Heart folded from a dollar bill between two paper dolls

Consider this: Your husband bought you both round trip tickets for a vacation in Mexico. The gift is an amazing surprise — but there’s no way you can afford it right now. Or maybe your partner purchased a new mattress for the guest bedroom. She said she got a great deal, and you have family visiting soon. Still, it cost hundreds of dollars, and the two of you have been saving to replace your old clunker of a car.

Finding out your partner has committed financial infidelity can be upsetting, scary, and shocking — and rightly so. Will this affect your ability to save for retirement? What about your children’s college savings? Are you going to need to refinance your mortgage?

You may also feel confused or even guilty for being upset.

But just like small, seemingly harmless interactions (a text exchange here or Facebook message thread there) can cause growing tension, financial infidelity can quietly creep into a relationship.

Building a financial future together with your significant other is often a key component of long-term partnerships and marriages. But what happens when one partner is keeping secrets? Whether it’s an occasional hidden receipt, a private savings account, or a growing pile of secret debt, how can you work through these types of transgressions?

What is financial infidelity?

Financial infidelity occurs when you keep financial secrets from your partner. It can take shape in a number of ways — from fibbing about costs, to subscribing to far too many streaming services, to concealing a huge debt.

Other examples of what it may look like include:

  • Hiding purchases or receipts
  • Downplaying the cost of something or lying about a purchase being on sale
  • Opening a secret credit card or hiding a credit score
  • Not telling a partner about a bonus or raise (or a job loss)
  • Taking money out of savings without telling your partner
  • Gambling away money

Oftentimes, financial infidelity isn’t overtly insidious — maybe you’re embarrassed about splurging on a pair of shoes or your partner spent more at dinner with friends than intended. In fact, in a Harris Poll survey, two in five American adults who have combined finances with a partner admitted to committing some form of financial transgression against a partner or loved one.

But when these acts become a pattern (one pair of shoes becomes 15) or escalate to a major breach of trust, it has the potential to become a more serious problem. A hidden credit score can financial trouble down the road, like when purchasing a car or home. And if not addressed openly, financial infidelity can lead to separation and divorce. Having transparent conversations about your finances — before or after any transgressions — can help build trust and strengthen a partnership … and ensure you have a plan in place in case of any financial hiccups.

Dealing With Financial Infidelity

Lay It All on the Table

Strong relationships are built on trust, communication, and vulnerability between partners. And few facets of a relationship require these qualities more than when it comes to finances.

If you feel frustrated by surprise expenses or blindsided and betrayed by an unknown bank account, it can be tough to know where to begin in order to move forward. It’s possible to restore the trust that’s been lost (no matter the scale), but it can take time — and that’s okay. Forcing a conversation before one party is ready or willing to contribute may only increase tensions.

When you’re ready, the first step is to be open and honest about past purchases, mistakes, or indiscretions — big or small. Make a date to discuss these spending habits and how they impact your family budget and future goals. Together, you can start to work through your issues and form a plan to avoid them in the future. This crucial conversation will require patience and vulnerability by both partners, as anything left hidden can result in exacerbated issues later on.

Uncover the “Why?”

It’s difficult to fix a problem when you don’t know what causes it. By digging deep to the root of financial infidelity, you can take the necessary steps to keep it from happening in the future.

Whether your partner has shopaholic tendencies they can’t seem to get under control, a secret savings account, or has taken out a loan without consulting you, try to understand the “why.” Do they get a thrill when new packages arrive on the front porch? Is it a need to keep up with a friend who has a significantly higher income? Or is something else fueling the need to spend — and hide it?

While it may be easy to blame their actions on selfishness, financial infidelity is often caused by a number of factors, from pride to ego, shame to guilt, or even embarrassment or anxiety. Money habits can be deeply personal, so it’s important to get a sense of any larger struggles that may exist.

Hold each other accountable.

To move forward after financial infidelity, you and your partner need to create a game plan for handling finances in the future. This may include a debt payoff plan, a revised budget, regular financial check-ins, or a combination of all three. But most importantly, you’ll want to establish a foundation of transparency going forth — meaning more open and regular conversations surrounding money.

Whether you decide to discuss your finances daily, weekly, or less often, stick to a regular schedule. The consistency means there’s less opportunity for purchases to slip through the cracks or for money to be unaccounted for.

The more regularly you have these talks, the more comfortable they’ll become. They don’t always have to be formal, business-style meetings. And they certainly shouldn’t be accusatory conversations. Instead, maybe you discuss money while you cook dinner together or you follow up your conversations with a date night.

If the financial infidelity in your relationship is extremely serious or is the result of other problems (like addiction), consider seeking outside professional help. Working with a counselor or other third-party may help you feel more equipped to take on the future.

No one wants to face infidelity in a relationship — financial or otherwise. But with a commitment to transparency from both you and your partner, it may be possible to move forward toward a healthy financial future.

Want more on how to successfully combine finances?

Learn more.