Financial Infidelity

Financial Infidelity
Contributor
Self

I thought about cheating on my husband while out mountain biking recently. As my friend sailed effortlessly down the rutted trail, my teeth chattered and my hands went numb. That’s when I hatched my plan to splurge on a cushy new bike—and hide it in our neighbor’s garage.

Why such sneakiness? You see, every woman has her downfall, be it new shoes, spa days, or in my case, skis, kayaks, and bikes. My husband is, understandably, a bit frustrated; my equipment threatens to keep his car out of our garage. The last time he agreed to a new bike, I had to resort to tears. But even pleading is healthier than deceiving, says one expert on the subject.

“There’s no such thing as an innocent financial fib,” says Bonnie Eaker Weil, PhD, a New York–based psychotherapist, whose book Financial Infidelity is due out next year. Whether you hide shopping bags, abominate price tags, or lie about how much you paid (or owe), you’re being financially unfaithful, she says. “The sign of a good relationship is that you can talk about anything that’s a hot topic,” she says. Simply put: If the two of you aren’t being honest about money, something isn’t right.

Why We Cheat
For some, the habit is a throwback to the days when women didn’t work, and men controlled the purse strings. “I learned everything from my mother,” quipped my friend Stephanie, who shops on her lunch hour to avoid scrutiny from her husband. During the first few years of her marriage, my friend Amanda regularly dipped into her “secret” savings account.

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“I used to be a skin product junkie. I’d spend $100 on face cream if it got good reviews. Explain that to your husband.” She now realizes she was trying to maintain control. “I was 34 when we got married,” she says. “It was hard having someone analyze my purchases after being single for so long.”

Then again, sometimes we splurge just for the thrill of it. “Many women get a high,” says Weil, which is often followed by a long-lasting low, once the bills roll in. Another friend, so ashamed that she’ll remain anonymous, borrowed precious home equity to pay off her credit card. But the guilt of going behind her husband’s back changed her habits for good. “I rarely pay for anything with credit now,” she says.

A word on gender: Women aren’t the only ones guilty of financial secrets, says Alan Lavine, a syndicated financial columnist who cowrote Quick Steps to Financial Stability with his wife, Gail Liberman. But men’s money deviance tends to take different forms: gambling— as in bets at the office or on the golf course—and investing. “Some men play the market without telling their wives,” he says. Either way, it’s best to keep your joint slate clean. Here, a game plan.

Reconciling Your Past
The wisest way to stay honest: Having a heart-to-heart before either of you is tempted to engage in financial subterfuge. It’s a good idea to come clean about your money weaknesses and pet peeves, such as paying bills late or a yen for emotional spending—up front, says Weil.

Talk about how much you make, owe, and have in the bank, as well as how money was handled in your parents’ houses. “That often plays a prominent role in our behavior,” she says.

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If you’ve been financially unfaithful, ’fess up. The relief you’ll feel will outweigh the dread of telling. A good way to broach the topic, says Lavine: “I have a problem and we need to talk.” That way, your spouse is less inclined to get angry—and more apt to work toward a joint resolution.

Planning Your Future
Once you understand where the other is coming from, it’s time to create a financial road map. “Make sure you’re on the same page about long-term goals, such as buying a house or retiring early,” says Barbara Steinmetz, a certified financial planner in San Mateo, California.

But this doesn’t mean the end of “fun money.” “Each of you should have some autonomy for day-to-day spending,” says Weil. “You don’t want to get into a ‘Mother, may I’ situation.” For many couples, the simplest solution is separate accounts. Each of you contributes a set amount to joint expenses, but spend (or save) what’s left as you see fit. Or, at least consider a “slush fund” for guilt-free spending. That way his, say, $400 haircuts or your fancy cameras will be less likely to cause a fight.

In the spirit of being fiscally faithful, I came clean about my dirty bike fantasy. “If you want a new bike that badly, you know you can have it,” said my husband. True to Weil’s prediction, it seemed about as appealing as a new appliance, once I knew it was within reach. Besides, if it’s thrill I want, there’s always mountain biking.