From The Straits Times    |

Can We Just Talk?’ is a series which aims to debunk the idea that it’s difficult to talk about money. In our first episode, our Digital Editor, Cheryl Chan, sat down with Editor-in-Chief, Elizabeth Lee, and Fashion Editor, Lena Kamarudin, to discuss financial infidelity.

What is financial infidelity?

Financial infidelity, as Cheryl noted, is defined as not being honest with your partner about your finances. While the term might be new, the problem of financial matters causing friction and destroying trust in relationships isn’t.

Just like with actual infidelity, where each couple draws the line for financial infidelity will differ. 

It could be avoiding divulging certain basic information about your finances.

“If you don’t know how much [your partner] spends or how much he has in his savings, I think that’s fine,” offers Lena. “But if you don’t tell each other how much you earn, I think there’s no trust there.”

It could also be making big financial decisions behind your partner’s back. 

“Financial infidelity [to me] is, if [my husband] makes really, really big-ticket purchases, like [he] goes and buys a car for example or makes a down payment for a house without letting me know first, that—I wouldn’t say it’d be financial infidelity but it’s a definite no-no, I’d be angry if I found out,” shares Elizabeth.

Other common examples might include racking up credit card debt and hiding it from your partner, or lying about the true cost of your handbag expenditure, or even squirrelling away a secret stash of cash for yourself.  

So… what doesn’t count?

That said, not every financial disagreement can be considered financial infidelity. As every relationship is different, it all boils down to the couple’s dynamics and expectations on their finances.

“It’s ludicrous. My husband loves bicycles, but he does not cycle,” Lena recounts, her face lighting up with an ‘aha’ as she pointed a denunciatory index finger at the rest. “So he just buys bicycles, and the bicycles cost like $5,000, $8,000, and at one point in my house […] I had 30 bicycles!”

“At some point, I got angry with him because I’m like, how much are you spending on these things? Because he starts hiding wheels and sometimes, I find wheels under my bed. I’m like, bicycle wheels under my bed — what the hell?”

She does not consider this financial infidelity, however: she’s very much aware of what’s going on. “I mean, I see it. It’s there. I mean, it’s a bicycle. You can’t really hide it.”

And not every financial decision made without your partner’s knowledge is financial infidelity either.

“I don’t tell my husband what I’m buying. So packages just appear on the doorstep and he’s not aware of it. And he doesn’t ask about it either,” notes Elizabeth, while also stating that her husband “vaguely knows”. “I don’t view it as infidelity because, you know, I just do what I want with my money.”

The common thread then, is that financial infidelity is a combination of both conditions: engaging in financial behaviours likely to elicit disapproval from your partner, and deliberately failing to divulge said information.

Why does financial infidelity begin?

In a marriage, there are bound to be important shared financial decisions that need to be made: from down payments on houses to shared spending on children. That will necessitate compromises on spending habits, as Lena thinking twice about her spending on designer brands after birthing twins would attest. People respond in several ways: they can follow through on these compromises and forgo their own preferences, they can do whatever they want and spark arguments with their spouse — or, they can do whatever they want, but hide it.

For many, this desire to hide their finances is rooted in a sensitivity regarding finances. Many are embarrassed about their partners realising their poor spending habits, deciding to instead avoid the inevitable confrontation. Topics like debt can be shameful for people to discuss, especially with those they wish would continue having a good impression of them — like their spouses. These poor communication habits can then lead to financial infidelity. 

Financial infidelity is becoming increasingly widespread, especially for young people. One survey found that 40% of adults living with their partners indulge in some form of financial infidelity. Gen Zs leading the pack at 67%. 

Some reasons for this might include a desire among younger people like Millennials or Gen Zs to have privacy and independent finances. Especially for younger generations, both partners within a relationship are likely to be working — and thus, financially autonomous. 

This preference is displayed by Elizabeth’s description of spending habits within her marriage: “If it’s his hobby or if he wants to buy something with his own money, I don’t really care, because as a couple that’s how we operate. I buy my things, I buy my designer bags, and he doesn’t care because it’s my money.” 

Of course, this isn’t an issue if there is clear communication and shared expectations within the couple, but this isn’t always the case. 

What are the consequences?

The best case scenario is avoiding such issues in the first place by having regularly scheduled transparent conversations about finances and financial goals. While some of the more egregious instances of financial infidelity might cause financial distress, where there’s a reduced ability to meet financial goals, the more worrying problem is the “infidelity”: the betrayal of your spouse’s trust. A 2021 NEFE survey suggested that the deception caused an irreparable breakdown in trust, spurring 16% of respondents to completely separate finances or even divorce.