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32% of coupled U.S. adults have cheated on their partners financially

And younger adults and millennials are the biggest offenders, according to a new financial infidelity poll

Summary

A high number of U.S. adults in partnerships keep financial secrets from each other. Find out who, what and why, and keep in mind that transparency is beneficial in any relationship.

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You’ve heard of people cheating on their significant others, but did you know they can also be financially unfaithful?

According to a new CreditCards.com poll, 32% of respondents who are in serious relationships admitted to spending more than their partners would be OK with (15%); holding secret debt (9%); or keeping a secret credit card, checking account or savings account (9%, 8% and 8%, respectively).

Which groups were the biggest cheaters? Young adults and millennials. Far more Gen Zers (61%) and millennials (48%) with significant others have kept financial secrets from their partners versus Gen Xers (28%) and baby boomers (19%).

Ted Rossman, senior industry analyst for CreditCards.com, cited several reasons these groups might be more likely to keep money secrets from their partners.

“These relationships are in their earlier stages, so that probably contributes to many Gen Zers’ and millennials’ reluctance to share financial information, but I also think it goes deeper than that,” Rossman said.

He added that Gen Zers and millennials tend to get married later than older adults. They’re also more likely to be two-income households and come from families with divorced parents. Rossman believes all of this “adds up to a population that wants more autonomy over its own money.”

“I think ‘yours, mine and ours’ can work just fine – but each member of the couple still needs to communicate about the general parameters to ensure that they’re moving in the right direction,” he said.

Financial infidelity poll: key findings

Check out some other results from our financial infidelity poll:

  • Reasons rascals cheat: The most common reason financial cheaters gave was that the issue never came up or they never felt the need to share (31%). “A desire to control my own finances” (30%) was next, then “embarrassed about the way I handle money” (25%), followed by “don’t trust partner with money” (14%), “in case the relationship ends poorly” (14%) and last, using the money for an addiction (13%).
  • Financial cheating ranks high in offenses: Almost half of responders (42%) said financial and physical cheating are the same, while a small percentage said financial infidelity is worse (11%) and 47% said physical infidelity is worse. Young adults, the most likely to step out on their partners financially, were more likely to say it’s worse than physical cheating – to the tune of 23% of Gen Zers and 16% of millennials, versus 9% of Gen Xers and 3% of boomers.
  • Many have separate finances: More than half of American couples (57%) have at least some separate financial accounts, including a mix of joint and separate accounts (34%), completely separate finances (23%). Forty-three percent have only joint accounts.
  • Likeliest to be autonomous: Those most likely to keep their money apart from their partners include millennials (69% have at least some separate accounts), followed by Gen Zers (64%), Gen Xers (52%) and boomers (51%). And households that earn less than $50,000 per year are the most likely to have completely separate accounts (32%), compared with households that earn between $50,000 and $99,999 (20%) and 17% of higher-income households that earn $100,000 or more (17%).
  • Ask now or forever hold your peace: The most common answer to the question, “When is it fair to ask about a romantic partner’s credit score?” was when they plan to move in together (34%), followed by once the relationship is exclusive (27%), then when they get engaged (12%) and when they get married (8%). Small percentages said “never” (12%) and “within the first few dates” (7%).
  • Debt discussion: As far as timing regarding discussing a partner’s debt, 33% said it’s fair to talk about when they plan to move in together and 32% said once the relationship is exclusive. Only 10% said once they’re engaged and 6% said once they’re married.

The survey of 2,404 U.S. adults was conducted online between Dec. 29, 2021, and Jan. 4, 2022. See survey methodology.

Keeping separate accounts could signal financial vulnerability

Anthony Martin, CEO and founder of Choice Mutual, said the fact that lower-income households are most likely to have separate accounts may be a sign of financial vulnerability.

They might prefer having separate accounts since they can more easily follow how much of their individual income can go toward personal discretionary items or to ensure they’re not overspending their personal budget. It also suggests, Martin said, that lower-income households would rather have their accounts separated if the relationship doesn’t work. That way, they will still have their income to support themselves after a breakup.

High levels of debt could be a deal-breaker

Martin also pointed out that the high percentage of people who want to know their partner’s credit score before marriage is a good thing because it’s an indicator of how financially responsible their significant other is.

If one romantic partner has a bad credit score, it could negatively impact their ability to get good terms on a future mortgage or car loan. It could also influence how they see the relationship developing long term, Martin added.

In addition, Martin said that a lot of people wanting to know their romantic partner’s debt levels before marriage indicates that high amounts of debt could be a deal-breaker since it can hinder their ability to get approval on a mortgage or other type of loan.

“How they’re paying off their debt could also help convey how they will deal with any debts you both become responsible for later on,” Martin said.

There are many different ways to pay off debt, and it’s important to know your partner’s plan. For example, are they paying only the minimum amount each month or are they chipping away at it in big chunks? Are they considering a balance transfer? These are just a few of the ways to tackle big balances.

Your financials get more important as you age

The generation gap in the prevalence of financial infidelity didn’t surprise David Patterson-Cole, CEO of the financial website Moonchaser.

When we’re younger, more of our income is going toward frivolous expenses, he said. You might drop $200 on non-essential items on Amazon even if you don’t really have the budget for it, and then cut back spending on essentials until your next paycheck to compensate. We’ve all been there.

But when you’re older and have a mortgage, kids and other essentials that you share with your significant other, it becomes a lot harder to get away with that kind of purchase. It’s all well and good to have to eat ramen for a few weeks, Patterson-Cole said, “but you can’t cut back on your kid’s tuition.” Your expenses in your 30s, 40s, and 50s are far more serious than in your late teens and 20s, for most people, he said.

Financial transparency is important for couples

Financial honesty and transparency are key to having a good relationship, according to Rossman. It’s hard enough to meet your financial goals if you’re working together, and it’s much harder if you’re pulling in opposite directions, he said.

Keeping money secrets can undermine progress and trust. It’s best to communicate early and often. This ensures that you’re on the same page and working toward your goals.

Rossman said it’s helpful to frame this positively – as in, “What do we really value and how can we work together to make it happen?” For instance, maybe it’s buying a home or car, financing a renovation or saving for retirement or your kids’ college educations.

“These discussions don’t always need to be lengthy or formal, but you should aim to check in on money matters regularly,” Rossman said. “I think you’ll find that it gets much easier with practice.”

Survey methodology

CreditCards.com commissioned YouGov Plc to conduct the survey. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2,404 adults. The survey was conducted online between Dec. 29, 2021, and Jan. 4, 2022.

Editorial Disclaimer

The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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