The woman's fiancé was keeping a secret from her. She remembers precisely when she figured it out. It was after they got engaged. One day, she asked him how much money he made.
“I had always been curious, but didn’t think it was any of my business until we were engaged. Once engaged, I felt, as an equal partner, that I deserved to know what income my fiancé was bringing into our home and life so we knew how we were going to manage our finances together once married. When I asked my fiancé, he responded, 'I don’t know, it always changes.' Then, he changed the subject."
This conversation happened to someone close to Leslie Tayne, an attorney specializing in finance and debt issues and the author of a book "Life and Debt," which helps readers achieve financial wellness. She regularly preaches the importance of solid finances to solid relationships to all her girlfriends — and guy friends too. So if it can happen to someone in her circle, she figures it can happen to anyone. To Tayne’s dismay, the woman was a victim of financial infidelity, though it took her months to fully realize it. In addition to being evasive about his income, this fiancé had debts he wouldn’t tell her about and he didn’t contribute to their mutual finances. Sounds heart breaking, but the thing is, it happens a lot.
In fact, a CreditCards.com survey released this month estimated that 13 million Americans have “cheated” on their partners by hiding a credit card or bank account from them. The survey, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, also found that 19 percent of respondents have spent more than $500 without informing their romantic partner. Respondents went on to say that their significant others should have the right to spend some amount of money without filling them in. The amount varied, depending on the respondents' age and gender. More on that concept later.
Tayne developed a list of telltale signs of financial infidelity, based on more than a decade of counseling clients about their debts.
5 Red Flags of Financial Infidelity
1. Reluctance to discuss money.
Maybe it’s not polite to discuss money early in a relationship, but when things get serious, you must. If your partner changes the subject or makes excuses, your antennae should go up.
“I often see this happen with my clients,” Tayne said. “Their partner is reluctant to talk about how much money he or she makes or is hesitant to reveal how deep in debt he or she really is. If this is happening within your relationship, you need to make sure you address it quickly and calmly.”
One suggestion: reveal your OWN income and debts first, to show your good faith.
2. Wishy-washy answers.
When you go to have the discussion above, which is basically about assets and liabilities, income and debts, don’t be satisfied with vague answers. If you get an unsatisfying answer like the person close to Tayne did, press on. Ideally — and I know this is incredibly awkward — you would ask to see actual paperwork proving his or her income and debts. Again, to ease the tension, offer to share yours first. Maybe you can offer to help prepare each other’s taxes in order to get a peek at all that financial paper trail.
3. Trouble paying bills.
Here’s a more obvious one. If your beloved has a love/hate relationship with his or her credit cards (loves spending on them, hates paying them), that could be a real burden going forward. (If you’ve overheard calls from debt collectors, this red flag becomes a red HOT flag!) Once again, Tayne recommends a heart-to-heart this Valentine’s Day.
“If your partner is continuing to complain about not being able to afford his or her expenses,” she said, “you need to sit down and have a financial conversation to identify why your partner can’t afford his or her bills, whether or not he or she needs help and how you can resolve his or her financial problems together.”
4. Refusing to contribute.
In most relationships, one partner makes more than the other, at least by a little bit, often by a lot. But that doesn’t mean both people can’t contribute in some meaningful way to the finances of the household. The key is planning out who will pay for what in the context of what makes sense for you. What doesn’t work is for one person to totally shirk all monetary responsibility, without — you guessed it — a discussion.
5. Lies by omission.
This red flag would include the folks above who had entire bank or credit card accounts that they hadn’t filled their partners in on.
“A lie by omission is a case in which a partner deliberately withholds important financial information, which is ultimately financial dishonesty,” Tayne said. The person close to Tayne eventually realized she was the victim of lies by omission and called off the engagement. (We have chosen not to identify the woman, to protect her identity and that of her former fiancé.)
If you’ve had all the discussions suggested above and you’re committed to taking the next step in your relationship, your reward is… more discussions! Here, Tayne sounds like the lawyer that she is: “When in a romantic relationship, it is only important that both partners make financial decisions together and work toward the same financial goals,” she explained. “But when planning to get married, both individuals have to accept and understand that they are also marrying each other’s expenses and debt.”
Here are the questions Tayne suggests asking your fiancé/fiancée before you tie the knot:
This last tip is my own. In my own marriage, my husband and I have always had a “spending threshold.” Either of us could spend an amount under that threshold without alerting the other. But if we wanted to spend more, we had to agree. It has done wonders to keep our spending in check. There’s something about having each act as the other’s conscience that’s very helpful. And it avoids the sneaky situations found in the CreditCards.com survey! Set whatever threshold makes sense for you, then you can adjust it upward as you grow older and more prosperous.
Elisabeth Leamy is a 20-year consumer advocate for programs such as "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show." She is the author of Save BIG and The Savvy Consumer. Elisabeth is also a professional speaker, delivering talks nationwide on saving money, media relations, and career success. Elisabeth receives her best story tips from readers, so please share your ideas with her via Facebook, Twitter or her website.
Any opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author.