Have You Committed a Financial Infidelity?


According to a new study, a third of couples who combine their finances have been deceptive when it comes to money. Jean Chatzky on how to avoid this scenario — and chart your own financial ethics

Recently, I appeared on the Today show with psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz and Ann Curry about financial infidelity. A new study from the National Endowment of Financial Education revealed:

  • 65 percent of Americans combined finances with their spouse/partner
  • Of that 65 percent, one in three has committed some sort of financial deception specifically hiding a bill/bank account/purchase/or cash or lying about how much they earn/owe/or have in the bank.
  • Of that 65 percent, a similar one in three had the same sort of financial infidelities committed against them.

My take on the problem was to solve it before it happens by not mixing all of your money. I truly believe that each person in a relationship – man or women, earner or not — needs some financial independence. Being able to go out and make a purchase that is truly within your means (whether it’s a cup of coffee or a pair of shoes) without asking permission is important. If you constantly have to check (or even if you don’t, but feel that your spouse is looking a little too closely) the relationship starts to feel too parental. And from there, it’s just a short hop to the land of the financial lie, whether it’s (surreptitiously) cutting tags off a garment and claiming to have had it forever (and I have – full disclosure – done this, but not lately) or supplementing a charge card purchase with not-so-traceable cash from the ATM.

Gail, whose opinion I value, disagreed with me. She wants couples to learn how to be honest, fine-tuning their negotiating skills, and getting to the heart of the issues so that they don’t fester long-term.

But looking at the NEFE survey – and thinking more about my post last week on how pitcher Gil Meche turned down $12 million because, being injured, he didn’t feel right taking the money — made me wonder just how ethical (and – a close cousin – crazy) most of us are when it comes to money.

The web is a good place to at least start to find an answer to that question. I found a post on wisebread.com – read at your own peril, there are some disgusting and a few offensive ideas in there – that asked the question: What would you do for money? One woman in her 60s said she’d skydive for $3000. A guy volunteered to have his chest waxed for $2000. A lot of the respondents said: “I’ve thought about this for ages!”

Even better was a quiz on the CNNMoney site on money and ethics. It asked questions like:

You’re remodeling a bathroom and the tile guy offers a 20% discount if you pay in cash. It is clear to you that he will not report cash payments. Would you most likely:

a) Pay in full by check
b) Take the discount and pay cash
c) Refuse to do business with the guy

I took the whole thing and am feeling pretty good about my financial ethics (at least as they compare to the rest of the quiz-takers) as a result. But have at it. And then weigh in on the financial infidelity question – as well as the whole money and ethics ball of wax here. Looking forward to your comments!

11 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Gail Saltz says:

    It is noteworthy that I disagreed with Jean Chatzky during our segment about financial infidelity because indeed it rarely happens. Jean is a smart woman. In this case, my point was not that couples should ask each other about every single nickel they spend. My point was that financial infidelity is almost always a symptom of a deeper issue in the marriage. By hiding what you are spending you are avoiding conflict and confrontation. This means you do not have enough confidence that you and your partner can talk about things you don’t agree on and work them out. So you turn to hiding it, and this tips the scale in favor of deception over trust. It is a slippery slope, and where deception with money happens, it is highly likely that a whole assortment of deceptions is going on. So what you really need to ask yourself is what’s the goal? If the goal is to totally control all your money and not have to negotiate how to do this with your significant other then I would say, don’t get married, or get married with the legally documented understanding that all money will be separate and the emotional understanding that in this arena there will be no sharing or trusting.

    If the goal is to have a truly intimate and trusting partnership, then work on your abilities to negotiate all manner of issues with your partner and come to compromise. What does this mean practically speaking? Agree on a plan. This could be, we keep some money separate or we don’t. But discuss ahead, stick to it and be honest about what you do. Agree how much you can spend without consulting the other. Maybe this is day-to-day usual expenses on things like groceries, errands, expected bills and small pleasure items like a manicure or a pair of jeans. Or maybe you choose an amount above which you must consult each other. The key question is really “would my spouse be bothered by my purchasing this?” If the answer is yes, then you need to talk about it. If you aren’t talking it’s because you are either ducking the possibility of a conflict or the possibility you won’t get what you want. This is at the crux of a healthy marriage. You have to be able to disagree and work it out. You must be able to sometimes not get what you want, or sometimes they don’t. If emotionally you don’t have this in a marriage, then the relationships chance for survival is slim.

    So, Jean and I agree that financial infidelity is a real problem. I just think that the solution has more to do with being able to discuss, compromise, be transparent, build trust and even fight, than exactly which way you set up the bank accounts.

    • avatar JaneAmos says:

      I think Jean is a hack. She rarely reports originally or speaks authoritatively, she is often wrong or at the very least off-base when it comes to middle class/working class issues. She takes everything and reports on everything personally. Notice how she always exonerates herself from wrongdoing and is never self-deprecating.  She is divorced, she divorced, by her own admission in part because of financial issues (though I have heard differently, the issues were of a more personal nature); she should not be giving advice to married couples when she herself has barely been married for a econd time for two years.
      we readers CAN actually do our OWN research, WOW editors. Do not make us feel stupid. We will turn to HuffPost if you continue to do so. And turn you over to Jezebel. They will rip you a new one.

      • avatar Chris Glass` says:

        Jane divorce is not a reason to run someone out of town on a rail. No columnist will ever have complete agreement because our backgrounds and experience differs. You can choose to accept that you can differ without being nasty.

    • avatar Chris Glass` says:

      The key to a healthy financial relationship is talking about money and shared goals before the marriage. If you can’t agree on money issues at that time it will be harder to negotiate after the wedding. Both partners need to know what assets and debits they will have to work with from the start. I am not a believer in expecting a future spouse to take on bad credit or crushing debt that could have been avoided.

    • avatar Anais P says:

      Dear Dr. Saltzman: I think your points are very well taken. However, I disagree with a minor point, that “financial infidelity rarely happens.” I’ve known two couples for whom this was or is a problem; one divorced and the other is on the brink.  If these are two couples I have known over the years, how many more are out there? I am glad you outlined how “financial infidelity” is a symptom of far greater problems in the marriage. I am not sure if a marriage can recover from this enormous problem because it destroys trust. I thank Jean for bringing this to our attention and for providing the link to the entire “Today” video on her Web site. I agree with her that having a bit of separate money is a good thing; however, Jean did not address the problem of the traditional household in which the woman (or man) at home does not earn money outside the home and is either dependent on the wage earner for all money or takes the checkbook or charge account and spends or squirrels away money for which she or he cannot later account.

  2. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    I would be surprised if this issue didn’t affect more than just a third of all couples. Money seems to be a taboo subject in some households. Some spouses use it as a means of controlling their partners. My husband and I had separate accounts until we made a career move to a new city. We felt comfortable in setting up a joint account after the move because we discussed our finances openly. We had premarital counseling before our wedding to make sure we agreed on important issues before the marriage.
    That didn’t mean we agreed on every financial decision nor do most of the couples we know. Our backgrounds shaded the way we looked at spending on some items. What kept us from fighting over money or hiding expenses was having personal money we didn’t account for. I liked working to earn part of our income so I never felt I was so dependent that I had to give in on financial matters.

  3. avatar Linda Myers says:

    In a committed partnership, both sides sharing in the financial account for the expenses incurred and agreed upon for the way they choose to live should be separate from just pulling all assets into one lump sum of being available. Providing a core account to keep expenses stable and paid for, yet each still feeling they have not given up control of themselves in the process.
    Funds available to each according to what they earn, would still be available to save or invest according to the greater strengths they have and providing stability and independence rather than a all or nothing financial relationship. Leaving open for discussion on a equal basis how they would choose to share or distribute money outside of what was needed and possibly relieving the stress level of feeling a partnership held money as the top point in sharing their lives. Granted, I am not married at this time but would not enter into another one without a financial agreement in place first.

  4. avatar JaneAmos says:

    Yeah, I have looked at these message baords on this topic before, and you always have the men and women who chirp: “We keep our money in separate accounts, a hers mine and ours, and we never fight about money!” And I think to myself, yeah, no kidding! Because by doing this you are essentially avoiding money issues. So long as the two of you can behave in your joint ventures, financial or otherwise, who cares how you behave in your separate lives–financial, social, psychological? The whole idea behind marriage–indeed the definition of the word–is the joining of two separate entities. Keeping separate accounts only allows for the individual to misbehave and be irresponsible without the other knowing anyhting about it. It not only defies what marriage is supposed to be about, it undermines the whole concept of it. When people whine to me about how marrriage means the end of their individuality, I say, you bet it does! Legally, emotionally, physically, and philosphically! It’s why marriage is so hard to accomplish! It’s why so many marriages fail! And the reason 90 per cent of second marriages fail is that the issues from the first marriage–financial or otherwise–were never really resolved. 
     I’m 110 per cent with Salz on this. And I don’t think she’s divorced.The issue isn’t a spouse squawking about a cup of coffee or a pair of shoes (examples I am getting might tired of, by the way–pick some new ones). First of all, who marries someone who gets bent out of shape about a cup of coffee or a pair of shoes? (Other than those who know these luxuries are unaffordable, in which case, the couple needs to work together! Case closed!) SOmeone who is monitoring your finances like this has control issues–and they will attempt to monitor other areas of your life as well. If you don’t like being controlled, don’t marry someone who’s this controlling. That’s my first point. But secondly, these aren’t the issues secret accounts–or separate accoutns where behavior is unmonitored–cover up dysfunctional behaviors. The hotel credit card bill –your guy could very well be a cheater! The florist bill! Your drinking, drug, or shoe habit! These are all expenditures spouses in a marriage–whose credit ratings are linked by law–have a right to know about. 
     Spouses can forge signatures, they can falsify information, they can get you into serious trouble if a problem develops and they are able to hide it. It’s my thinking that when one adult  in a relationship is acting like a parent, it’s because the other person in the relationship is acting like a child. If your spouse is concerned about your shopping habit–or vice versa–that’s an issue that needs to be resolved. You don’t say to an alcoholic: “Well look, if you can pay for your booze and only drink when you are by yourself, and I don’t find out about it, then go ahead and drink.” That’s total B.S.
     My guess is that there are other issues  with any couples who have to keep their “play money” separate, they have nothing to do with adult behavior. Avoiding those issues won’t make them go away.
     Furthermore, most couples these days don’t have the luxury of allowing each other “play money”. Most couples are forced to hash this issue out right down to the last household budget penny.
     As for the baseball player? Give me a break. he has already earned 50 million from baseball. My guess is he wants out from the travel–injured players usually have to travel–or there are other reasons he’s not taking more money. We don’t know what those reasons are or who he’s trying to protect. Maybe he just has to get out of baseball. Sorry to be pessimistic, but that makes a lot more sense than a player walking away from a fifth of what he has already earned.
     “…From what I ‘ve read about him, that doesn’t seem like him…” That’s some hard-nosed reporting. I really hate it when girly-girls try to be all-sports-up like they can hang with the guys and all. Ugh.

    • avatar Lepidopter Phoenyx says:

      Jane: **The whole idea behind marriage–indeed the definition of the word–is the joining of two separate entities. Keeping separate accounts only allows for the individual to misbehave and be irresponsible without the other knowing anyhting about it. It not only defies what marriage is supposed to be about, it undermines the whole concept of it. When people whine to me about how marrriage means the end of their individuality, I say, you bet it does! Legally, emotionally, physically, and philosphically! It’s why marriage is so hard to accomplish! **

      Perhaps, for you and your spouse, marriage is about becoming one entity. My husband and I do NOT consider ourselves “two who became one.” We consider ourselves two who hav chosen to share our lives together, to commit ourelves to each other’s welfare, without losing our own selves in the process.
      Yes, we keep separate bank accounts – he has the passwords to mine and I have the password to his. Either of us CAN access the other’s information at any time. But we have enough trust and respect for each other that we don’t do so without the other’s knowledge and consent.

  5. avatar Belinda Joy says:

    As usual Jean, I wholeheartedly agree with your take on this issue.

    Having your own money and pooled money should not and does not take away from the love and committment to a marraige. It shouldn’t be interpreted as if there is mistrust. It is a smart way (and in my opinion responsible and realistic) way of looking at money.  There are MILLIONS of men and women out there who have gone through divorce and were left shell shocked because they never set aside any money on their own. Trusted exclusively in their partners to provide for them.

    You can have independence within a marraige. You can have time to your self AND you can have money that is all yours.

  6. avatar crystalclear says:

    Interesting comments all around.   I agree that there are couples who aren’t honest about their spending habits.   Honesty and respect for each other leads the way to financial security.  I also agree that finances should be discussed from time to time.  Our situation is very healthy as we are both conservative spenders and enjoy watching what we don’t spend rather than what we do spend.   We also are a couple who loves to spend on travel and weekend getaways.  

    I don’t have the above issues but this isn’t about me.   I have known couples that hide their spending habits or are into hiding bills to avoid confrontation and an argument.    Not good.