3 Risk Factors for Financial Infidelity in Relationships

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When you’re getting started on your budget or debt pay off plan, it’s important for you and your spouse to be on the same page.

This is one of the biggest struggles I hear from people that can’t seem to get their budget to work!

Unfortunately, financial infidelity in relationships is real.

If you have experienced this, it can be a difficult hurdle to overcome in your relationship (and financial journey).

That’s why I’m so excited to introduce Dr. Brent Lacey, a physician and financial coach at The Scope of Practice, to discuss financial infidelity in relationships with you today!

Relationships move at the speed of trust.  If you don’t trust your partner at a deep, visceral level, your relationship is at risk.  It’s easier than you think to experience financial infidelity in your relationship.

Having done financial coaching for many years, I have definitely seen a lot of cases of what we call financial infidelity.  It’s incredibly damaging to the trust in a relationship.

In many ways, the hurt and guilt associated with financial infidelity mirror the feelings you have when you learn that your spouse has had an affair.  It’s destructive to your trust and it can take years to build that trust back.

What is financial infidelity?

Financial infidelity means any situation when someone does something with money that is directly counter to the wishes of their spouse or does it without their spouse’s knowledge.  

This can range from a few dollars to tens of thousands of dollars.  The dollar amount of the act isn’t the damaging part, it’s the betrayal that one feels.  Whether it’s $100 or $100,000, you still feel like someone cheated on you. 

Here are some concrete examples of financial infidelity:

  • Opening up a credit card without your spouse’s knowledge and using it for personal purchases.
  • Engaging in online gambling surreptitiously.
  • Buying an item on Amazon and shipping it to your office so your spouse doesn’t know you bought it.
  • Purchasing something big “for the family” without consulting your spouse first to learn their feelings about it.
  • Borrowing on your spouse’s 401(k) without them knowing.

Why is financial infidelity so damaging?

Whether it’s small like an Amazon purchase or big like an online gambling debt, it’s important to recognize that financial infidelity represents a breach of trust.  That’s the part that most people don’t recognize.

I’ve heard this from couples that I’ve done financial coaching with.  “What’s the big deal?  It’s just a (fill in the blank)!  It only cost $50!  Who cares?”

Answer: YOUR SPOUSE CARES!!

It’s not about the money!  It’s about trust!  

When you go behind someone’s back to make a purchase, you are telling them that you don’t trust them.  You don’t trust them to agree with your purchase.  And, it says you don’t respect their opinion enough to consider not buying the item if they think it’s a bad idea.  

Three relationship red flags that can lead to financial infidelity 

I think of this as a three legged stool.  If any of the three legs on the stool is short, your stool will topple over.  All three of these factors MUST be strong or you run the risk of collapse.  

Any one of these factors opens up the door for opportunities for financial infidelity.  If you have all three, your risk increases exponentially.

1. Lack of knowledge

When I’m doing financial coaching, I spend a lot of time helping people understand what their money is actually doing.  Lack of knowledge is a recipe for financial disaster in any number of ways, especially in relationships.

One thing I spend a lot of time on is budgeting.  Many physicians balk at the idea of doing a budget initially, but studies show that people who budget are overall more likely to become wealthy.

Additionally, the more you know about where your money is and what your money is doing for you, the less you’ll be able to be surprised about an account you didn’t know existed.  

It’s not acceptable to just say, “My spouse deals with all of that stuff because I just don’t want to mess with it.”  You HAVE to be more aware of what’s going on with your money.  It’s not because you don’t trust them, it’s because that teamwork fosters a better understanding of money on the part of both spouses.  That is more likely to lead to longterm financial success.

At a minimum, both spouses need to know:

  • Where your money is invested (which company, and what type of account)
  • What your total household income is
  • How much you pay in taxes each year
  • What credit cards you have
  • Where you keep your finance records

Don’t just put your head in the sand.  You need to know what’s going on with your money.  The greater your knowledge, the fewer the opportunities for financial infidelity.

2. Lack of money

This one might be a bit surprising.  If you don’t have much money, aren’t there fewer opportunities to cheat on someone (financially speaking)?  

Actually, no.

When you have less money but still have bad spending habits, the tendency is for someone to open a line of credit to fulfill their financial desires.  This is one of the most dangerous situations for couples.  When your spouse has an opportunity to open a credit card without you knowing it, they can rack up huge bills without you realizing it.

I’ve seen couples where one person opened up several credit cards in their name and charged tens of thousands of dollars in purchases and online gambling debts.  When the spouse finds out, it’s absolutely devastating.  

Two remedies to this problem

  1. Be content with less.  

If you can learn to be content with less money, fewer items, cheaper stuff, fewer vacations, etc, you’ll be less apt to want to go spend money you don’t have.

2. Make more money

This sounds obvious, but it’s reality.  When you’re starting out in life, your income is low and you’re not able to enjoy as many purchases or experiences.  As your income increases, you’ll be able to take advantage of opportunities to enjoy certain things.  That will lessen the temptation for you or your spouse to go seek financial consolation elsewhere.

3. Lack of communication

This is probably the biggest factor that can lead to problems with financial infidelity.  When you and your spouse don’t have open lines of communication related to your money issues, you are setting yourself up for failure.  When you establish a trend of not discussing finances openly, it tends to validate clandestine behavior.

One spouse may think, “I’ll just buy this little thing.  He/she won’t mind.  It’s small, so who cares?”  That escalates over time to bigger and bigger purchases.  It’s corrosive, and it happens slowly.  

No one gets to a weight of 400lbs in a month.  

It happens slowly over time.  Similarly, large amounts of debt and big secret purchases are often just the tip of the iceberg.  It happens slowly over time as you justify gradually larger financial decisions.  Then, it gets harder to own up to it because it’s a bigger deal.  

The way to prevent this is to have regular open discussions about your finances.  Money fights are the most common cause of divorce in the U.S.  If you and your spouse budget together, plan your financial goals together, and make money decisions together, your chances at staying together long term go way up. The odds of financial infidelity taking place also go way down.  

Final thoughts on Financial Infidelity

Financial infidelity is corrosive and destroys relationships.  But, it doesn’t happen in the dark.  It doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  In most cases, the time that you catch the act isn’t the first time that it has happened.

It’s so harmful to have this happen in your relationship.  But, if you can maintain adequate knowledge about your finances, live below your means, and keep the lines of communication open, the chances of this happening go way down.  

About the Author:

Dr. Brent Lacey is a gastroenterologist who is passionate about helping physicians succeed with business and personal finances.  As a physician, he understands how overwhelming it can be to step out of clinical training and into a career, and he has seen firsthand the lack of education on how to run a practice and manage finances.  He has coached hundreds of families to succeed in eliminating debt and has spoken to physician groups around the country on topics related to business and personal finance.  That’s also why he founded The Scope of Practice website.  His goal is to help physicians learn how to manage their businesses successfully and master their personal finances.

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