, you should also talk about a budget and, more importantly, the goals you both have and how your individual spending choices fit into that goal. If one (or both) of you is spending money like it’s water, it will be very difficult to achieve the dreams you share. The real key is to revisit this regularly and look at the change. Sitting down once and setting goals is great – revisiting everything in three months by recalculating it again, seeing each of your contributions towards the big goal, and taking stock of the situation will really show how things are going.
Step 2: Examine Your Power Dynamic
Does one member of your relationship earn more – and thus use that fact as a power trip in your relationship? Quite often, this can cause continual problems revolving around mistrust – one partner feels powerless about money and thus tries to exert power by spending foolishly, for example. One tip (among many good ones) is to spend some time seriously trying to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. How would it feel to be the low wage earner, knowing every day that you’re not contributing as much money as the other person? Be honest and sincere about that perspective – and share what thoughts come to mind – and you’ll likely find that you have more empathy and common ground than you think.
Step 3: Divest Yourself of the Past
For many people, their past – both their personal experiences and the lessons learned from family and friends in childhood – defines how they think about money. They take the lessons from their childhood and repeat those moves in adulthood. They also fall in with the status quo bias, repeating the patterns they’ve been following their whole adult life, only making changes when circumstances pushed them into it. When you’ve reached a point of understanding that things have to change, it’s worthwhile to look at the patterns of your past and separate the wheat from the chaff.
Step 4: Break Up with Your Money
Many couples allow money to become the focal point of their relationship. It becomes the glue holding things together – hey, we both have money to do the things we each enjoy, so even though there are other problems, we use money to whitewash it (or greenwash it, I suppose). What, then, do you suppose happens if the flow of money goes away? That’s why it’s important to compartmentalize your money discussions and interactions. Have a scheduled, regular money meeting, talk about your finances then, and follow it up with something fun to do together that doesn’t involve money at all.
Step 5: Define the Currency of Your Relationship
Instead of letting money be the fundamental currency of your relationship, base it on something else. Figure out the elements of life – the values – that are most important to each of you and let those be the foundation of your relationship, not money and things. Sit down together and talk about those other things that you share. Focus on those commonalities and let everything else fall into place behind those key things. Because, in the end, you didn’t marry each other for the money (hopefully).
Step 6: Refinance Your Relationship
The next step is to focus in intensely on the non-financial mechanics of your relationship. It really can be hard work to get along with someone for years and years, even if it’s someone you care deeply about. Put in some time and effort to do nothing more than make your partner happy. Look for the little things – go out on dates, give in to some of the things that they want, plan little surprises here and there. If your relationship is clicking, it’s a lot easier to make the money click, too.
Step 7: Invest in Your Future
The final step is, in effect, maintenance. The previous steps are all great at getting you back on track, but if you just do them once and walk away, eventually events in your life and your relationship will bring back all of those nasty patterns. Don’t let it happen. Work on maintaining the positive state you’ve built. Weil offers a ton of little suggestions here, but they mostly revolve around being continuously mindful of the other steps and going back to them very regularly to keep things together.
Part III: The Biochemical Component
The book closes with a pair of short pieces on related topics.
The Brain-Body Connection
Sometimes, these steps won’t work, due to the result of other interpersonal and biochemical factors. If you’ve tried sincerely and honestly to work on these issues and found that the same nasty things keep repeating themselves, you may need professional help. Addictions, psychological issues, and other things may be at work, and no matter how hard you try, you’re always facing an uphill battle against such things. Seek professional assistance if these kinds of things are in play.
The Case for Financial Fidelity and Lasting Love
Financial fidelity is just one piece of the puzzle of lasting love. If you commit yourself to actually working hard on your relationship and doing it consistently, you’ll find that love can remain all throughout your life. It’s not easy and it takes consistent effort, though – don’t let it slip through your fingers.
Some Thoughts on Financial Infidelity
Financial infidelity is just a surface issue. Weil more or less makes the point here that financial infidelity is usually the result of a deeper issue in the relationship – money issues are just a symptom. That’s why most of the steps revolve around brushing away the money issues themselves and figuring out what’s really going on.
Relationships need (and deserve) nurturing. It’s very easy to get caught up in what we want without thinking about what our partner wants and needs. I usually avoid relationship advice, but I’ve found one thing works really, really well for my marriage: spend one hour a day focused entirely on what your partner needs. Forget what you need or want, focus on your partner entirely for one hour a day and you’ll be fine. Sometimes that need manifests itself in household chores. Other times, it’s just sitting together near each other watching a movie. Once in a while, it’s a back rub. Quite often, it involves some kind words and support after a hard day’s work. But one thing’s for sure – that one hour a day is well worth it.
Is Financial Infidelity Worth Reading?
You probably know from the title whether you need to read Financial Infidelity. From my perspective, it absolutely nails the problem – financial infidelity is usually just a symptom of something else going on. Weil does a great job of providing tons of easily workable steps for piecing out what exactly that issue is – and what you can do together to solve it.
If you don’t trust your partner when it comes to money, Financial Infidelity is essential reading. This review really only scratches the surface of the wisdom within. Financial Infidelity is an excellent book that really hammers down on something that is a real problem in many, many relationships.