Not all couples decide to combine their finances, but of those who do, sharing finances can lead to big and small acts of financial deception.
In fact, according to a survey from the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) just 61% of U.S. adults have ever combined finances in a past or current relationship. For some, merging their money may feel like an infringement on privacy, or it can open up the relationship to new forms of embarrassment and fear.
In the NEFE survey, more than 2,000 adults were asked about their acts of "financial infidelity," including lies or deceptive behavior related to money. While the majority of respondents did not report committing deceit, some reported acts as small as hiding minor purchases or as significant as lying about income and hiding bank accounts.
Most common forms of financial infidelity
Of those who have combined their finances with a partner, 39% admitted to hiding financial activity or accounts from their significant other. About 1 in 5 (21%) also revealed they've lied about money. By comparison, 30% of respondents also said they've lied or kept a significant secret from a partner about something other than finances.
Here are the most common forms of financial deceit or infidelity that respondents report committing:
- Hiding cash (19%) or a statement/bill (13%)
- Hiding a minor purchase (18%) or a major purchase (9%)
- Hiding a bank account (11%)
- Lying about their income (10%) or the amount of debt they owe(d) (10%)
Respondents also reported instances in which they'd discovered infidelity. Based on the numbers, most acts of deceit are exposed, while 39% say they've hidden financial activities, 36% say they've discovered a deception, and while 24% report lying, 24% say they've discovered a partner's lie.
As a result of financial deception, the survey revealed that:
- 42% said it led to an argument
- 32% said it caused a deterioration in trust
- 16% said it led to divorce or to a separation of finances
- 13% said it led to a separation
- 19% said the discovery led to the couple becoming more open with each other
Reasons for financial infidelity
When asked why they lie or hide financial information, survey respondents shared mostly predictable motivations. For example, a third say they're embarrassed or fearful about their finances and concerned their partner will disapprove of their actions, with some citing past discussions as the source of these feelings (27%). But 38% say they believe certain aspects of their finances should be kept private, even in a committed relationship.
NEFE didn't expound further on reasons why one might hide money from a partner, but in some cases it can be correlated with harmful behavior, such as a way of gaining control in a relationship or as part of a backup plan to leave an unsafe situation.
For anyone experiencing financial abuse, or a partner's withholding and controlling of financial resources, other forms of abuse are likely taking place, too. The Office on Women's Health recommends that women who need support can contact the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233). Individuals in search of shelter can also use the search tool from DomesticShelters.org.
How to recover from financial deceit
For anyone in a partnership who wants to come clean or recover from financial infidelity, open conversation and a commitment to new goals may be a solution. NEFE offers a few recommendations:
- Allow time to rebuild trust and sustained transparency
- Commit to open communication even if it's stressful. Try to understand why the deception occurred and how you can move forward together.
- Create rules and goals together. Find areas of compromise and be open to a new approach to combining finances.
However difficult, there's hope that some resolution can be gained. Of those who experienced financial infidelity in the past, 81% say it's still an issue in their relationship, but 64% say they've resolved to change how they and their partner manage finances, including more open communication or a new approach to managing money together.
Methodology: The survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of NEFE between June 28-30, 2020 among 2,073 adults ages 18+.