Financial infidelity afflicts millennials | Bankrate.com

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Hey, honey, did you know that I was cheating on you? (Financially, that is.)

This is the unfortunate and unromantic reality of millions of Americans. Four in 10 American adults who are married, in a civil partnership or otherwise living together are keeping an important money secret from their current partner. It is according to a recent survey ordered through our sister site CreditCards.com.

Millennials (25-40 years old) are the biggest offenders. Just over half (51%) commit financial infidelity against their current partner. The numbers drop to 41% for Gen X (41-56) and 33% for Baby Boomers (57-75).

Overall, the biggest culprit is secret spending. About 30% of people in a relationship admit to spending more than their partner would accept. Secret debt comes next, at 11%, followed by keeping a hidden savings account (9%), a clandestine checking account (7%) and an undisclosed credit card (also 7% ).

why people do it

The most common explanation was “privacy/a desire to control my own finances,” given by 30% of secret keepers. Next comes “it never came/I never felt the need to share” (25%), followed by:

  • “I’m embarrassed by the way I handle money” (23%)
  • “I don’t trust my partner with money” (23%)
  • “In case the relationship ends badly” (21%)
  • “I needed money to support an addiction” (17%)

I suspect millennials are most likely to commit financial infidelity because they tend to marry later than members of previous generations, and they are more likely to be members of dual-income households. Millennials are also more likely than older adults to have divorced parents, which may encourage them to save money just in case their own relationship doesn’t last. The theory often goes something like, “I was on my own for a long time. I work hard for my salary. I have the right to do what I want with my money.

Why is it a problem

It’s hard enough to reach your financial goals if you’re pulling in the same direction. It’s almost impossible if you’re working against each other. And the emotional consequences can be even more serious than the financial worries.

A breach of trust can cause the other person to say, “Wow. I really thought I knew you. What else am I missing? It’s a very uncomfortable path to take. Once trust is lost, it is difficult to regain it. In fact, more than a quarter of all American adults (28%) think financial infidelity is worse than physical cheating. That’s almost as much as the 38% who think physical cheating is worse (the rest couldn’t decide).

What to do about it

The remedy is communication. We have to improve ourselves, as a society, by discussing money. In fact, a CreditCards.com Survey 2019 found the only thing more difficult to discuss than credit card debt is our love lives. Financial infidelity mixes the two, so it’s no wonder it’s such a widespread problem.

“Yours, mine and ours” is an approach that works for many couples. If you each want to have your own money to spend no questions asked, then that’s fine, but you need to agree on the parameters beforehand. This ensures that you are aligned and working towards your larger goals.

If you each agree on a percentage or dollar amount that you can call your own — say, $100 per paycheck — then I think that can work. Some people like autonomy. They don’t want the other person looking over their shoulder, nor do they want to feel like they’re subsidizing their partner’s shoe fetish, fantasy football hobby, or nights out with friends. What doesn’t work is for one person (or both) to siphon off money willy-nilly. The rest of your funds should be combined for common bills, savings and future planning.

And, if these secrets involve hidden credit card debt, it’s important to find a plan to tackle it together. If you have good credit, a balance transfer card can help you minimize the amount of interest you will have to pay.

Even though it’s uncomfortable, we need to make these issues known. Secrets hurt. The longer they become infected, the greater the damage. If you engage in secret expenses or have secret debts or hidden financial accounts, confess right away. Be honest and work together. It’s much better than letting the other person figure it out for themselves. And let’s face it, they probably will.

Have a question about credit cards? Email me at ted.rossman@bankrate.com and I’d be happy to help.

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