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I was financially unfaithful to my partner

Two people tell us why they lied about money and how they learned to be more honest–with partners and with themselves.

I was financially unfaithful to my partner
[Images: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images; Jun/iStock]

People lie for all sorts of reasons, and lying about money is no exception. Perhaps you, too, have told a white lie or two about your finances when you’ve gone out for a meal with a friends or shown off a new purchase to your significant other. You’re in good company: More than 40% of Americans who combine finances with a partner have been dishonest about their money, according to a survey by the National Endowment for Financial Education conducted last year. Whether those individuals hid money from a spouse or lied about debt, their reasons for lying ranged from being embarrassed about their financial standing to thinking they deserved a modicum of privacy, even in a relationship.

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When couples lie about their finances, it can be the result of “speaking different financial languages,” according to personal finance expert and author Tarra Jackson. Hiding the truth can feel like the easier choice. “Sometimes they’re saying the same thing, but because they’re speaking in different languages, it just sounds different to them,” she says. “So they fight.”

We spoke to Jackson and Jennifer* about their reasons for lying about finances–and how they try to stay financially honest now.

I would spend money on a credit card that he didn’t know about

Jackson experienced exactly the financial miscommunication she describes when she was in a live-in relationship with someone whose approach to money was diametrically opposite to hers. A self-proclaimed spender, Jackson spent years indulging her spending habits. She was “financially promiscuous” with her credit card, usually dropping her money on food, alcohol, and technology. Jackson says she also did a lot of “guilt spending,” lavishing her son with gifts because she worked a lot and didn’t spend enough time with him. “I would overspend and buy him gifts, but he didn’t want the gifts–he just wanted to be next to mommy,” she says.

The act of spending money brought Jackson pleasure–and it still does–but that wasn’t the case for her partner. “My significant other was more of a saver,” she says. “He needed the security and the control of saving and being on a budget. We actually lived together, so we had a lot of conflict about spending and saving money. He would always chastise me and say, ‘You spend too much.’ Because we’d argue so much, I retaliated by spending more.” 

To avoid conflict, it became easier to lie about her spending than to be honest and face the music. “Although he needed the money to feel control, I felt like he was trying to control me,” she says. “I wouldn’t tell him about certain money that came in, or I would spend it and put it on a credit card that he didn’t know anything about. I used to purchase things and either have them shipped to my office or my girlfriend’s house.” The crux of the issue was that they had two different approaches to money, she says, but they didn’t know how to bridge the chasm in their spending habits.

Jackson’s dishonesty was found out when her ex came across a stray credit card statement before she could hide it. “His whole stance was we’re supposed to be preparing to get married, but you have all this debt that you’re not telling me about,” she says, adding that she also hadn’t told him about her student loans. “It became a trust issue. My spending scared him, but now I was lying about it. He felt I was literally cheating on him and was like ‘Well, how can I trust you?'” 

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The irony was that Jackson worked at a financial institution and was even an interim CEO at one point; she knew how to budget and run an organization. But she wasn’t carrying that knowledge into her own life. After leaving her job—with the intent of starting her own business—Jackson was unemployed for a year and burned through $50,000 of her 401(k) savings. “It was pretty much a $50,000 vacation for a year,” she says. “After I blew that money, I tried to get back into the workforce, but it was a time when jobs were down. So I couldn’t even get a job in my industry.” Jackson was forced to move back home with her family when she found herself out of money. “That was very humbling, to say the least,” she says. “Having to ask for money for gas to go on an interview is extremely humbling when you almost made six figures less than two years prior.”

That was the turning point for Jackson, when she was forced to learn the value of saving and investing. Now, she’s in a relationship with someone she calls an investor—but she hasn’t fallen into her old habits of lying about money. “He wants me to invest everything, but that’s going to take away my spending power,” she says. “I told him, you’re going to have to talk to me and tell me how I can spend some of my money on investing to increase my spending power in the future. And once I started teaching him how to speak in my language and then I started learning how to speak in his investor language, we could have a great dialogue.”

Jackson steers clear of certain places and sites now, she says. “I’m not going to go to the bar every day, even though I may be tempted to,” she says. When she does go out with friends or coworkers, she often carries cash so she can only spend a finite amount of money. Every day, she puts on different hats—that of a spender, investor, and giver—to manage her money responsibly. “I’m a financial fornicator,” she says. “I’m addicted to spending money. Spending and being a spender is not bad, but I was addicted to overspending; I got a significant high off of spending a significant amount of money. So every day, I’m tempted to spend money.”

I didn’t tell my boyfriend about all my savings—or my $15,000 raise 

Unlike Jackson, Jennifer* was dishonest with her ex-boyfriend not because she was spending too much money—but because she was not spending enough, according to her partner. For six years, Jennifer has received financial assistance from her parents, usually about $600 or so a month. Jennifer held onto most of the money that came from her parents—whether it was a gift for her college graduation or monthly financial support. “So I have all that money saved and never told my boyfriend about it,” she says. 

Jennifer describes him as a “very, very, very big spender” and says that as a saver, she already felt significant pressure to loosen her purse strings. She worried that divulging her financial standing would only make the problem worse. “It’s always been a pain point in our relationship,” she says. “I’m very thrifty. But I consider myself a person who spends money in a smart way. I will treat myself here and there, but I’m very good at saving money.” Since her ex was already trying to exercise control over her spending habits, Jennifer found it easier to lie about her money. Then, she could fend off his complaints by saying she couldn’t afford to spend more freely. 

Jennifer used the same logic when she got a sizable promotion: She went from making about $45,000 to more than $60,000 and chose not to tell her ex about her raise. “I just didn’t want to talk about it anymore,” she says. “I didn’t want him to push me to spend money that I didn’t want to spend. I also saw him spending money in a way that I would have never supported–I judged him for that a lot, and I thought it was stupid of him. I was actually saving more money every month even though I was making significantly less than him.”

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Being dishonest, period, was out of character for Jennifer. “I’m really not a liar,” she says. “I’m normally a really, really straightforward and honest person. So this is something that was weighing down on me.” And finding a happy medium with her ex proved difficult. “I think his biggest expense was travel,” she says. “He would spend thousands and thousands of dollars on one vacation–trips to Europe that were absolutely insane, in my opinion. He would go out for a very expensive dinner and order a dish; if he didn’t like it, he would order another and not finish the first one. Things like that added up.” Through all his complaints about Jennifer not spending more, he made no effort to meet her halfway by spending less. “If the differences are so big, it’s very hard to find a middle ground,” she says. “He never even considered moving towards budget-friendly vacations and doing something that can still be enjoyable but not as extravagant.” 

Jennifer‘s spending habits are a byproduct of what she observed in her parents growing up. “My parents are very smart with money,” she says. “They would save a lot of money and be frugal with the little things in life–they would go to a discount store instead of a gourmet supermarket—and then they would buy a BMW or a really nice house. They were able to afford that because they were so good at saving.” It’s an approach Jennifer has tried to adopt as well. “I want to save up for [grad school], in case I decide to get an advanced degree,” she says. “It’s also a huge safety net for me. I sleep better every night knowing I have something in my pocket. I’m not impressed by things like a more expensive dinner or an expensive thing from the store. To me, that’s not valuable. What’s valuable to me, for example, would be a nice apartment in the city.” 

As for whether she would withhold information from a partner in the future, Jennifer says it depends on who it is. “I’m still very young, so it is possible that I’ll meet another guy who doesn’t have money or doesn’t understand the idea of saving money,” she says. “So maybe in that case, I wouldn’t be super honest about my savings. But if I find a partner who thinks the same way as me and has plans for the future, and we end up being really serious—of course I’ll tell him everything, and I will be 100% honest.” That said, Jennifer is unlikely to date another person whose financial values are so misaligned with hers. “I’ve had enough,” she says. 

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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