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Financial adultery: Why spouses hide the truth about money and how to stop the lies

The bike still bugs her.

It was a sweet Felt cruiser bicycle with a pumpkin orange finish.

Matt Kelly spent $500 on said bike without asking his wife Cheri.

"She had one mindset of how we were doing," he said, "and I had a completely different mindset that said we could afford a $400 to $500 bike just for the fun of it."

Kelly and his wife had separate bank accounts — an artifact left over from their single days. "We got married and just never combined our bank accounts," he said. "In fact, our banks merged before we merged our bank accounts. Her bank bought my bank."

It wasn't until 1999, four years after their marriage, that they moved from Chicago to Durango, Colo. and combined their accounts. Kelly thinks it took that long because they had a sense they would lose freedom and would have to have a difficult discussion about personal finances.

Since that time, Kelly has become a personal finance coach and author. "I see a lot of clients who haven't bought into merging their finances and their dreams," he said. "When we keep our finances separate, at some level it keeps us separate in the relationship."

Who lies?

Dr. Bonnie Eaker Weil is a family therapist in New York City and is the author of "Financial Infidelity." She works with patients who struggle to communicate about money — and who lie about money.

Not that lying about money is rare.

A National Endowment for Financial Education and poll found that 31 percent of couples with combined finances are deceptive about money. Those couples hide cash (51percent), they hide purchases (54 percent) and bills (30 percent). And they lie about finances, debt and money earned (34 percent).

And with taxes coming due in April, many deceptive spouses are being outed by the cold calculations required to fill out the tax forms. This just happened to one of Weil's clients. The wife spent thousands at Saks Fifth Ave and had to return the $500 jars of cosmetics to the store so there would be enough money to pay Uncle Sam.

"Money has a lot to do with fear, power and control," Weil said. "People don't feel safe discussing money. It's a very hot topic. It is ripe for a power struggle."

Like the time one of Weil's patients wanted a house in the Hamptons — but his wife did not. He put a down payment on a house without telling her. "When people do things like this it makes the other person feel invisible," Weil said. "It is a way of overseering and having a power play."

The couple have since worked out their differences.

Why lie?

Weil thinks money is often a problem in relationships because opposites attract. Spenders are attracted to savers and vice versa. "Right away you start off with a power struggle," she said.

There are a lot of irrational fears and secrecy about money, Weil said. People use it to fill in a void — something they didn't get in childhood or in their current relationship. "Money is a stand-in for love," she said.

With so much deep personal meaning wrapped up in money, people are afraid to talk about it or to reveal what they are doing with it. They keep it secret. "I call it the money mistress," Weil said.

And that mistress, with her lies and deception, can get in the way of real love. It's the deception that destroys the intimacy. And without intimacy, couples can't have true and lasting love.

But there is a better way.

"When you talk about money," Weil said, "it actually strengthens your relationship. It gives you commitment and trust and better honesty."

Money talks

Kerry Patterson said for couples to talk about money and deception, they have to first "name the game."

Patterson, a coauthor of the New York Times bestseller "Crucial Conversations" and co-founder of the Utah-based consulting firm VitalSmarts, said the game isn't spending money on something. The game is the deception surrounding the spending.

So you talk about how your spouse withheld cash from a deposit and kept it hidden from you. You do not talk about how he bought a new Xbox 360 with the Kinect live-movement controller interface.

"It is the strategy that they employed that was inappropriate based upon your expectations," Patterson said. "They came up with a new trick or a new ploy."

You talk about what they did — the behavior — and then about why they felt they had to do that.

Often the answer will be, "Because I needed the money for such-and-such and I knew you would disagree."

Patterson said you have to say back, "We have to talk about it. Otherwise it harms the relationship. Even if it is painful, we have to talk about it until we come to an agreement that we both are satisfied with."

Patterson said often the problem comes because we don't understand the other person's full point of view. For example, a spouse may want an extra $10 so that she can go to lunch with co-workers without being embarrassed. "If you explain the consequences if you do or do not spend the money, then the other person understands why it is important to you," he said.

"You want to constantly be solving the right problem," Patterson said. "That is, make sure you are dealing with the strategy that is being employed and not the thing that they bought. That is the biggest mistake."

Financial exercises

Weil recommends starting out with maybe a ten minute money discussion each week. As trust grows, the time can be longer.

One exercise Weil gives her clients is to have both partners rank their expenditures by importance. "You will see that you are probably very far apart," she said. "He might say a car and you might say your kids tuition."

Other exercises include ranking overspending. In another, each partner might list things the other buys that he or she doesn't think they need to spend.

Another thing that helps, Weil said, is for each spouse to have a "guilt-free account" of money to spend without having to account for it. The amount could be, for example, $100 per month. The point is that it is an agree-upon amount.

Exercises like this change the power dynamic and relationship to money Weil said. It helps people to look at their shared values and non-shared values. It put those values in the context of the past and makes it so money is not used as a power play.

Weil said most men don't enjoy discussions, and so recommends tying the weekly discussions to fun things — such as taking a walk or cuddling. "You can actually have a good time doing this," she said.

What is important

There really is no way to avoid the issue of money in a marriage. It will come out one way or another.

"You can't have winners and losers when it comes to money and marriage. Money is too important and carries too much weight with it and if you make a winner and a loser then you are both going to lose," Patterson said. "The relationship would suffer. The person who is unhappy with it is going to revisit it and it is going to harm the relationship. You have to come up with resolutions you both support."

"You have to be willing to be wrong," Patterson said.

Matt Kelly never did quite fess up that he shouldn't have bought the bike, but that is in the past and the sweet pumpkin orange bicycle was since been sold. Today, Kelly and his wife keep a budget and work together on their finances.

"We began to spend in alignment with our dreams," he said. "It was like having 30 percent more money because we were being very conscious about how we spent it."

Every month Kelly and his wife work together on their budget. It gives them a chance to communicate about the important things in their lives. "What's most important to us can be detected in our checking account in how we spend money and in our calendars in how we spend time," he said. "You decided together what is most important and then act on that as a couple."

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