The signs of emotional or sexual infidelity -- such as Facebook (FB) flirting, whispered phone calls or secret texting -- may be easier to spot. But financial cheating can be just as damaging to a relationship.
A recent survey of 2,035 American adults for the National Endowment for Financial Education revealed that one in three couples who combine their finances admit to lying to their partner about money. In addition, those surveyed said that 76 percent of financial deceptions affect their relationship.
The survey finds that three in 10 people have committed a minor financial infidelity such as keeping a bill from their partner, but 13 percent admit to more serious deceptions, such as lying about their credit card debt or their income. "The two most common forms of financial infidelity are squirreling away substantial sums of money to be spent on a guilty pleasure or hiding payroll records from a spouse in order to control information and perceptions," says Paul Nourigat, a senior wealth strategist, relationship coach and author of "No Time to Wander: The Financial Compass for Young Americans."
Warning Signs of Financial Infidelity
The first warning of financial infidelity often comes when something doesn't feel quite right, says Terry Savage, financial columnist and co-author of the new book "The New Love Deal: Everything You Must Know Before Marrying, Moving in or Moving on." "If you keep everything in a joint checking account, and if credit card statements come to your home, it should be easy to see where the money is going," says Savage. "Unexpected debits for cash from a debit card, unusual credit purchases, or accounts that don't 'balance' will lead you right to the money leak."
%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%Not all couples fully merge their finances, though. If a couple has agreed to keep separate funds for personal money, then neither of them should complain about a new golf club or a pair of shoes, she says. "After all, if you're sticking with your plans to fund household expenses, retirement accounts, and savings, then a little splurge won't hurt," she says. "However, if the purchase is something you will have to contribute to paying for or will impact your life -- a new car, a cruise -- then you need to sit down and have a conversation about sharing money plans."
Nourigat says that red flags should go up when one partner doesn't want to talk about the couple's finances or can't account for larger purchases or disappearing cash. "We all have our rituals and approaches to things, but financial solvency for a household is dependent on each partner working in concert with the other," he says.
If you suspect that your partner's financial infidelity is more serious and is related to marital infidelity, Savage says you need to go into "detective mode." "You'll be looking for credit card receipts, checking into email and Internet search history on his or her computer, and even phone logs," she says. "By the time you get to suspecting that sort of financial and marital infidelity, the trust in your relationship is definitely shaky."
Rebuilding After Financial Infidelity
There's no question that talking to your partner about potential financial infidelity will be stressful, says Patricia Seaman, senior director with the foundation. She recommends thinking ahead about what you want to get out of the conversation and being up front about the subject rather than springing it on your partner when you're out to dinner or a movie.
"If the financial infidelity revolves around an emotional, but hidden splurge, you can certainly rebuild your trust -- and your financial life together -- but only if you make a plan and stick to it," says Savage. Se suggests that each partner pull their free credit report from www.annualcreditreport.com and share it as a beginning step towards full disclosure. Next, she recommends creating a spending and savings plan. Some decisions you need to make:
Whether to pool all your income in one household checking account or keep separate accounts with automatic transfers into a joint account for regular household bills.
Whether to contribute equally or proportionately by salary into the account.
How much to contribute to future savings for a vacation, a car or college and to retirement accounts at work and an individual retirement account for a non-working spouse.
"As you discuss money, remember two things," says Savage. "First, by the time you reach this stage in life, your 'money personality' is well defined. Likely, you're either a 'saver' or a 'spender.' It's hard to move past your inner money personality without setting up systems to either organize or curb your spending habits. Second, remember that most money arguments are not really about the money; they are about the power of money. So, if one of you insists on continuing financial infidelity, buying expensive things that do not fit into your plan, then I suggest counseling to find out whether these money excesses represent a need to be heard, to be empowered in the relationship."
Nourigat says that since everyone makes mistakes, it's usually possible to rebuild after a financial infidelity. "Honesty, transparency, and a commitment to work together on financial planning and following through with agreements will help most couples rebuild trust and avoid the angst which is otherwise likely," he says. "If working together becomes a challenge, engaging an independent third party, such as a CPA or financial planner is recommended. After that, consider a marriage counselor."
Michele Lerner is a Motley Fool contributing writer. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.