By the time Aimee* discovered how much money Mark* was spending on sports memorabilia and team jerseys, her family was already thousands of dollars in debt. What’s worse, Mark wasn’t just spending his paycheck on apparel and gear, he was taking out credit cards in Aimee’s name. And Aimee was liable for all the charges on “her” accounts. Mark’s out-of-control spending ruined her personal credit. It also ruined her marriage.
Aimee confronted Mark about his spending, but he was less than forthcoming. Soon, she wondered what else he might be hiding. In the meantime, Mark continued spending money and refusing to tell her how much. She tried to help Mark tame his financial addiction but soon realized he valued his spending habits more than his marriage. Not long after, the couple separated. Aimee was left with a mountain of debt and a broken relationship. She — like many other spouses — was a victim of financial infidelity.
You may not be familiar with the term “financial infidelity,” but you may be all too familiar with the pain and frustration that comes from a spouse’s constant, reckless spending. Financial infidelity is a growing problem. According to a 2020 survey by CreditCards.com — a credit card review service — 44% of respondents admit to hiding a credit card or bank account from their spouse. And the problem goes beyond an occasional spending spree. By the time a spouse discovers their husband’s or wife’s spending problem, the couple may be in debt and in serious marital trouble.
What is financial infidelity?
Many people equate the word infidelity with affair. Although financial infidelity doesn’t involve another person, it is a hidden or secret behavior that harms the marriage.
To better explain the issue, Dr. Greg Smalley, vice president of Marriage at Focus on the Family, and Bob Paul, vice president of the Focus on the Family Marriage Institute, discussed the problem of financial infidelity and how it harms the marriage relationship.
Why is it a problem?
“It’s a secret,” Dr. Greg Smalley says. “You’re actively trying to keep your spouse from knowing. You’ve got a secret credit card, a hidden bank account. You’re buying things without your spouse knowing it. So, all the effort and energy — like an affair — go to cover all that up so you don’t get caught.”
Bob Paul explains that while the behavior is like an emotional or physical affair, financial infidelity starts as an addiction — similar to an addiction to gambling, alcohol, drugs or shopping. And, like any addiction, it’s an inappropriate response to the stresses of life. “It’s a coping mechanism,” Bob Paul says. “When people are feeling empty or stressed … if there’s a sense of meaninglessness in their life or they’re feeling depressed, anxious, sad, whatever … it’s a way to make themselves feel better.” By the way, it’s not just women who are shopping and recklessly spending money. Most times, men are more likely to commit financial infidelity. While women are often accused of buying “another pair of shoes,” men spend just as much money on clothes and hobbies.
What makes it infidelity?
While financial infidelity may not involve a secret partner, it can be just as damaging to the marriage. “The person engaged in financial secrecy has to spend so much energy, so much time, so much personal capital to keep it all hidden,” Dr. Smalley explains. “Think of all the time it would take — much like an affair — to make sure you’ve deleted text messages, so phone records don’t show up and credit card statements [are hidden].” Such intense secrecy creates barriers to marital intimacy. “When you’re maintaining that type of secret you can’t be fully known or fully intimate.”
What are the signs of financial infidelity?
It’s not uncommon for a spouse to make an occasional surprise purchase or go on an unplanned shopping spree. The heartfelt — but expensive — anniversary gift or too-good-to-be-true bargain may upend the budget but may just be a one-time purchase. Financial infidelity is a much more serious issue. And, unless you know what to look for, it’s hard to spot until it’s too late. But there are signs that point to the problem
- Your spouse has several new purchases
- Your spouse has an expensive hobby and is always buying something for it
- You find a credit card statement or bank statement for an account you didn’t know existed
If you see these signs, it may be time to meet with a counselor who can help you talk to your spouse about your secret spending. Financial infidelity can do more than drain your bank account. It can harm your credit scores, affect your mortgage and put your future at risk.
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What if I’m the problem?
Maybe as you read this, you realize that your spending habits are putting your marriage at risk. What should you do?
Dr. Smalley advises couples struggling with financial infidelity to be open about the problem. Be transparent about your spending. Talk about the purchases. Meet with a marriage counselor who can help you rebuild trust with your spouse.
Bob Paul also reminds couples that rebuilding trust can take time. “Many people want to believe that when they have violated their spouse’s trust that a simple, heartfelt apology is sufficient. I will tell them it takes 10 times longer to rebuild trust than it does to tear it down. And if you’re the offending spouse and you want to re-establish trust … this is going to take some time.”
What should I do?
There is hope for couples who are committed to the marriage and want to rebuild a close, connected relationship. The first step to restoring trust is to be open about your spending. You may need to meet with a marriage counselor and financial planner to get your marriage and finances back on track. The key to keeping your marriage intact is for both spouses to remember that you are on a team, and it takes both spouses working together to overcome the challenges of financial infidelity.
*Names changed for privacy.