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9 Reasons Spouses, Partners Lie About Money

Plus warning signs to look for and advice on how to cope

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Ten years have passed, and Lisa*, now 60, still asks herself, Why didn’t I see it coming?

At the time, she and her husband, Andrew, were living well: a spacious home in a Chicago suburb, overseas travel, a kid in private school.

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For more than 15 years, Lisa, a successful doctor, had trusted the family finances to Andrew. Money was her husband’s domain, she made clear to their financial adviser.

Which is probably why that adviser waited until their finances were a dumpster fire before he called: “Lisa, do you know what your husband is doing?” Andrew had spent huge chunks of their savings on cars, guitars and charitable gifts. He had borrowed against their home and run up $250,000 in credit card debt. Very quietly, he had nearly wiped them out.

Lisa divorced him. The two remained civil. But last year Andrew went to Lisa with a request. He had $60,000 in credit card debt and might have to sell one of his prized guitars. Could she spare some cash to tide him over?

What is financial infidelity?

When we think of infidelity, our minds go straight to the bedroom. But there are financial cheaters, too. Financial infidelity is an act of deception by a spouse or partner who is leading a double life when it comes to money. “It’s about secrecy,” says Lili Vasileff, a financial planner in Greenwich, Connecticut, who specializes in divorce-related finances and is author of Money & Divorce: The Essential Roadmap to Mastering Financial Decisions. “In its most serious form it negatively impacts the economic well-being of one or both partners.” Indeed, financial infidelity can hit the pocketbook and wallet, when one spouse spends, borrows, withholds, hides or gambles money away without telling his or her partner.

Such financial infidelity can damage a marriage just as much as the sexual type, if not more so. “There’s a lot of hurt and a lot of pain that comes with it,” says Sylvia Guinan, a certified divorce financial analyst and financial adviser with Wells Fargo based in Essex, Connecticut. As one woman, 70, recalls about going nuclear on her husband for secretly borrowing tens of thousands of dollars: “He said to me, ‘Don't I get credit for being faithful to you?’ And I said, ‘No! I would have much rather you had sex with an intern. At least that I would have understood!’”

Prevalence of financial infidelity

You may think that the older you are and the longer you’re married, the harder it is to hide a big financial secret. But no: A 2023 survey by Bankrate found that nearly 3 in 10 boomers (29 percent) pleaded guilty to hiding money secrets from their significant others. “I just spoke to a 61-year-old client whose husband of 28 years quit his job and traveled with funds he had moved from their joint investments to a PayPal account in his name,” says Jan G. Valecka, a financial planner in Dallas. “He also inherited money from his mother in 2015, and my client never knew.”

Deceits Partners Admit They Commit

24% Hiding purchases or receipts

23% Lying about a price paid

22% Spending money on children behind a spouse’s back

19% Saying a purchase was on sale after paying full price

11% Secretly withdrawing money from savings

11% Secretly getting a new credit card

7% Covering up debt

4% Hiding a raise or bonus

Source: “Financial Infidelity in Couple Relationships, Journal of Financial Therapy, 2018. Subjects were 414 partnered U.S. residents.

Technology has made financial infidelity easier, says Indiana University marketing professor Jenny Olson. Mobile banking can be done with no paper trail of statements; online shopping results in emailed receipts, not hard copies. “Examples are plentiful,” she notes.

Older Americans are particularly vulnerable if their partner is dishonest about money. “There’s less time to make up savings,” says Vasileff. “And, of course, you’re probably closer to retirement."

Financial infidelity appears to be widespread. A 2023 NerdWallet survey conducted by the Harris Poll found that 43 percent of Americans who combine their finances with a spouse or partner admit to withholding financial information or lying about it to their significant other. An even bigger proportion of partnered people, about 85 percent, say that a relationship has been affected by financial deception, according to a poll conducted by the National Endowment for Financial Education.

Some stealth or money-related white lies might not qualify as financial infidelity — say, the daily frappuccino you don’t tell your spouse about. Other occasional indulgences might merely be misdemeanors. “I definitely took shoes out of the shoebox before my husband came home so he wouldn’t know I’d been shopping,” admits Moira Lawson, a health policy executive in Baltimore.

At the other end of the spectrum are major offenses — actions that, when they blow up, threaten a couple’s financial security. That could mean borrowing or spending thousands of dollars, or cheating on taxes without a spouse’s knowledge. “Or it could be something as simple as lending money to an adult child when the other partner says, no,” says Vasileff. It could even mean scheming to undermine a spouse’s future finances, says another financial adviser. Some of her female clients’ husbands secretly established residency in states with no minimums for child support or alimony, so if the marriage went south, they wouldn’t have to pay up.

Reasons for financial infidelity

Financial experts, therapists and divorce lawyers agree: The reasons for financial infidelity tend to fall into several key categories. Here are nine of them.

1. Addiction

Drugs, drinking, shopping, gambling — just about any type of compulsion that requires cash — can be the spark. “Addiction, and the shame that can go along with it, is one of the most common reasons for financial infidelity,” says Jane Greer, a New York City psychotherapist and author of How Could You Do This to Me?: Learning to Trust After Betrayal.

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Carol, 61, a teacher in New Jersey, says that once her husband, Steve, kicked a drug addiction, he replaced it with a shopping habit: “When we were $30,000-plus in debt, and I was selling books to raise train fare to work, I used to find price tags from Steve’s secretly purchased designer clothes deep in the recesses of the closet, the way you might find empty bottles if your spouse was an alcoholic.”

2. Revenge

Financial infidelity can be payback when one spouse feels betrayed. Tom, 63, a sales executive in Miami, says his wife became irate after he had a financial setback. “When I asked for us to economize a bit, she acted as if I was breaking our marriage vows,” he remembers. Her spending skyrocketed — she went behind his back to lease a BMW — until Tom decided his only chance for solvency was divorce. “It stopped the hemorrhaging,” he says.

3. Social pressure

In this Instagram-crazed world, where everyone’s life looks better than yours, a money shortage can feel like a disgrace you have to hide. Robin learned this after she and Mark, both in their 50s, had dated for a couple of years, then started sharing her New Jersey apartment. “He was a charming business guy, very well dressed,” Robin recalls. “His house with his first wife was gorgeous.” Then, however, Mark’s facade collapsed. He had gone bankrupt. His current work was quasi-illegal. “I don’t think he was trying to scam me,” Robin says. “But he completely misrepresented himself.”

4. Different values

Older couples often disagree about supporting adult children. “We all know how hard it is to watch our kids struggle,” notes New York City lawyer Jacqueline Newman, author of The New Rules of Divorce: Twelve Secrets to Protecting Your Wealth, Health, and Happiness. “So, one partner will fund the kid secretly.” Recently she was involved in the divorce of a couple with an unemployed adult son, to whom the wife had been sneaking money. When the husband found out, he cut off the son, not restoring the money — even when his son had to sleep in his car — until he got a job. “Admittedly, it was a very nice car,” Newman adds. “But the point is that during the marriage, the son had been a major source of secrecy and lies between the parents.”

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5. Anxiety

Secret hoarding or spending can fulfill a deep emotional need, says Ed Coambs, a marriage and family therapist in Matthews, North Carolina, who works with couples in financial crisis. Often, he says, this behavior is not just a matter of deception but a coping mechanism stemming from childhood. Money hiders, for example, may come from families with boom-and-bust finances, never knowing whether they’d be living it up or scrimping. As adults, he says, they might revert to their childlike emotional mindset.

6. Affairs

Sexual infidelity and the financial kind can easily go hand in hand, in part because the money for the incidental expenses has to come from somewhere — secretly. But even if financial misbehavior isn’t funding the extramarital sex, they’re often linked, Vasileff says. “It’s easier to be unfaithful in general,” she points out, “because the lies create isolation in the relationship.”

7. Self-preservation

“Sometimes if your partner is very controlling, you can’t reason with that person,” Greer observes. “By siphoning off money, you are not only taking care of yourself but separating yourself emotionally from a fraught situation. Several patients I work with have filtered money given to them for the household to secretly pay for therapy.”

A money-cheating partner can leave you feeling duped and foolish. “If you’re married, you think of yourself as a team,” says one woman who, when she was 60, learned that her husband had clandestinely borrowed more than $100,000. “But when there’s financial infidelity, it’s like you’re both in this leaky rowboat, you’re rowing frantically, and your mate is seated behind you chopping holes.”

And you can pay the penalty for your spouse’s sins. With few exceptions, that debt your husband racked up playing the ponies or betting on NFL football? Half of it is yours, says New York City divorce attorney James Sexton. (If the IRS comes after you because your spouse lied on your taxes — and you didn’t know or have a reason to know — you may be able to get relief.)

8. Shame and guilt

Not everyone commits financial infidelity because they are selfish, evil or a bad person. Embarrassment often can play a role. Vasileff, for example, recalls a spouse who lost their job and just couldn’t bring themselves to tell their partner they got fired. “The secrecy and lack of transparency is often because they have shame or guilt and they don’t know what to do with it or how to seek help,” she says. “So, they just keep something a secret until they can’t” any longer.

9. Fear of loss

Often, couples equate love with having ample assets, achieving success and living a wonderful lifestyle. So, when the financial reality doesn’t live up to the fairy tale, many spouses use deceit about money for fear of looking bad in the eyes of their partner. “They create something that’s not real,” Guinan says. “They pretend that there’s more money or things are OK when they’re not. They’re afraid to disclose [the money problems] because they may not be accepted or loved afterwards.”

How lying about money affects relationships

The biggest fallout from hiding secrets about money is the sense of betrayal felt by the spouse who is kept in the dark. “When somebody that you are connected with has betrayed you and has lied to you about what you have, I think that trust is just broken,” Guinan says. “It is destructive, and the relationship is pretty hard to repair afterwards.”

No doubt, the relationship takes a big hit when money troubles surface from hiding. The effects of financial infidelity range from arguments between partners (42 percent), to less trust in the relationship (32 percent), to separation or divorce (16 percent), the National Endowment for Financial Education poll found.

A lot of the damage results from the shift in power between the spouses. “The reason [financial infidelity] is so damaging is that money is a form of power,” says Daniel Crosby, a psychologist and chief behavioral officer at Orion Advisor Solutions. “When one partner misleads or lies to another partner about their spending, they are using coercion and exercising power unjustly.”

What to do if you face financial infidelity

Talk it out

If you suspect that your spouse has been financially unfaithful, your first step, Greer advises, is to tell your partner about your concerns in a loving way — as much as is humanly possible. “You don’t start with the accusatory ‘You,’” she says. “Instead, it’s ‘I have been thinking X. I am worrying because Y. This is how I’ve been feeling.’” Greer adds, “You might be mad as hell. But your anger, however righteous it is, will probably only lay the groundwork for more lies.”

Review financial records

Ask to see any financial paperwork — bank records, credit card bills, income tax returns or investment statements — recommends New York City divorce lawyer William Beslow. “Maybe you just require a little more hands-on analysis of the documents and facts,” he says, to confirm or soothe your fears.

Review credit reports

Get credit reports and credit scores for yourself and your partner. If you suspect he or she is lying, these are effective tools for learning whether any loans or new credit cards you don’t recognize have been taken out in either of your names — and when. If you have a financial adviser you never talk to because that’s your spouse’s job, the three of you need to sit down for what could be a painful discussion.

Be proactive

The days of letting your spouse handle the money for both of you are over. “You need to step up to the plate,” Vasileff says. “There’s no excuse for financial illiteracy.” It’s time to find out where the hidden money is, how much the gambling losses or overspending has set you back, and how much debt you’re mired in. Now’s also the time to find out exactly how much you have in your savings and brokerage accounts or 401(k)s, and how much you owe on the house.

Hire a forensic accountant

If the numbers don’t add up or you can’t figure out on your own the true state of your and your partner’s finances, consider hiring a forensic accountant to do the digging for you to help expose financial issues hidden in the dark, Guinan advises. Forensic accountants are trained investigators who help solve complicated financial cases. “If your partner or spouse is not willing to cooperate and share [accurate information], then that is the way to go,” she says.

Warning Signs of Financial Infidelity

Experts share tips for spotting misbehavior with money

Financial deception

“You suddenly see that bank account statements are no longer being sent to your residence. Or your spouse has established a post office box to which credit card statements are being sent.” — William Beslow, attorney (clients include Nicole Kidman)

Lack of transparency

“If the financial statements come in and he says, ‘I’ll take care of it.’ I can see the husband not wanting to give a wife anxieties about money … but you have to let everything” be seen. — Raoul Felder, attorney (clients include Rudy Giuliani)

Intentional isolation

“Your spouse doesn’t let you have contact with your accountant. You would be absolutely floored to know how many people I have seen in their 50s who have never signed a tax return, yet they’ve been filing joint tax returns for the entirety of their marriage.” — Laura Wasser, attorney (clients include Angelina Jolie)

Digital secrecy

“Your passwords are changed for your online accounts and your spouse doesn’t tell you.” — Pamela Meyer, fraud examiner (author of Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception)

Suspicious financial behavior

“Things that are out of the ordinary. Unusual transactions you wouldn’t be expecting, such as large cash withdrawals, or if your spouse sets up new accounts in their name alone.” — Donald Schiller, attorney (clients include Robert Pritzker)

— by Emily Paulin

Financial infidelity doesn’t always lead to divorce

While serious financial breaches often end in divorce, couples can and do survive. Such was the case with Sharon, now in her 60s, a former executive in Los Angeles. Early in her marriage, she’d had an affair, but she and her husband, Travis, stayed together. Years later, when they were both unemployed, Travis caused them to lose most of their possessions, which were in storage; he'd failed to pay the monthly fees, then secretly tried to catch up but couldn’t bring himself to tell Sharon about the shortfall until it was too late. The two, still struggling financially, remain married. “I must forgive him,” she says, “as years ago he forgave me.”

After all, there’s more to a relationship than money — though money can say a lot about a relationship. After Carol divorced her shopaholic husband, she fell in love with Alex, who is her spouse now. One thing that attracted her to Alex, she says, was the respect he had for her feelings — including, crucially, her feelings about spending and saving money. “Only then did I realize how little I had been cared for in my first marriage,” Carol says. “Someone who doesn’t consider how their financial behavior affects their partner isn’t behaving in a loving way.”

* Names have been changed to protect the privacy of interview subjects.

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