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Keeping Financial Secrets Can Take Down A Relationship. Here’s How To Let Yours Go

Maggie Meskhi  |  February 22, 2019

With millions of Americans keeping secret bank accounts, you need the 411 on prevention and damage control.

Money, they say, makes the world go ’round. But if misused, it can also make your relationship go south.

According to a ​Creditcards.com survey, 29 million Americans are hiding secret credit or debit card accounts from their partners. That’s particularly surprising, as 55% of partners think the offense is as bad as physical infidelity, including 20% who think it’s actually worse.

The reasons for committing the offense differ from couple to couple, and sometimes there, admittedly, are bad actors who get into relationships for, as they say on “The Bachelor,” the #wrongreasons. (The FTC’s recent revelation that romance scams top the list of money-draining frauds, with an average loss of $2,600 is further proof of that.) But assuming your relationship is on the up-and-up, keeping financial secrets can still cause significant and lasting damage. Here’s how to navigate the waters.

Schedule a Time to Talk

If you’re in a serious relationship, the time to talk about your money, says psychotherapist and couples therapist Matt Lundquist is “yesterday.” There’s much about a relationship that’s “fundamentally a financial arrangement,” he explains. So it’s important to tend to it as if it were an investment or a business. That means getting detailed.

“Make implicit explicit,” Lundquist says. Many couples make different sorts of assumptions about each other’s financial situations without really knowing each other in that regard. It’s easy to assume a partner who is generous is awash in cash, when in reality student debt may be dragging them down. On the flip side, if your partner is a reluctant spender, it could be that money was tight in their family growing up, but that doesn’t tell you much about their situation now. The key is to start revealing details, slowly and frequently until you know where the other stands. “It can come up when you first get a meal together and are deciding who should pay.” Says financial therapist April Benson, author of “To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop.”

It’s Not All Or Nothing

The fact that talking is so difficult—and therefore not done often enough—is a stumbling block that many couples don’t get over. “One or two years after marrying [my wife], I realized we never had the money conversation,” said Sam Schulz. His solution was to launch an app called HoneyFi to help couples connect on their finances and, specifically, track each other’s spending.

Importantly, Schulz points out, choosing what to share is “not an all or nothing” situation. His app, for instance, allows users to choose exactly what is shared with their partners. “Financial infidelity and financial independence are different things,” he says. While “financial infidelity” is a negative term, “financial independence” means that partners have decided—and agreed upon—the information they can also keep to themselves. “I don’t need to know how much my wife spends on chocolate,” Schultz says, “And she doesn’t need to know how much I spent on coffee. And we’re both happier for it.”

#Moneygoals

So how, exactly, do you get to that point? Schultz suggests first agreeing on how much of your respective accounts you’re sharing with each other. Then, you can go about setting up rules and making sure there is an agreement on what the monthly maximum is for Chinese takeout, for instance, or bar nights, movies, fancy restaurants, clothes, etc.  Lastly, Schultz recommends setting shared financial goals: taking a three-day skiing trip at the end of the season, buying a new car, moving into a bigger apartment. “It not only gets couples into the habit of talking about money,” Schultz said, “But it gives them something positive to look forward to.”

Yes, honesty is still the best policy

Finally, if you do find yourself toeing the line of infidelity—or suspect that your partner or spouse has done the sam—both Benson and Lundquist agree that the best first step to minimizing the damage is fessing up to what happened. “Be honest about what you’ve done,” Lundquist says, “And spend time processing why you did it.” He believes self-reflection is important to figure out what the motivator behind such offense was: “Was it just bad spending habits, emotional problems with consumption, fighting with [one’s] partner?” Only after identifying the root of the problem can you start the process of working through it and making sure it doesn’t happen again.

Benson, on top of this, recommends getting a financial therapist or any other type of certified expert who “understands both, financial and psychological damage” a relationship goes through as a result.

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