Spending without telling your partner? That could spell trouble

While communication is undeniably essential to a smooth financial relationship with a spouse or partner, about two-thirds of Americans say they shop without telling their partner. That’s among the findings of a new Ameriprise (AMP) survey of 1,500 couples between 20 and 70 years old with at least $25,000 in investable assets. 

The reason for the secrecy? They don’t believe the purchase is large enough to let their partner know about it.

Nevertheless, most Americans have a spending threshold that they said would trigger a discussion with their partner, the study found. On average, the amount is $400, but the spending limits vary by generation. Most millennials -- who tend to earn less because they’re at the start of their careers -- peg the amount at $300. 

About one-third of baby boomer couples, on the other hand, said they would be unlikely to discuss a purchase unless it were over $500. That illustrates how financial views can change over time and why communication remains important no matter how long one has been in a relationship.

“One thing we heard from the long-time couples regarding money was how their roles had changed,” said Marcy Keckler, vice president of financial advice strategy at Ameriprise. “What they were doing today looked different than in the past. One key recommendation is to make sure they talk about rules, agreeing who can handle what.”

Keckler noted that the survey asked both partners in the relationship about their views on money, providing for some interesting insights into behaviors and rules. While most couples agreed it was a good idea to have a spending limit, for instance, about half provided a different dollar figure than their partner did.

Disagreements aren’t uncommon. Three out of 10 people say they fight over money at least once month. The most common culprits were major purchases and spending habits.

“Seven out of 10 said they’re on the same page financially, so there tends to be a divide between those who are and aren’t on the same page,” Keckler said. “The majority said they’re able to work through those disagreements.”

Five keys to a smooth financial relationship emerged in the data, Ameriprise found.

• Couples make money a priority.
• Most talk about and agree on financial goals.
• They set spending limits ($400 on average); any purchases over this amount need to be discussed.
• The majority have joint banking accounts.
• They share the responsibility for retirement planning and investment decisions.

The research also found that most couples don’t view money the same way. Almost three-quarters said they approach financial decisions differently than their spouse or partner, such as spenders saying they’re married to savers.

“They seem to be able to work it out,” Keckler said. “For couples who have good harmony in their relationship, they have shared responsibility and have agreed on spending. Even where they have room for improvement, couples said they got there over time.”