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Is Your Mate Keeping a Money Secret?

Gambling debt. Tuition for a love child. Spa trip for the side-chick. Heed these tales of financial infidelity before it comes for your marriage and retirement

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illustration of lady being followed by sidehustle money by islenia mil
Islenia Mil
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They’ve healed their marriage. But years ago, Kenya Mays and her husband Edward J. Mays II, both now 40, were dodging the repo man and talking divorce. Both made a good income, but with no money lessons to lean on, the high-school sweethearts mismanaged it.

While Kenya was spending her way through Target, which she likes to call “the Red Dot Boutique,” and hiding her hauls in a closet, Edward was hoarding his earnings in hidden accounts. “One day, I bought almost $200 worth of stuff,” says Kenya. “When he opened the trunk, he scolded me like I was a child,” she says. Frugal Edward thought her household purchases wasteful.

Their breaking point came in 2005 . Edward received a bonus, and a coworker advised him to claim exempt on his taxes, meaning he would see more money in his check, but the withholding wouldn’t cover the amount owed. “I didn’t know,” says Kenya, who manages the couple’s finances. Edward continued claiming exempt for months, and the following year, he was slapped with a $10,000 tax bill.

Older, wiser and willing to own his mistakes so that others can learn, Edward acknowledges that he then failed to stick to his payment plan. As the money lies spiraled, the parents of three overdrew their bank accounts and had to choose between buying food or gas.

Ultimately, had Edward not paid the IRS debt, Kenya would have been on the hook, too. “I felt betrayed,” she says. The IRS garnished Edward’s wages. He negotiated a new payment schedule and is resolving the debt. “I didn’t understand how things worked,” admits Edward.

Secrets, Lies, Control

The Mayses survived financial infidelity. “It’s cheating by limiting access to information or to accounts,” says Jacquette M. Timmons, author of Financial Intimacy: How to Create a Healthy Relationship With Your Money and Your Mate. Lester Barclay, a Chicago divorce attorney and author of The African-American Guide to Divorce and Drama: Breaking Up Without Breaking Down, says that it impacts 15 to 20 percent of the couples he sees in his practice.

Financial hanky-panky cuts across social class, race, gender and educational level. A survey from revealed that 44 percent of us are hiding a secret credit card or bank account, have secret debt or are spending more than our partner would be OK with. And 40 percent of Americans are not sure they would ever cop to the misdeed, according U.S. News & World Report. But financial cheating may be in play when one partner is paranoid about incoming mail, there are many new possessions or money talks turn volatile. (Learn more telltale signs here.)

This behavior is not always the result of youthful mistakes either. Barclay recalls a 75-year-old woman married for 55 years. She learned about her husband’s secret stash after their daughter organized their finances. The daughter had seen the turmoil her husband’s people went through because his deceased dad’s affairs hadn’t been in order, and she wanted to spare hers the same fate. Discovering that her life partner had been sitting on 1.2 million dollars, the woman was shook. “The wife said, ‘you got me living in this ghetto house and we’ve got that kind of money? Are you crazy?’” Barclay recalls. “One of the first questions I ask when I do an intake for a divorce is, ‘Is [your spouse] a spender or a saver?’” Most couples include one of each.

Money Lies Are the Symptom — Here Are the Causes

Barclay dealt with a husband who learned too late that his wife’s riverboat-gambling habit blew up their retirement.

An extramarital affair
He’s seen marital funds diverted for fancy vacations and lingerie for a mistress.

Secret financial assistance
This might be tuition for a child other than the couple’s.

Family history
Timmons recalls a client raised by a father who gambled. “He saw the damage to his family. So that [situation] may influence how you then engage when it comes to money. Perhaps you are a little more distrustful.” Some of us were schooled that secrecy equals safety. Edward Mays reflects, “My father taught us to work hard, use cash and never let the left hand know what the right hand is doing .”

Avoiding accountability or judgment
“Sometimes, a spouse tries to control everything, even the credit cards,” says Keisha Blair, a New York City economist and author of Holistic Wealth: 32 Life Lessons to Help You Find Purpose, Prosperity, and Happiness. Experts also note that secret shoppers hide purchases to avoid having to justify them to a significant other.

A partner claims the bills are under control. “In reality, they can’t get ahold of their debt and don’t seek help because of the shame,” says Blair.

Fear of a breakup
Timmons mentions a man who agreed to marry his girlfriend once she erased her debt. “The truth was that it was growing. And so she was hiding that from him by not telling him the full amount, which was $75,000.”

A desire to provide
Not all motivations are malign. Saver Edward Mays, married to spender Kenya, says, “I always felt like once she blows her money, I will have to take care of the bills.”

A “mine vs. ours” mentality
A couple moved out of the co-op the husband purchased before the marriage, keeping it as a rental unit. The wife showed up at a board meeting and was met with stares before she was bluntly asked, “Why are you here? Your husband sold the apartment.”

Willful ignorance — and outdated gender norms
Too often, wives abdicate power. “Either you don’t feel confident in your ability to manage [finances] or you feel overwhelmed,” says Timmons. “Or you have a value system that says, ‘He’s going to take care of it.’” Barclay adds that a shortage of marriageable Black men may deter some sisters from making waves within their unions. Both experts see this avoidance pattern even in highly educated sisters.

Stop Checkbook Cheating From Hurting Your Marriage!

Counseling helped the Mayses open a dialogue, discuss major purchases and agree on individual allowances. “Be honest with yourself, take a look at the role you play, then set out to fix it,” Kenya advises couples facing similar challenges. Experts recommend these steps:

Explore and embrace each other’s financial values. “It could be as simple as ‘I prefer to splurge on X, but I prefer to save on Y,’” says Blair. When couples can’t agree on what these guardrails are, then either spouse’s actions on his or her individual desires may be viewed as an act of rebellion, she says.

Have regular conversations. “Even if you agree on his, hers and ours accounts, put everything on the table,” says Timmons. These talks are also key when paying the bills and if there’s a crisis or large transaction in play. Blair advises couples to consider short- and long-term decisions, including “projects and career or lifestyle changes.”

Look at all statements together. Discuss how decisions are made about the will, the investments, the estate plan and the insurance policies, all of which impact your security.

Barclay says women especially need to be fully involved. “Open your mail, collect data for the tax return, sit down as a couple with the financial planner, talk to the broker together,” he says. “You need firsthand knowledge about your assets and liabilities.”

Agree on spending ceilings. Establish what purchases can be made individually without having to consult your spouse. If, while shopping, you’d like to make a $1,000 purchase, observes Timmons, “Do you need to call to say, ‘Hey, I want to buy this?’” Blair adds, “This [limit] must be discussed openly and agreed upon. Otherwise, something that started out as a pastime could result in hiding receipts.”