Money Makes Us Liars

Last Updated Jul 22, 2010 10:38 AM EDT

The latest in a series of surveys on financial infidelity maintains that 80% of married couples spend money that their spouse doesn't know about and nearly one in every five has a secret credit card or bank account.

More than one-third said they're keeping money secrets because they're convinced that telling the truth would trigger a serious argument or divorce, according to the latest survey commissioned by CESI Debt Solutions.

The North Carolina-based debt management firm surveyed 200 married couples (which gives their research a 6.9% margin for error) mainly because they were seeing an increasing number of clients come in with money problems they had yet to reveal to their spouse.

"Counselors were reporting that people were enrolling in a debt management program without their spouse knowing or apart from their spouse," said Tracy East, director of outreach at CESI Debt Solutions in Raleigh, North Carolina. "We have one client who had $20,000 in debt and her husband knew nothing about it. That's a frightening prospect."

The CESI survey comes hard on the heels of an American Express spending tracker study that came to much the same result: Money turns couples into liars, who come up with innovative ways to hide their spending. (Amex asked how people hid their spending. Most common answer: Left the packages in the trunk until they could sneak them in the house. Most unusual response: Buried it in the back yard.)

In this case, couples said they had good reason to be secretive -- they were doing their best to avoid relationship-ending fights.
  • 19.9% thought telling the truth would end the marriage
  • 43% said it would start an argument
  • 46% said they were secretly paying off the debt, so figured their spouse didn't need to know
  • 11% said they will tell -- but haven't yet gathered the courage
  • 27% said the facts about their secret spending will follow them to the grave.
What are they buying that they can't tell their spouses about? Mostly clothes and food.
  • 34.5% were buying clothing and accessories
  • 24% spent money on food and dining
  • 19.5% spent on personal care items
  • 16.5% were spending on gifts
  • 13% were spending money on alcohol
  • 8.5% were spending money on their kids
The bad news is that even if your spending is for something innocuous, the emotional damage of economic cheating can be severe.

"Knowing that the person you are married to didn't have enough trust in you to tell you about their spending would be difficult to handle," said East. "It's one thing if there's some little spending that you're not mentioning. But almost 20% of the people surveyed here had a credit card that their spouse didn't know about. That shocked me."

While studies on financial infidelity are relatively new, the concept might not be. Bonnie Eaker Weil, who wrote a book about Financial Infidelity, told me in a past interview that she remembered her parents hiding spending from one another. What may be drawing attention to it now is the rotten economy, which makes financial indiscretions tougher to hide, East said.

"It's probably always been this way," she said. "But money is so much tighter right now that it's tougher to get away with."

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