For couples in monogamous relationships, cheating sexually is often considered the ultimate betrayal. But there’s one type of affair that could cause deeper scars than any hook-up: financial infidelity.
In fact, 31 percent of surveyed adults in a relationship said they consider keeping a credit card or bank account hidden from a partner to be worse than physical cheating, according to a CreditCards.com poll. And it happens more than you might think: 2 in 5 U.S. adults admit to committing financial infidelity, according to the National Endowment for Financial Education.
Worried your spouse might be financially cheating on you? We spoke with Antowoine Winters, a certified financial planner and a former investigator with the IRS, about the warning signs to watch out for.
- You notice a lot of new stuff.
If out of the blue, your spouse begins regularly sporting new clothes or gadgets and the two of you haven’t discussed these purchases, it could be a sign that he or she is spending money or racking up credit card bills behind your back.
“For instance, say your husband or wife is a bit of a technophile. You know they have a job that doesn’t really lend itself to the latest, greatest technology. But all of a sudden, they start showing up with these [new items],” said Winters.
Clearly, the funds for these splurges are coming from somewhere ― and if your partner never mentions where, it’s probably because he or she doesn’t want you to know.
- Your partner gets defensive when you bring up money.
A defensive demeanor is often the result of feeling attacked. For instance, “You ask a simple question like, ‘Hey, did you pay the power bill?’ and it elicits a completely disproportionate response,” said Winters.
If simple questions about finances are met with suspicion or anger, there could be a deeper problem. Your partner likely feels guilty about his or her secretive behavior or is worried that you’re catching on.
- The mail is off limits.
Since banks often send notices via snail mail, a financially unfaithful spouse will likely be on the lookout for statements or paperwork related to an account opened in secret.
“Mail coming in from strange credit cards or account statements you don’t recognize … that’s a good indicator,” said Winters.
If your partner fiercely guards the mail and always manages to get to it before you, something might be up.
- Suddenly you’re showered with gifts.
If you’ve noticed your partner has become particularly generous, it can feel great at first. But a nagging feeling that something is off shouldn’t be ignored.
That’s not to say you should panic if your husband brings home flowers one day or your wife decides to whip up a fancy dinner. But if you’re suddenly the recipient of many lavish gifts and vacations ― especially ones you know you can’t afford ― it could be a sign your spouse is attempting to distract you from dubious financial doings.
- Large cash withdrawals go unaccounted for.
If your husband or wife goes from racking up credit card rewards to sticking with a cash-only system, you should definitely take notice.
“Say someone pays all their bills by personal check. All of a sudden, they switch, and now they’re starting to pay them by money order,” said Winters, that’s a red flag. “Or they’re regularly withdrawing $6,000 out of their checking account and paying all their bills with cash.”
Cash doesn’t leave a paper trail the way credit cards do. So if your spouse suddenly wants to carry cash instead of a debit or credit card, he or she might be trying to hide what it’s being spent on.
Why do couples cheat?
Sometimes the reason for being secretive about money is completely innocuous. “A spouse might be saving for [an] anniversary vacation or another gift that’s really expensive,” Winters said. In this case, you might be a little peeved that your spouse hid money from you, but the intent is far from malicious.
Other times, a partner might struggle to find a sense of independence in a relationship in which everything is shared, including money. “It might be as simple as just having extra fun money or something to go out with friends with,” he said. “Some couples do that out of a sense of individuality.”
In other words, diverting income to a private account or opening a credit card in secret feels like a way to maintain some autonomy.
Unfortunately, financial infidelity doesn’t always stem from such an innocent place. “Some couples start using money against each other,” said Winters. For instance, if one person in a relationship is unhappy that the other didn’t allow a purchase, the person might go ahead and buy it anyway. Then the other one is hurt and starts spending money out of spite.
In extreme cases, he said, one spouse might be planning to leave the relationship and diverts a substantial amount of money into an account, perhaps under another person’s name.
Whatever the reason, small or large, “It’s definitely a symptom of lack of communication,” said Winters. “As a culture, we don’t talk about [money] a lot. Even in relationships, it’s this weird, awkward, uncomfortable thing.” Because of the awkwardness surrounding conversations about money, lying sometimes feels like the easier option.
The only way to solve the problem of financial infidelity is to talk about it. However, the reason for your partner’s hidden spending or saving will play a big part in whether he or she is willing to admit to it.
How to confront your partner about financial infidelity
“Start with a calm conversation,” said Winters. He recommended framing the conversation around a goal you want to work toward together, such as buying a house or saving for retirement. Ask to review the household finances together so you can find out if you’re on track.
Most couples have some idea of what their spouse earns, he said, and regardless of whether you do, requesting to see your partner’s pay stub is a good way to catch financial infidelity. If there’s money going to an unknown account or what’s coming in doesn’t match what’s going out, there’s probably something your spouse isn’t telling you. “Now they have to make a decision to either a) confess, or b) to try and continue keeping it from you,” said Winters.
“It can lead to a good conversation or a bad conversation,” he added. To keep things positive, try to remain calm and ask questions rather than make heated accusations. A financial planner or couple counselor can also help you navigate the conversation.
Being cheated on can be devastating. But at least in the case of financial infidelity, catching it can open up more honest, healthy conversations about money as a couple. Just don’t ignore a potential problem to avoid conflict.
“If something appears odd and it doesn’t make sense to you, there’s a reason,” said Winters.