Financial infidelity poll: 20% say a secret account is worse than an affair
But only 2% would end their relationships over secret credit card debt
Covering credit scores, personal finance and breaking news
What would you do if you found out your live-in partner was cheating on you – with a secret bank account or credit card?
According to CreditCards.com’s latest financial infidelity poll, 19 percent of U.S. adults who are in live-in relationships – which equates to 29 million people – are hiding a checking, savings or credit card account from their partner.
And 20 percent of all survey respondents feel a partner hiding a secret bank account from them would be worse than physically cheating. Forty-five percent disagree that it is worse and 35 percent say it’s about the same.
But only 2 percent of the adults in relationships we surveyed would break up with their significant others if they discovered their lovers had $5,000 in secret credit card debt.
Experts concur that withholding important financial information from your partner signals a lack of trust. But honesty is crucial for any relationship to work – if one’s partner is hiding credit card debt, he or she may be hiding other things as well.
“Discovering that your partner has any kind of secret can have a major impact on any relationship. And the nature of the secret itself isn’t necessarily an issue,” said Carissa Coulston, a clinical psychologist and author of The Eternity Rose blog.
Where secrets are, lies will follow, and where lies are found, trust is completely broken between the couple, Coulston added.
Financial infidelity poll: key findings
Here’s what else our poll found about financial infidelity:
- Millennials are the sneakiest. Twenty-eight percent of millennials (18-37-year-olds) in live-in relationships admitted to currently hiding an account from their spouse or partner. This group is almost twice as likely to “cheat” as those who are older (28 percent versus 15 percent). Other more common offenders are those living in the South (22 percent) and West (21 percent), compared to those in the Northeast (16 percent) and Midwest (12 percent).
- A secret account is rarely a homewrecker. Just 2 percent who are married or living with a partner would end their relationship over $5,000 in secret credit card debt. But 16 percent said they wouldn’t care much or at all about their partner hiding $5,000 in card debt, and 81 percent would be upset but wouldn’t end the relationship. Lower middle-class households would take this news the hardest – 9 percent in the $30,000-$49,999 income bracket would end the relationship.
- There’s a gender gap in money management confidence. Forty-four percent of those who are living with a romantic partner believe they’re better money managers than their partners and just 12 percent think they’re worse. Men were more likely to say they’re better at it than their partners, and women were more likely to say they’re worse.
The survey of 1,000 U.S. adults was conducted online between Dec. 14-16, 2018. See survey methodology
Cheating is defeating
Say you trust your partner, but then you find he or she has a secret credit card. Would that rock your world? Would you wonder why on earth he or she felt the need to keep something like that a secret?
People cheat financially for different reasons, said Emily N. Garbinsky, assistant professor of marketing at Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame. But her research has found people are primarily motivated to hide accounts from their partners to avoid conflict.
Simply put, they hide money because they know their partners wouldn’t agree with how they chose to spend it.
“Many feel it is easier to hide these accounts to avoid difficult and uncomfortable conversations,” said Garbinsky.
Tiffany Welka, accredited wealth management advisor and vice president of financial consulting firm VFG Associates, works with couples to help them achieve financial happiness, prior to and during marriage. She feels people keep hidden accounts for a very different reason.
Because divorce is common in our society, Welka thinks a lot of people set aside an account “just in case.”
“They want to make sure that they are going to be OK if a separation or a divorce takes place,” Welka said.
San Francisco-based marriage and family therapist Thomas Faupl specializes in financial therapy and coaching. He said people often hide accounts because they feel shame and anxiety about their irresponsible financial behavior. They fear they will be harshly judged or rejected by their partners or might have to face a big conflict in the relationship that they don’t think they can handle.
“Some are hiding either past or current poor money decisions, compulsive spending or perhaps high-risk behaviors, such as gambling,” Faupl said.
Money is one of the most pervasive and recurrent sources of conjugal conflict, Coulston noted. Decisions about how money should be saved and spent permeate all aspects of life.
“In some of my research I’ve found that a couple’s sense of financial togetherness – the degree to which the couple feels their possessions and financial goals are shared – directly affects satisfaction with their relationship,” Garbinsky said.
Coulston is surprised the number of people who would end a relationship over financial infidelity isn’t higher.
“There will, no doubt, be many people within that 2 percent who would end their relationship over a much smaller amount of secret debt, because it isn’t necessarily the money that is the problem – it’s the lying,” Coulston said.
And financial cheating is a premeditated “crime,” Coulston added. While physical infidelity can be chalked up to a moment of weakness, having a secret credit card represents an ongoing series of lies and hiding, which for many is much worse than any physical betrayal.
For many of us, money brings up primal feelings, such as survival and safety – and represents our personal power to create the material lives we want.
We all bring to our intimate relationships our own biases, hopes and fears, levels of financial literacy and experiences surrounding money from growing up in our families, Faupl explained.
It’s both a challenge and an opportunity to create a healthy financial future together from two very different people, which is where the “we” in the relationship thrives.
Financial infidelity cuts at the heart of our sense of safety, trust and security with our partners, Faupl added, and it can also “bring up past betrayals when we were let down by those we loved in our earlier adulthoods or childhoods.”
The largest group of hiders is millennials
Our survey showed the sneakiest group was millennials (18- to 37-year-olds) – 28 percent of them admitted to hiding an account from their partners.
That could be because they are the most tech-savvy age segment of those currently married, Garbinsky said.
This group is more likely to use money management apps on their phones or computers, which often lets them choose which transactions or accounts they want to share with their partners. And these apps make it easier for people to hide financial information.
But Coulston feels this group also wants to have the financial freedom to spend whatever and whenever they want. They don’t want to ask their partner’s permission to buy a treat for themselves or have to face conflict when they purchase something.
“Money is today – as always – a symbol of control within any relationship. It’s only natural that no modern man or woman would want to cede their own sense of control,” Coulton said.
A divorce attorney’s perspective
Morghan Richardson, a divorce attorney based in New York City, said money is still the No. 1 reason marriages fail. And he strongly urges women in particular to have a separate account – even if it must be secret – for their own peace of mind and protection in the event of a divorce.
Having separate accounts can be a healthy and normal thing for many couples – it protects in the event of a health crisis, death or other emergency. It could also come in handy if a judgment or lien against your spouse results in their bank account becoming frozen.
But if the person feels that separate account has to be a secret, that’s a sign a relationship isn't healthy – you are afraid of your partner's response, Richardson conceded.
“Looking at the finances with a fresh set of eyes and committing to having positive discussions about what's happening with the finances is a step towards solving many marital woes,” he added.
How to address financial infidelity
If you find out your partner owns a secret credit card, take a deep breath and count to 10. You will need to address it, for sure, but not when you’re in high dudgeon mode.
Blindsiding your partner with a financial complaint can ignite his or her fuse and lead to hurt feelings, resentment and emotional disengagement, Faupl cautioned.
And trying to control, change or judge your partner about their money management skills can cause conflict and, in some cases, lead to epic relationship battles.
Faupl recommends couples agree to have periodic meetings to discuss their financial issues – at a time when they are mentally and emotionally prepared to have these conversations.
Often, slowing down the conversation and reflecting back to your partner without interpretation or criticism about what they are telling you is a good first step in building feelings of trust and safety – as well as building greater capacity to address inevitable financial conflict that happens in relationships.
See related: How and when couples should share card rewards
The study was conducted online in Ipsos’ Omnibus using the web-enabled “KnowledgePanel,” a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. general population, not just the online population. The sample consists of 1,000 nationally representative interviews among adults aged 18 and over, including 636 who are currently married or living with a partner, conducted between Dec. 14-16, 2018. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
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