Financial infidelity poll: 20% say a secret account is worse than an affair

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Barri Segal

Staff Reporter
Covering credit scores, personal finance and breaking news

Financial infidelity poll: 20% say a secret account is worse than an affair

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.

See related: Millennials most candid when discussing money with their future spouses

Money matters

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,” Coulston 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.”


“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.”

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.

See related: Joint bank accounts can help couples curb frivolous spending

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. 


“Money is 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.”

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 

Survey methodology

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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