John Egan | Contributor Mike Cetera | Editor
March 27, 2023
Infidelity in a relationship can be heartbreaking. But financial infidelity, including hidden credit cards and undisclosed debts, can be both heartbreaking and break the bank.
Sadly, financial infidelity is all too common. A survey commissioned by Forbes Advisor and conducted by market research company Prolific found that 38% of adults had lied to a partner about their finances. And more than half (54%) of the people surveyed said lying about finances is equivalent to other types of lying or infidelity.
“Financial infidelity is more common than people may realize and can be just as violating and hurtful as romantic infidelity,” says consumer finance and budgeting expert Andrea Woroch. “Considering that [the majority] of couples fight over money, there’s a lot of room for financial cheating, especially when one person in a relationship feels pressure to spend less or is dealing with a problematic financial issue such as gambling or a shopping addiction.”
Key Survey Findings
- 38% have lied to a partner about finances
- 54% say lying about finances is equivalent to other kinds of lying or infidelity
- People are most likely to have lied to a partner about a purchase
- People draw the line of tolerable debt in a new relationship at $60,000, saying more than that is a dealbreaker
- 70% report that someone saying they have more money than they actually do is worse than someone saying they have less than they do
Who Tells Financial Lies and Why
Howard Dvorkin, chairman of Debt.com, says fear is a factor for those who admit lying to a partner about finances and those who believe lying about finances is akin to other sorts of lying or infidelity.
“Couples are trying to maintain their lifestyles even as the economy sours, and many don’t want to admit—even to themselves—that they need to cut back,” Dvorkin says. “They might fear that if they rein in spending, their significant other might consider physical infidelity.”
“Even in the best of times, there are financial philanderers, so the economy neither dampens nor encourages them,” he adds. “But for many others, cheating isn’t about finding illicit happiness somewhere else. It’s about maintaining a successful image at home. It’s not driven by pleasure, but by fear.”
So, what kinds of financial lies are people telling? According to the survey, the most common mistruths are about a purchase (49%) and debt (37%).
And who’s telling these lies? The survey says:
- People making between $25,000 and $50,000 a year are most likely to lie about finances
- Women (23%) are more likely to lie about their savings than men (15%)
- Men (16%) are more likely to lie about investments than women (4%)
Types of Financial Lies People Tell
Amy Pridemore, executive director of the Virginia Credit Union Financial Success Center at Virginia Commonwealth University, recommends being open about discussing finances, whether you and your partner combine your assets or keep them separate. Your conversations should include reviewing financial goals that may be clashing, such as your desire to reduce debt and your partner’s desire to save money for a dream vacation.
“Sharing these goals with one another supports accountability and fosters an environment of transparency between couples,” Pridemore says.
To encourage accountability and transparency, Pridemore suggests setting aside a specific time each week to go over your finances with your partner. As part of this chat, share a financial win (such as limiting restaurant meals to just one in the past week) and mention an area that needs improvement (such as buying clothes rather than paying off debt).
“Being vulnerable during this time will bring you closer as a couple and foster a better relationship surrounding money,” Pridemore says.
Shame Tops List of Reasons for Lying about Finances
Feeling shame about mishandling money (36%) and trying to avoid an argument (32%) are the top reasons people lie about finances, the survey shows. Forty percent say they felt lying was needed to preserve their relationship.
Pridemore says many people lie to their life partners about finances because they’re ashamed about things like credit card debt or a lack of savings.
“It can be hard for individuals to face their own realities when it comes to their current financial situation, let alone sharing that information with a partner,” Pridemore says. “There may be concern that the partner will become upset with them regarding that choice or even potentially want to leave the relationship depending on how [bad] the financial decision was. So rather than facing this truth and its potential consequences, individuals may fabricate lies regarding money.”
Most Disclose Financial Details within the First Year of a Relationship
Overall, 38% of the people surveyed disclose financial details within the first few months of a relationship and 67% within the first year.
- 78% base the disclosure on the amount of time that has passed, while 22% base it on a milestone in the relationship, like moving in together or getting married.
- Millennials wait the longest of any generation to disclose financial details, with more than half (55%) saying the first few months is not enough time.
Income inequality may make it difficult to disclose financial information.
In the survey, 19% say income inequality between them and their partner can cause discomfort in the relationship. Among those who acknowledged discomfort, 61% are uncomfortable with a partner earning more and 39% are uncomfortable with a partner earning less.
Debt Can be a Dealbreaker
While some couples may be able to tolerate a partner’s debt, there is a limit.
People questioned in the survey draw the line of tolerable debt at $60,000; anything beyond that is a dealbreaker. The $60,000 limit sits well below the actual per-person debt, which exceeded $100,000 in the second quarter of 2022, according to the Experian credit bureau.
No matter the amount, 54% of people believe having a partner who’s in debt is a major reason to consider divorce, according to a 2022 survey commissioned by National Debt Relief.
Debt tolerance plays a part in people's feelings about financial lies. In the Forbes Advisor survey, 70% report that someone lying and saying they have more money (including debt) than they actually do is worse than someone lying and having less than they actually do.
Regardless of the kinds of lies being told, financial infidelity can be “extremely destructive,” says Jeremy Finger, a certified financial planner who is founder and CEO of Riverbend Wealth Management.
“I have seen instances where one spouse bankrupted the family because he was too afraid of sharing the financial hardship with his spouse. She kept spending, and he was too afraid to be honest with her,” Finger says. “This gap in honesty between spouses can lead to blame and resentment, and eventually divorce.”
Money can add intense pressure to relationships. Not surprisingly, this pressure prompts many people to lie to their life partner about financial matters.
Rather than being dishonest with your partner about finances, engage in an open conversation about tools you both can use to ease some of the financial pressure. Forbes Advisor recommends using strategies like a debt management plan or even starting small by using a cash back credit card to help put your finances on track.
“We are as sick as our secrets. The more secrets, the more sickness,” Finger says. “Have open and honest conversations in a safe environment to become financially healthy. This can lead to better spending and savings habits, and a closer relationship to boot.”
This online survey of 1,000 U.S. adults was commissioned by Forbes Advisor and conducted by market research company Prolific. The margin of error is +/-3.1 with 95% confidence. Data was collected Jan. 11, 2023. The average American debt was sourced from Experian.
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