You’re getting your summer wedding guest outfits in order, buying the family anniversary gifts and otherwise respecting the societal expectations of coupling up (and we see and love you too, polyamorous babes). But there’s a trouble in contemporary relationships that counselors (and um, financial advisors) are increasingly encountering, a term we were so intrigued by that we needed to find out more: financial infidelity. We asked a relationship counselor and a forensic accountant (yes, that’s a job) to tell us exactly what this means, and how to spot the signs that you or your partner might have brought it into your relationship.
7 Hidden Signs of Financial Infidelity in Your Relationship
Meet the Experts
• Dr. Tracy Dalgleish is a clinical psychologist, relationship expert, voice behind @drtracyd and author of I Didn't Sign Up For This, a book about breaking patterns in relationships, which is coming out September 2023.
• Tracy Coenen, author of Find Me The Money, is a forensic accountant for divorce cases and corporate fraud investigations. Her work has been featured on various media outlets including CNBC, Fox, ABC, CBS, NBC, Forbes and The Wall Street Journal.
What is Financial Infidelity?
“Infidelity means that there is some sort of crossing [of] the line of what has been previously agreed upon in a relationship or with what is thought to be the norm in relationships,” says Dr. Dalgleish. “In the case of financial infidelity, it has to do with the spending or making of money that is not forthcoming or disclosed, or even lying to your partner about one of these things.” It doesn’t have to necessarily be large sums, she says. Forensic accountant Coenen, whose job it is to follow the money in court disputes and divorces, drills it down further: “Financial infidelity is any lie about the money between committed partners or spouses,” she says, adding, “It can include things like secret spending, lying about spending or account balances, spending outside agreed limits, having secret credit cards or bank accounts, or having hidden assets or debts.”
What Are Signs of Financial Infidelity in a Relationship?
1. Opening a secret credit card or line of credit in one or both of your names
The number of credit lines open, their balance and timeliness of payments is key to maintaining a healthy credit score, so not knowing that potential credit has already been utilized can be a setback.
2. Spending a large amount of money that was not previously agreed upon
Dalgleish says that this can cause conflict even if previous terms and expectations were not explicitly shared between partners (e.g., for one partner, spending a certain amount of money is not something that needs to be discussed in advance, while the other partner feels this is a breach in trust).
3. Hiding debt
Hiding key information about finances/financial histories—including debt you came into the relationship with or accrued secretly—can be considered financial infidelity.
4. Lying about or concealing spending
“Differing financial priorities can bring stress to a relationship. If one person values saving toward long-term goals, while their partner is more interested in spending all their money currently, that is a mismatch that can cause significant discord,” Coenen says. In order to minimize friction, one partner might try to hide any news that might trigger their partner’s money anxiety.
5. A spouse being more secretive or more controlling over the finances
“Keeping an eye on the money is especially important if your spouse is the one who manages your family’s money, or if you and your spouse have decided to keep your money separate,” Coenen says. She suggests a 10-minute check-in every couple of weeks to review account balances, track budgets and talk about progress to your individual or shared goals.
6. Getting you to sign documents without letting you read them
Seriously, if you’ve seen any Lifetime thriller or ‘40s classic noir film, you know not to do this, and that no one has a good reason to ask you to sign something without reading. Alarm bells!
7. One partner “stonewalls” the other in financial discussions
No one wants to feel micromanaged when it comes to their own individual or shared finances…but if there’s nothing to worry about or cover up, why isn’t your partner answering your questions? Communication is key in any relationship, and financial affairs are no exception.
What’s the Big Deal? It’s Only Money
“Differing financial priorities can bring stress to a relationship. If one person values saving toward long-term goals, while their partner is more interested in spending all their money currently, that is a mismatch that can cause significant discord,” Coenen says. “Another common financial stressor in relationships is a difference in characterizing spending. One person’s “expensive” is another person’s “reasonable.” Expenses that are important to your spouse may seem silly to you,” she adds. Let’s say, for example, that your spa appointments or falconry sessions seem like essential life enhancements. To your husband or wife, those pursuits might seem like a waste of money.
As Dr. Dalgleish puts it, any time there is broken trust in the finance area, it might feel like one partner is cheating. “A good relationship starts with full openness and honesty about one's desires, wishes and goals in life. It means asking hard questions, even if it feels uncomfortable. It also includes transparency around financial mistakes or current standings. The important thing to remember is that if you hope for a relationship to progress, at some point you will want to disclose your finances and debt history, as you might be looking to purchase something or invest in property at some point that requires full transparency,” she says.
What Are the Implications If You Discover Financial Infidelity?
When you get married, you typically join your finances, for better or worse, according to Coenen. This means that both of your names are often on bank accounts, credit cards and loan accounts. “Anyone whose name is on an account is legally responsible for what happens with that account, so you’ll be responsible for a credit card balance until it’s paid off,” she says. In order to get out of paying that debt, Coenen says you’ll need to prove that you did not apply for the credit and did not agree to be financially responsible for the debt. And in case you’re thinking a divorce would make a clean break between you and your spendthrift hubby, Coenen warns that while divorce courts can “split” joint debt or assign it to one spouse, creditors will pursue anyone whose name is on the account until it is paid in full. “A better option is to have joint debts refinanced into one person’s name, so the other spouse is legally released from that debt.”
Yikes. Any Ways to Prevent Financial Infidelity Before You’re in Too Deep?
According to Coenen, the answer is to talk talk, decide decide—before you cohabitate. “Decide whether you are going to combine your finances or keep your money separate. Talk about a family budget and come up with a spending plan that you both agree to so everyone is on the same page about money. During the marriage, you should regularly review your finances to understand what your family’s money is being spent on and how much you have in your accounts. Keeping an eye on the money is especially important if your spouse is the one who manages your family’s money or if you and your spouse have decided to keep your money separate.
“This could be as simple as a 10-minute check-in every couple of weeks to review account balances, look at transactions on account statements, track your budget and talk about progress toward your financial goals.” She also maintains that “a pre-nuptial agreement is a critical document for anyone getting married. It is the road map for how your finances will be untangled if you ever split. Even if you think you don’t have enough money or make enough money to warrant a pre-nup, you can still benefit from one. It will ensure that your assets and debts will get divided as you want them to be divided, rather than however a divorce court judge decides to divide them.”
How to Move Forward if You Suspect Financial Infidelity?
Financial infidelities are similar to affairs in that they represent a breakdown in a couple’s trust and emotional connection. “Any type of infidelity symbolizes something greater in the relationship,” says Dr Dalgleish. “Does the individual feel emotionally connected? Able to share their deeper desires and wishes? Is their partner responsive to them? What coping strategies does the individual who engaged in the financial infidelity have?” In addition to seeking an objective outsider like a psychologist or couples’ counselor, Coenen recommends increased financial check-ins between spouses in the wake of a breech. “Managing money after the discovery of financial infidelity can be tricky. The spouse who has been deceived likely wants more control and more visibility into the finances, while the spouse who has committed financial infidelity probably still wants autonomy and doesn’t want to feel micromanaged.”
“If you are hiding your finances out of shame and fear of embarrassment, share the hard information anyways,” suggests Dr. Dalgleish. “Shame likes to keep us in the dark, but it also works against us to build a connected and close bond. Being open about the hard things provides a greater opportunity for your partner to learn about you, your history, and create a plan to support each other moving forward.”
Why You Should Trust Us
Dana Dickey is a PureWow Senior Editor, and during more than a decade in digital media, she has scoped out and tested top products and services across the lifestyle space. Suitcases to sex toys, she's got an opinion on what's best. Dana is based in Los Angeles; her work has also appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, Vogue and The New York Times. Check her out on Instagram and LinkedIn.