About 6 million consumers in the U.S. have concealed financial
accounts from spouses, partners or significant others they live
with, according to a new CreditCards.com poll.
That kind of financial infidelity -- hiding the existence of
credit card, checking and savings accounts -- can be just as
troubling for relationships as secret romantic affairs, say credit
counselors and financial experts. In fact, cheating with money
damages trust and can potentially bring down the other partner's
good credit name and history.
"If I can't trust you to tell you about my finances, then what
can I trust you with?" asks Tracy East, director of outreach for
CESI Debt Solutions credit counseling agency. "It's really
the same as why you hide anything from your spouse or significant
other. Either you're afraid of what their response would be or a
lot of people feel embarrassed or ashamed about their spending.
Some people feel, 'It's my money and it's my business and I want to
keep things very separate.'"
East likens financial cheating to a different kind of sexually
transmitted disease (or STD). When it comes to money, it's a
different kind of STD: sexually transmitted debt. She adds:
"Relationally speaking, this can be a dangerous road to go
The scientific poll, conducted March 30 to April 1, 2012, by GfK
Roper, asked 1,005 adults if they were currently living with a
spouse, significant other or partner. A majority -- 57 percent --
were married or living together. See poll methodology.
The poll found the vast majority of couples living with a loved
one are upfront about their accounts. About nine out of 10 people
(92 percent) in live-in relationships said they don't and never
have had credit card, checking or savings accounts that their
partners didn't know about.
However, nearly 7 percent indicated they've kept these kinds of
accounts secret. Based on 2010 U.S. Census figures and data from
the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston on the percent of consumers with
checking, savings or credit card accounts, that translates to
roughly 6 million adults.
Credit cards were the most likely to be hidden. Two-thirds (67
percent) of the people who said they had concealed financial
accounts had hidden plastic. Savings accounts were the second most
likely type of hidden (45 percent) money, followed by secret
checking accounts (38 percent). And women are significantly
more likely than men to have a secret savings account.
How much is too much to spend without OK?
Among other things, the survey found:
- Cohabitating adults and married couples say their significant
others should be able to spend an average of $226 without letting
the other partner know about it. More than a quarter (28 percent)
said it was OK to spend more than $500 without disclosing and
about one in five (20 percent) said $100 or less was
- Asked how much they have actually spent without their
partner's knowledge, the average was only $171. Nearly one in
five (18 percent) say they've secretly spent more than $500
without telling their spouse or partner.
Couples should negotiate spending in advance
Experts agree there is no one magic number that everyone should
follow regarding spending limits. Leslie Linfield, executive
director of the Institute for Financial Literacy in Portland, ME.,
says the average -- $226 -- isn't an unreasonable amount. "There is
no right or wrong answers because everybody's budget is so
personal," Linfield says.
East, the CESI credit counseling agency spokeswoman, says: "That
needs to be determined on a couple-by-couple basis. For somebody
who has a very, very tight budget, for their spouse to go out and
drop $100 on something, that could be devastating. It could mean we
don't have enough to pay a bill this month."
Linfield says couples should choose a figure based on their
budgets, and savings and investing goals, debt levels and other
priorities. "Don't just toss out a number. That's a copout," she
advises. "If they just randomly pick a number and the husband goes
out and he spends that, is she going to be resentful?"
"It's a good idea to kind of pre-negotiate these things at the
beginning of the relationship," Linfield says.
Any time there is an incident -- such as a partner coming home
with an expensive TV -- is a good time to review spending plans.
"Use that as an opportunity to start the conversation," Linfield
suggests. "This is the maximum either one of us can spend without
having a sit-down family meeting."
"It's better to avoid the land mine before they step on it," she
She says couples might write a figure down on a piece of paper
indicating a reasonable amount to spend without telling the other
and then reveal what each wrote to see if they are close. "They are
probably going to find that most of them will be very, very close,"
Linfield says. "The longer couples are together, the more they will
have a sense of each other's money habits."
A tale of financial secrets
One husband, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says he recently
found out his wife of 18 months hid six credit card accounts from
him. All were opened before they were married, but his wife had
amassed $27,000 in credit card debt on the accounts. The average
interest rates on the cards was 15.62 percent.
A maxed out airline credit card -- rejected when they tried to
make travel plans -- tipped him off to the problem. His wife
confessed when he started asking questions.
"She apologized profusely and said, 'I'm so sorry I've lied to
you.' The weight has been lifted off of her," he says. Despite her
financial infidelity, he is sticking behind her and seeking
counseling for them both.
He says they are financially well off; she makes $70,000 working
at a hospital and he earns about $100,000 in the construction
industry. When he found out about her debt woes, he paid off her
outstanding bills. He says she agreed to pay him back at a rate of
$1,500 a month.
Where did the money go? "I don't know. Little stuff. She has no
significant material items to show for it," he says, adding they
don't lead a lavish lifestyle.
Because he paid the mortgage and left utility bills and day-care
costs of their 6-month-old daughter to her, his wife was able to
hide the monthly credit card payments. "She was living
paycheck-to-paycheck without my knowledge. She's been doing that
for a year," he says.
In contrast to this tale, the CreditCards.com poll found that
unmarried people were more likely than married couples to hide an
account (19 percent of singles versus only 5 percent of married
people). "Those people have a tendency to keep separate
finances," Linfield says of unmarried couples. "There's not that
same level of commitment. There's a difference between the level of
commitment if you have a ring on your finger."
Married respondents were nearly twice more likely to have secret
savings accounts than unmarried people in the poll (54 percent
versus 25 percent).
"That goes to the need to have security," Linfield says. "Women
need to feel that they are secure more than men." She cites the
generation of women who were caught off guard and left struggling
to support themselves when the divorce rate took a big jump in the
"Girls who were raised in that generation saw what happened to
their mothers and grandmothers and they don't want that to happen
to them. That's why it's a secret saving account ... just in case."
Linfield says she wouldn't be surprised if the women in the poll
who had hidden savings accounts were from divorced families.
Controlling relationships can lead to secrecy
Dawn Brown, a credit counselor at Family Credit Management, a
Chicago-based credit counseling agency, says she grew up with a
mother who had a secret credit card that she kept from her father.
"We would hide the bags of clothes in the back of the car," Brown
recalls, adding her mother told the children "not to tell dad."
Brown says during her first marriage, she too, hid purchases
from her former husband. She once spent $800 on a swing set for
their daughter. "I told him my dad had bought it," Brown recalls of
the credit card purchase. Her husband eventually saw the statement,
though. She was an at-home wife who didn't have a checking
account of her own and was beholden to her husband for all the
spending. "He always felt he had the upper hand in our marriage and
I don't think that's fair," she says.
Today, Brown, now 32, is married to her second husband, Jon,
another credit counselor. She says they are open about their
finances. Dawn Brown says she won't repeat the mistakes of that
first marriage. "With me and Jon, I want a little bit more
independence ... I have my own checking account, my own debit card.
I have a car in my own name ... As long as our bills are paid I
don't have to check with him about spending.
Adds Jon Brown: "I don't want her to feel like she has to."
He says secret accounts are a "rebellion against somebody trying
to control somebody else."
Add his wife: "Once you try to make someone feel they're not as
good because they don't work or don't make as much money, that's
when you start to see secret accounts and the QVC shopping."
Buzzkiller for surprises?
Linfield, from the financial literacy group, says couples who want
to surprise one another with a special anniversary and birthday
gift need not worry that full financial disclosure will take the
surprise out of a big-ticket item, such as an island vacation.
"If you have a budget where every week you put aside X number of
dollars as your play money, you can surprise one another with that
trip to Tahiti," Linfield says. "Even though it's a big-ticket
item, you've purchased it with your private spending money that
you've saved. It's still within the parameters of what you've
She adds: "There are other ways to be spontaneous without
breaking your piggy bank."