Why Smart People Don't Spot Financial Infidelity in Their Relationships
5 tips from experts and 2 red flags to watch for
Several months ago, a friend and I were discussing a mutual acquaintance from college. The woman had divorced her husband after 15 years of marriage and he was arrested for securities fraud shortly after. He subsequently went to prison. Our classmate confided that she knew they were having financial problems prior to filing for divorce but was blindsided when she learned of his illegal activities.
Our classmate was not charged with any crimes related to the scandal. She had no clue what was going on with their finances. As it turns out, so-called “financial infidelity” — things like holding secret accounts and taking out credit cards without a partner’s knowledge — is shockingly common.
Says Kelley Holland, a financial stress coach, speaker and writer in Montclair, N.J.: "Unfortunately, people often hand off financial management to a partner when they do not feel confident managing money." Holland cites a 2018 survey for the National Endowment for Financial Education which found that 41 percent of Americans who combine finances with their partner said they’d deceived that person or loved ones about finances.
"Regardless of the amount of money each person contributes, both parties need to be involved in planning, spending and overall financial decision-making."
Holland says, “They may not be doing anything illegal. But they could be doing things like racking up credit card debt or running behind on mortgage payments."
5 Tips to Protect Yourself
How can you protect yourself from financial deceit in your relationship? Experts offer the following five tips:
1. Don’t let go of the financial reins. It’s not uncommon for couples (married or not) to combine assets, buy property together or open joint accounts. When this happens, however, Holland says “couples often decide to have one partner be the primary financial person.”
One partner might defer to the other due to a lack of confidence in financial literacy or a feeling that the primary breadwinner should take control of financial decisions. Emotional and control issues between the couple can also influence who’s heading up their money matters.
Having one partner be in charge of finances isn’t a problem. What can cause issues is when the other one doesn’t pay attention to what’s going on with their money.
Holland recalls one woman whose husband demanded to be in control of their finances from the beginning of their marriage. She agreed, and never asked any questions. Now she regrets that decision. Holland explains, “The woman is now leaving him, but he is running through their savings and hurting her credit score in the process.”
Michael Tanney, director of Magnus Financial Group in New York City, says, “Regardless of the amount of money each person contributes, both parties need to be involved in planning, spending and overall financial decision-making.”
2. Learn money basics. If one partner is more skilled in this area, it’s even more important for the other to gain understanding of the basics of investing, debt and financial planning.
Says Tanney: "Both parties need to have a basic understanding of the savings, debts and investment portfolio.”
Adds Holland, “There really are no silly questions when it comes to personal finance. If your partner is more knowledgeable than you are, ask to be brought up to speed. It’s part of being a team. “
3. Don’t be shy. A partner may worry that by asking too many questions or raising concerns, it will look like he or she is questioning the partner's judgment or not trusting the person.
"Trust isn’t automatic; it’s earned and built between a couple,” says Dr. Laura Dabney, a psychiatrist and marriage counselor in Richmond and Virginia Beach, Va. “To build trust, you not only have to open up about your feelings and expectations, but you have to respect the feelings and expectations of the other person.”
Insist on getting access to all joint accounts and passwords for all of your partner’s accounts. Financial transparency between partners is imperative.
4. Take the time to read and understand financial documents before signing them. Otherwise, your signature may make you financially or legally liable, even if you had no clue what you were signing.
Sandra Fava, a partner in the New Jersey family law practice of Fox Rothchild, says, "If you don't understand a document and aren't comfortable asking your partner, there are reliable independent sources such as an accountant, financial adviser or lawyer who can review it.”
Fava recalls a client whose spouse owned a contracting business. Over the course of their nearly 40-year marriage, the woman had signed documents for one of the sub-businesses, designed to gain access to favorable government contracts. But she didn’t know what she was signing and didn’t even know the business existed until they divorced.
“Resolution of this issue cost the client significant legal fees to uncover the scheme, not to mention the emotional toll,” says Fava.
5. Consider having a weekly financial check-in with your partner. You might also want to schedule a yearly, thorough financial wellness check-up with a financial professional.
During your updates, address and update as needed your savings goals, investment strategies, wills and debt management.
“Going through your finances yearly with your significant other and a third party may prevent financial issues stemming from naivety, negligence or malicious intent," Tanney says.
Red Flag Warnings
There are a few warning signs of financial infidelity.
For instance, a drastic change in financial behavior is cause for further investigation. Says Fava, “A noticeable increase in spending is definitely something to question a partner about.”
Also, keep an eye out for a change in demeanor or attitude, especially toward money. “Not being open about feelings or expectations surrounding finances, not respecting the partner’s view of finances and not sticking to a plan made together are big red flags," Dabney says.
If a partner is suddenly unwilling to share account information, changes account passwords without notification or won't answer your financial questions, there may be cause for concern, too.
All said, the best way to avoid financial deceit in a relationship is to have honest communications with your partner. Says Holland: "A coaching client of mine remarked that your choice of partner is one of the biggest financial decisions you can make. And she was correct."