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Poll: About 6 million in US hid bank accounts from spouse, partner

Hide and sneak financial infidelity undermines trust, experts say

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About 6 million consumers in the U.S. have concealed financial accounts from spouses, partners or significant others they live with, according to a new CreditCards.com poll.

That kind of financial infidelity -- hiding the existence of credit card, checking and savings accounts -- can be just as troubling for relationships as secret romantic affairs, say credit counselors and financial experts. In fact, cheating with money damages trust and can potentially bring down the other partner's good credit name and history.

About 6 million people are hiding financial accounts in U.S.

"If I can't trust you to tell you about my finances, then what can I trust you with?" asks Tracy East, director of outreach for CESI Debt Solutions credit counseling  agency. "It's really the same as why you hide anything from your spouse or significant other. Either you're afraid of what their response would be or a lot of people feel embarrassed or ashamed about their spending. Some people feel, 'It's my money and it's my business and I want to keep things very separate.'"

East likens financial cheating to a different kind of sexually transmitted disease (or STD). When it comes to money, it's a different kind of STD: sexually transmitted debt. She adds: "Relationally speaking, this can be a dangerous road to go down."

The scientific poll, conducted March 30 to April 1, 2012, by GfK Roper, asked 1,005 adults if they were currently living with a spouse, significant other or partner. A majority -- 57 percent -- were married or living together. See poll methodology.

The poll found the vast majority of couples living with a loved one are upfront about their accounts. About nine out of 10 people (92 percent) in live-in relationships said they don't and never have had credit card, checking or savings accounts that their partners didn't know about.

However, nearly 7 percent indicated they've kept these kinds of accounts secret. Based on 2010 U.S. Census figures and data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston on the percent of consumers with checking, savings or credit card accounts, that translates to roughly 6 million adults.

Credit cards were the most likely to be hidden. Two-thirds (67 percent) of the people who said they had concealed financial accounts had hidden plastic. Savings accounts were the second most likely type of hidden (45 percent) money, followed by secret checking accounts (38 percent).  And women are significantly more likely than men to have a secret savings account. 

If I can't trust you to tell you about my finances, then what can I trust you with?

-- Tracy East
Credit counseling agency spokeswoman

How much is too much to spend without OK?
Among other things, the survey found:

  • Cohabitating adults and married couples say their significant others should be able to spend an average of $226 without letting the other partner know about it. More than a quarter (28 percent) said it was OK to spend more than $500 without disclosing and about one in five (20 percent) said $100 or less was acceptable.
  • Asked how much they have actually spent without their partner's knowledge, the average was only $171. Nearly one in five (18 percent) say they've secretly spent more than $500 without telling their spouse or partner.

Couples should negotiate spending in advance
Experts agree there is no one magic number that everyone should follow regarding spending limits. Leslie Linfield, executive director of the Institute for Financial Literacy in Portland, ME., says the average -- $226 -- isn't an unreasonable amount. "There is no right or wrong answers because everybody's budget is so personal," Linfield says.

East, the CESI credit counseling agency spokeswoman, says: "That needs to be determined on a couple-by-couple basis. For somebody who has a very, very tight budget, for their spouse to go out and drop $100 on something, that could be devastating. It could mean we don't have enough to pay a bill this month."

Linfield says couples should choose a figure based on their budgets, and savings and investing goals, debt levels and other priorities. "Don't just toss out a number. That's a copout," she advises. "If they just randomly pick a number and the husband goes out and he spends that, is she going to be resentful?"

Click image to enlarge.

"It's a good idea to kind of pre-negotiate these things at the beginning of the relationship," Linfield says.

Any time there is an incident -- such as a partner coming home with an expensive TV -- is a good time to review spending plans. "Use that as an opportunity to start the conversation," Linfield suggests. "This is the maximum either one of us can spend without having a sit-down family meeting."

"It's better to avoid the land mine before they step on it," she adds.

She says couples might write a figure down on a piece of paper indicating a reasonable amount to spend without telling the other and then reveal what each wrote to see if they are close. "They are probably going to find that most of them will be very, very close," Linfield says. "The longer couples are together, the more they will have a sense of each other's money habits."

A tale of financial secrets
One husband, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says he recently found out his wife of 18 months hid six credit card accounts from him. All were opened before they were married, but his wife had amassed $27,000 in credit card debt on the accounts. The average interest rates on the cards was 15.62 percent.

A maxed out airline credit card -- rejected when they tried to make travel plans -- tipped him off to the problem. His wife confessed when he started asking questions.

"She apologized profusely and said, 'I'm so sorry I've lied to you.' The weight has been lifted off of her," he says. Despite her financial infidelity, he is sticking behind her and seeking counseling for them both.

He says they are financially well off; she makes $70,000 working at a hospital and he earns about $100,000 in the construction industry. When he found out about her debt woes, he paid off her outstanding bills. He says she agreed to pay him back at a rate of $1,500 a month.  

Where did the money go? "I don't know. Little stuff. She has no significant material items to show for it," he says, adding they don't lead a lavish lifestyle.

Women need to feel that they are secure more than men.

-- Leslie Linfield
  Institute for Financial Literacy

Because he paid the mortgage and left utility bills and day-care costs of their 6-month-old daughter to her, his wife was able to hide the monthly credit card payments. "She was living paycheck-to-paycheck without my knowledge. She's been doing that for a year," he says.

In contrast to this tale, the CreditCards.com poll found that unmarried people were more likely than married couples to hide an account (19 percent of singles versus only 5 percent of married people).  "Those people have a tendency to keep separate finances," Linfield says of unmarried couples. "There's not that same level of commitment. There's a difference between the level of commitment if you have a ring on your finger."

Gender differences
The also survey found that among those who have had an account their spouse or significant other didn't know about,  women were more likely than men to have hidden an account from their partner. The largest gap was for secret savings accounts. Only a quarter of men (26 percent) said they hid savings nest eggs compared to 72 percent of women. 

A majority of women (59 percent) have hidden checking accounts while less than a quarter of men (22 percent) have done so. And women were more likely than men to have kept quiet about a credit card account (77 percent of women versus only 60 percent of men).  It is worth noting that more than one-quarter of men (27 percent) refused to specify what type of financial account they had kept hidden from their partner.

Married respondents were nearly twice more likely to have secret savings accounts than unmarried people in the poll (54 percent versus 25 percent).

"That goes to the need to have security," Linfield says. "Women need to feel that they are secure more than men." She cites the generation of women who were caught off guard and left struggling to support themselves when the divorce rate took a big jump in the 1970s.

"Girls who were raised in that generation saw what happened to their mothers and grandmothers and they don't want that to happen to them. That's why it's a secret saving account ... just in case." Linfield says she wouldn't be surprised if the women in the poll who had hidden savings accounts were from divorced families.

Controlling relationships can lead to secrecy
Dawn Brown, a credit counselor at Family Credit Management, a Chicago-based credit counseling agency, says she grew up with a mother who had a secret credit card that she kept from her father. "We would hide the bags of clothes in the back of the car," Brown recalls, adding her mother told the children "not to tell dad."

Brown says during her first marriage, she too, hid purchases from her former husband. She once spent $800 on a swing set for their daughter. "I told him my dad had bought it," Brown recalls of the credit card purchase. Her husband eventually saw the statement, though.  She was an at-home wife who didn't have a checking account of her own and was beholden to her husband for all the spending. "He always felt he had the upper hand in our marriage and I don't think that's fair," she says.

Today, Brown, now 32, is married to her second husband, Jon, another credit counselor. She  says they are open about their finances. Dawn Brown says she won't repeat the mistakes of that first marriage. "With me and Jon, I want a little bit more independence ... I have my own checking account, my own debit card. I have a car in my own name ... As long as our bills are paid I don't have to check with him about spending.

Adds Jon Brown: "I don't want her to feel like she has to."

He says secret accounts are a "rebellion against somebody trying to control somebody else."

Add his wife: "Once you try to make someone feel they're not as good because they don't work or don't make as much money, that's when you start to see secret accounts and the QVC shopping."

Buzzkiller for surprises?
Linfield, from the financial literacy group, says couples who want to surprise one another with a special anniversary and birthday gift need not worry that full financial disclosure will take the surprise out of a big-ticket item, such as an island vacation.

"If you have a budget where every week you put aside X number of dollars as your play money, you can surprise one another with that trip to Tahiti," Linfield says. "Even though it's a big-ticket item, you've purchased it with your private spending money that you've saved. It's still within the parameters of what you've agreed."

She adds: "There are other ways to be spontaneous without breaking your piggy bank."

Poll methodology

The poll was conducted March 30-April 1, 2012, by GfK Roper Custom Research North America. It included 1,005 adults. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points for the full sample and 4.5 percentage points for the smaller sample sizes.

Where the numbers come from: Where the numbers come from: According to the U.S. Census, the 2010 population was 308,745,538 and 76 percent of them were age 18 or over. That leaves about 235 million adult consumers. The Federal Reserve of Boston's 2010 payment choice study indicated that 93.5 percent of consumers have checking accounts. Based on that, an estimated 219 million adults have at least a checking account. According to the Census Bureau's 2010 American Community Survey data, about 41 percent of the U.S. population is living with a spouse or partner. That leaves about 89.8 million people with both a partner and a bank account. Of those, only 6.7 percent -- or 6 million -- have concealed the existence of a financial account of some kind from their live-in spouses and partners.

See related: Poll: Credit card debt the new taboo topic, Let's talk! 8 must-have couples conversations, Getting married? Don't say 'I do' to bad credit

Published: April 27, 2012


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