When my husband proposed, I knew I had to come clean about the debt I’d been hiding while we were dating. I’d accrued a substantial amount of student loan debt in graduate school that I was struggling to pay off.
I didn’t immediately tell him about my debt for several reasons. I was embarrassed that I’d amassed a huge amount of student debt and wasn’t even using my degree.
My husband is also very financially savvy, and I was mildly afraid he’d break up with me if he knew how much debt he would be taking on when we got married.
Despite my fears and frustrations, we eventually had a frank conversation about our finances before we tied the knot, and looking back, I realize our marriage might have depended on it.
Till Death (or Debt) Do Us Part
According to personal finance expert Debbi King, “52 percent of couples divorce and 80 percent of those are over financial issues.”
King says financial infidelity is one of the biggest obstacles a couple can face when trying to save their marriage.
That’s why it was so important for me to come clean to my now-husband before we walked down the aisle. I didn’t want my financial secrets to become a problem in our marriage.
So what exactly is financial infidelity?
Justin Lavelle, COO of BeenVerified.com explains, “Financial infidelity is when your spouse lies to you about how money is being spent, or hides secret accounts from you, or makes significant spending decisions without your knowledge.”
The current average age at marriage in America is 27 for women and 29 for men. By the time most people tie the knot, they have graduated from college and may even own a home. Adulting can be awesome, but it often comes with hefty student loan debt or a mortgage payment.
Many times financial infidelity begins because a spouse is embarrassed—like I was—by the amount of debt they’ve accrued but are too ashamed to tell their partner before marriage.
In other situations, financial infidelity begins more innocuously.
James Nowlin, author of The Purposeful Millionaire: 52 Rules for Creating a Life of Happiness and Wealth Now, says financial infidelity typically starts out small. At first a spouse might hide a seemingly insignificant purchase, like a trip to the nail salon or a new golf club. Those hidden purchases go unnoticed and can snowball into a mountain of hidden spending.
The Popular Man, Jonathan Bennett, points out, “The deceived partner might not fully realize that his or her bills and credit are entangled…until it’s too late.”
Derek Hagen, a financial planner with Fireside Financial, notes, “The biggest bond at risk from financial infidelity is trust.”
Hagen recalls a scenario in which “a husband who had his hours cut in half at work (effectively a 50 percent pay cut) … didn’t want to tell his wife about it so he took out loans to hide this fact. Eventually he couldn’t keep getting loans so it was discovered. They are still together, but it was a rough couple of years’ worth of marriage counseling that got them here.”
When financial secrets in a marriage are discovered, communication and trust—which are two of the most important factors in any healthy marriage—can be damaged beyond repair, according to relationship therapist Kimberly Hershenson.
But is it really cheating?
Keeping purchases a secret from your spouse or hiding student debt may seem harmless. You’re paying your monthly loan installment, and that visit to the nail salon isn’t going to make or break your family’s monthly budget.
After all, it’s not like you physically cheated on your spouse, right?
Well, it depends on your definition of cheating.
Bennett weighs in: “Financial infidelity isn’t cheating in the traditional sense. However, in many ways financial infidelity is just as harmful, since it can create extra stress and have long-lasting, damaging effects on both the individual and the relationship.”
However, therapist and divorce mediator Toni Coleman believes that “[financial infidelity] is a form of cheating because it involves deceit that betrays a partner’s trust.”
Even if a couple’s financial problems seem insurmountable, a marriage can survive financial infidelity if both partners are willing to put in the work, says Hershenson.
Here are tips for getting your marriage back on track, straight from financial and relationship experts:
1. Talk it out.
Open and honest communication between spouses is the first step toward recovery after financial infidelity.
“Communication and trust are two of the most important factors that make a healthy marriage,” Hershenson reiterates. “Without these two factors it is impossible to have a meaningful relationship.”
Money-saving expert Andrea Woroch agrees. “Communication is crucial. …Couples should start talking about money when their relationship goes from casual to committed. Discuss future life goals (both short-term and long-term); learn savings and spending styles; discuss your family’s attitude toward money; and even discuss debt balances. Figuring out where you two share common values and where you are on opposite sides of the spectrum will alleviate tension while helping you eventually align your financial views.”
Attorney Leslie Tayne agrees. “Finding the cause of the problem is the first step to understand[ing] why and how the financial infidelity occurred. Asking questions will help married couples determine if they are on the same page in working towards reaching their financial goals. …After getting the answers, then the couple should immediately start evaluating how they are going to work together to resolve the financial issues, rebuild trust, and get back on track financially.”
2. Build healthy financial transparency.
King recalls her first marriage: “My husband didn’t control every dollar, but he did make negative comments about every clothing purchase that I made. It was very degrading. Therefore, I hid many of those purchases. And yes, something that simple is financial infidelity. …We want to avoid the problem so we lie about it or hide things instead of facing the issue head on.”
King committed financial infidelity because of underlying issues in her marriage. In order to move forward, Woroch says it is imperative that couples get to the root of why the financial infidelity occurred in the first place.
Once a spouse comes clean about why the financial infidelity was committed, both partners can start working together to repair their marriage.
King suggests that couples moving forward from financial infidelity practice transparency. “If you have already committed financial infidelity, the first step is to come clean. Without transparency the problem will just get worse. And just like any other time trust is broken, you have to work on rebuilding it. Be honest about what the real issue is and move forward from there—setting up boundaries and guardrails that both parties are happy with.”
Tayne agrees. “Performing financial tasks together, for example, balancing the checkbook, re-evaluating the budget, reviewing credit card statements, can help couples form trust again when there is transparency. With any type of betrayal in a marriage, re-building trust won’t happen overnight, but if both parties are willing to work hard, the trust can be recovered.”
3. Make it a financial date night.
Who says date nights can’t be fun and practical at the same time? Woroch recommends setting aside one night a month to review your finances, including budgets, bills, and savings goals as a married couple. Financial date night is a good time to bring up money issues that are causing tension in the relationship, and these date nights can help stop financial infidelity before it begins.
Lavelle agrees that setting a regular date night to discuss financial goals and how each spouse will contribute to those goals is helpful in getting a marriage back on track after financial infidelity. And, Lavelle says, there’s no reason financial date night can’t be fun. Cue up some good background music, order your favorite takeout, and spend some unhurried time together considering where you are financially—and where you want to be going.
4. Double down on debt.
One of the worst things a couple can do in their marriage is ignore debt. Woroch recommends that married couples make a plan to tackle debt together and put aside any embarrassment or hard feelings about the amount of debt they owe. “Couples often neglect to share information about their debts … However, when you’re in a serious relationship … you’re also tying the other person into your financial issues so it’s important to put it all out on the table.”
Lavelle says that not everyone can easily accept working together as a team, especially if the spouse who has come clean about their financial infidelity feels attacked or belittled. It’s not very romantic, but marriage legally binds two people together. That means that for better or worse, individual debts and financial setbacks become a problem for both partners. A couple must find a way to tackle debt together.
Woroch continues, “For future borrowing needs, banks and lenders may pull credit reports and credit histories of both spouses, so it’s important to understand one another’s current debt and credit situations.”
Most spouses who commit financial infidelity don’t intend to hurt their partner. Yet that is what happens when secrets are kept in a marriage.
If you have significant financial issues and aren’t married yet, summon the support and strength you need to discuss them before the big day arrives.
It’s a hard conversation to have, but trying to save your marriage after financial infidelity is so much harder.