Has someone you know and love ever cheated on you financially? Or are you the money cheater in your relationship?
Financial cheating, more commonly known as financial infidelity, is simply lying to your partner about money. When we keep financial secrets from our spouse or significant other, we are guilty of financial infidelity.
It can be small money lies or big lies, there can be secret spending, secret bank accounts, spending amounts or purchasing items you know your partner wouldn’t agree or approve of, or ignoring financial boundaries such as discussing purchases that cost more than an agreed upon amount such as $500 or $1,000.
“When you violate these agreements, it qualifies as financial infidelity,” explained forensic accountant Tracy Coenan on an episode of the Military Money Podcast with host Lacey Langford.
Financial infidelity usually happens more than one time, according to Coenan. In other words it’s not a one-and-done-crime typically, rather it’s what Coenan refers to as a financial fraud snowball.
“It starts small with an online account that your spouse doesn’t know about for $10 per month and grows to justify secret spending of a larger and larger amounts that can lead to secret credit cards or secret accounts,” she said.
Hiding our financial activity usually occurs when we believe our partner or spouse is not going to be happy with how that money was spent, according to Marriage and Family Therapist Ed Coambs, MA, MBA, LMFTA, CSAT-C, CFP, who also specializes in financial therapy.
While financial infidelity may not sound as damaging to a relationship as a romantic affair, it’s hard for couples to survive financial infidelity because there has been a betrayal of trust just like when there is a romantic affair. For some couples whose relationships have been affected by financial infidelity, one question they have to process: how do you ever trust your partner with the money again?
The partner who was financially cheated on may feel something has been taken away from them and hold resentment, Coenan said, noting there is “so much security you can lose when someone is messing with your money.”
“There are a lot of emotions tied to money,” she explained, adding that even though she is financially comfortable, her experience with money as a child still has her fearful that the money will run out if she isn’t careful.
For the partner who financially cheated, they may find it’s a lot harder to build back the trust in their relationship than they may have initially expected and may feel as if they are being micromanaged when it comes to the couple’s finances moving forward.
According to a November 2021 poll from the National Endowment for Financial Education® (NEFE®), two in five (43 percent) of adult Americans in a relationship confessed to having committed some act of financial deception. And of those who acknowledged their financial infidelity, 85 percent reported their financial indiscretion affected their current/past relationship in some way.
Which groups were the biggest cheaters? Young adults and millennials, according to a study from CreditCards.com. Far more Gen Zers (61 percent) and millennials (48 percent) reported keeping financial secrets from their partners versus Gen Xers (28 percent) and baby boomers (19 percent).
Financial infidelity can absolutely ruin a marriage or relationship and your finances, but what do you do if you suspect it’s happening to you? And what are some red flags that financial infidelity may be occurring in your relationship?
4 Signs Financial Infidelity Is Occurring in Your Relationship
1. Trust Your Gut
If you suspect something is off financially or that your partner has been keeping financial secrets from you, trust your gut. “Even if you are not actively involved in managing your family’s money, you get a sense of your financial well-being,” said Coenan. “If something feels off, investigate it.”
2. Increased Secrecy
A lot of times, the biggest red flag of financial infidelity is a change in behavior by your spouse in which they become more secretive, said Coenan. For example, they may change their routines, become more secretive about what they are doing, hide their phone or activity on their phone, and not share what they are doing or where they are going. Although many of these red flags may be similar to the secrecy surrounding romantic affairs, financial infidelity similarly involves secrecy and changed behavior.
3. Changed Money Habits
If you notice your partner has changed money habits, such as spending in secret or in ways you are not used to, it may be a sign of financial infidelity, especially if these changes feel out of place or awkward. If your partner has typically relied on debit or credit cards but is now going to the ATM once a week or more and you don’t know what that cash is used for, that’s a red flag, said Coenan. She noted that it’s much easier to track budgets with debit or credit cards so if your spouse is suddenly predominantly using cash for purchases and is not explaining what the money is being used for or why they are suddenly using cash instead of a debit or credit card, that may be a sign of financial infidelity.
4. Changes to Financial Accounts
Even if you are not managing your family’s money, you should have access to all financial accounts. If you suddenly find you are locked out of an online bank account or your spouse is financially gaslighting you about your access to various financial accounts such as bank accounts, credit card accounts, investments, or retirement accounts, that’s a sign of financial infidelity, said Coenan.
What Steps Can You Take if You Suspect Financial Infidelity?
Although we may want to punish our partner if we find evidence of financial infidelity, a scorched-Earth approach may actually harm our financial well-being in the long run. Therefore the best approach is to be proactive to try and not only stop financial infidelity from snowballing but from occurring in the first place.
How can you do this?
1. Be Aware of Your Financial Situation
Review bank accounts, credit cards, investment accounts, and retirement account statements regularly. You don’t need to spend hours reviewing the account or adding up the money, but look at your bank and credit card statements and see what the charges include so you are aware of where your money is going. Look at investment and retirement accounts, too, to see if there are any recent withdrawals you are not aware of. “If your spouse knows you are looking, it can deter financial infidelity,” said Coenan.
For example if your spouse has a gambling problem or is funding an addiction by taking money out of their retirement account, regularly reviewing your retirement account statements may allow you to catch the financial infidelity earlier on before it leads to financial disaster.
2. Review Your Credit Report
Given that some spouses committing financial infidelity open PO boxes to prevent their new account information or billing statements from showing up at your shared residence, it’s important to regularly review your credit report as well to see if there are any new accounts opened up in your name.
Using AnnualCreditReport.com, you can request a copy of your credit report from all three credit bureaus once per year or stagger your order every four months or so to keep a closer eye on your accounts. Not every account is reported to all three credit bureaus, so if you are highly suspicious, you may want to check your credit report weekly using a service like Credit Karma.
3. Schedule Regular Money Dates
Couples need to check in minimally with one another once per month about their finances, said Coenan. It’s even better if you can have a discussion once per week about your financial situation and specifically discuss topics such as: how does our budget look? How are we doing on our savings goals? Do we have any expenses coming up this week?
4. Gather Documents
If you find evidence of financial infidelity or are highly suspicious, it’s important to gather as much financial information as you can in order to review the transactions so you understand how much you have and where the money has been going. Coenan recommends downloading statements for every account your name is on, like bank accounts, credit card accounts, investment accounts, and retirement accounts. If you find you don’t have access to an account you believe you should have access to or had access to in the past, call the bank or go into the bank and ask for a copy of your account information and recent account activity. Keep these documents in a safe place so you can reference them later on.
Have you experienced financial infidelity? Share your story with us in the comments below!