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Lying to your partner about money? How secret spending could lead to splitting up

WATCH: Are you guilty of 'financial infidelity?'

When 28-year-old Amber* goes shopping, she doesn’t always tell her boyfriend about her purchases. In fact, she often sneaks bags of clothing into their house, tucking them away in her closet before he notices.

“I feel like I do it because one, I have a lot of clothing and [my boyfriend] gets mad when I buy more, and two, it’s partly my own guilt, like, If nobody knows about it, maybe I didn’t really do it.”

“I don’t want to admit to myself or anyone that I spent that money.”

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While hiding clothing purchases may seem harmless, Selina Gray, an Edmonton-based personal finance expert, said that it’s actually a form of financial infidelity.

“Financial infidelity is the act of hiding, lying or withholding information about spending, saving or transacting with money from someone you’re in a financial relationship with,” Gray told Global News. “Unfortunately, in my practice, this is extremely common.”

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Research backs this up. A recent study published in Journal of Financial Therapy found that 27 per cent of those surveyed admitted they have kept a financial secret from their partner.

These secrets range from hiding purchases, lying about the price paid for items, spending money on your children without telling your partner, and saying you got something on sale but really paid full price.

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More serious forms of financial infidelity can include lying about debt, having secret credit cards, lines of credit or bank accounts, hiding cash and withdrawing money from a shared account behind the other person’s back.

Why people cheat when it comes to money

According to personal finance expert Rubina Ahmed-Haq, there are many reasons why people deceive their partners when it comes to money, but there are three common threads.

One, Ahmed-Haq said, is that a couple does not have the same financial outlook. “Maybe you’re someone who enjoys the finer things in life, and your partner is very frugal … so you feel like you can’t be yourself and let them know you want to buy something expensive,” she said.

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Another driving factor is how much each of you earns. If one of you brings home the money (or a large chunk of it), the lesser-earning partner may feel guilty about spending, or doesn’t want to “ask permission” to use mutually shared funds. The result? “You just spend the money without letting them know,” Ahmed-Haq said.

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Lastly, another common reason for financial infidelity is spite or anger. If you’re upset with something your partner is doing or has done, spending money behind their back can be a form of retaliation.

Gray also pointed out that in the case of overspending, it can signal something larger. “Stress, fear, self-loathing are often attached to overspending,” she said.

“Compound that by having a spouse critique spending and it can be a disaster. People often feel compelled to avoid fights, or shield themselves from judgment, so the need to hide and lie about spending can escalate.”

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For Amber, hiding clothing means avoiding judgment. While she said she doesn’t think her partner would get legitimately angry if he knew about her shopping habits, she prefers to skip the conversation altogether.

“He’s always like, ‘You have way too many clothes; if you buy more, you need to throw something out,'” she said. “I just feel better about [spending] if we don’t have to have that conversation about why I bought things.”

What happens to your relationship when you lie

There are many negative repercussions of financial infidelity, Ahmed-Haq said. It can cause a breakdown of trust in a relationship, and potentially lead to splitting up. Research found that money is one of the major causes of divorce among Canadians.

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“If someone finds out you’re lying about one thing, they’ll start questioning other things you’re doing in your life,” Ahmed-Haq said. “Other things they may feel insecure about can become highlighted, and they won’t trust you as much.”

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Gray said that financial infidelity can also add a great deal of stress to a relationship — especially if you’re hiding debt.

“Keeping debt from a spouse can debilitate a relationship,” she said. “When we lie to our partners about how we spend, or hide debt, it creates so much distrust.”

How can couples prevent financial infidelity?

Gray said while tough, it’s important couples are open with each other about finances. Having conversations about money is key to maintaining a healthy relationship.

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“I encourage my clients to have regular ‘money dates,'” she said. “A money date is an informal chat that provides a safe place to have open and honest conversations about money regularly, and the key component to this is ensuring both partners feel safe to share information about how they feel.”

While some prefer to share a bank account so there’s transparency, Gray said a joint account is a personal decision, and a couple should figure out if it will help or hurt their situation. One thing that’s non-negotiable, however, is a budget, said Gray.

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“A cash flow plan guides how you want to spend your money and can give both couples a voice in how it’s spent,” she said. “Using technology like Mint.com can really help couples see spending in real time, view it against their [budget], and use it to create healthy discussions about what to change in the future.”
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While Amber doesn’t think her shopping is putting her relationship at risk, she does think her and her partner could be better at saving. She said they’re both aware of each other’s income, but haven’t yet made a concrete savings plan.

“We’re both like, ‘We need to do better and save more,’ but then I don’t actually know how much he’s putting away, or what’s in his savings account,” she said.

“We both need to keep better track of it.”

*Name has been changed to protect her identity 

Laura.Hensley@globalnews.ca