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Financial Infidelity Can Ruin a Relationship

By Lee Hancox, 12 April 2021

Do you play open cards with your partner when it comes to finances? A recent poll revealed that 51% of millennials ‘dupe’ their partners regarding money matters.

Overall, 40% of respondents in serious relationships admitted to hiding a cheque, savings or credit account from their partners, and 11% confessed to secret debt. Money is known to be one of the most divisive topics for couples. That is why it is critical to have courageous conversations and set shared money values and goals together. But getting started isn’t always easy.

Lee Hancox, Head of Channel and Segment Marketing at Sanlam, says, “A first step to start the conversation is financial openness. Couples should agree upfront on how much of the finances are to be integrated or separated, based on their unique circumstances and relationship. Before taking any action, consider any unintended consequences that may arise later. Openness and honesty, whatever the circumstances are, are key.”

More on Millennials

Millennials seem especially reluctant to be open. Janet Winterbourne, a relationship counsellor, says this could be due to their more individuated approach to money. Older couples, on the other hand, may have established their relationship construct 20 or 30 years ago, based on a prior socio-economic framework, where roles and equality between couples were different.

She adds that an individual approach is completely fine, providing partners are honest with each other, “Finances can be a personal matter. Some people, if they fulfil their monetary obligations within a relationship, don’t feel the need to share their entire financial situation.

“However, it’s worrying if a lack of trust is causing one partner not to open up to the other. Or if a person is using deception to hide financial mismanagement, due to embarrassment.” This ties into the poll findings, which revealed that 30% of participants confessed to spending more than their partners would be comfortable with.

Spot the Signs

There are of course exceptions to the norm, but there are often subtle signs to look out for to sense whether your partner is playing open or closed cards when it comes to finances. These are also useful tips to measure our own thoughts and behaviour against. Here, Hancox shares some of these:

  • Avoiding the talk: The first common sign that a partner is playing closed cards is when they avoid ‘the conversation’ at all costs.
  • Change in behaviour: Identify whether your partner has found interest in new possessions and experiences that are out of the ordinary – you know your partner’s patterns.
  • The sudden availability of money: Having money readily available when an expense arises could indicate a new credit card, loan or some secret cash reserves.
  • Separate bank accounts: A request to have his or her own bank account after considerable years of a joint account may also raise some alarms.
  • New circles: A partner may gravitate to people who represent the aspirational lifestyle he or she is striving for, to justify new spending behaviours.

Resolve the Rupture

If you do spot these signs, it’s more important than ever to initiate a courageous conversation with your partner to align your financial goals and values. This can be difficult if trust has been lost. Here are Hancox’s tips for getting back on track.

  • Have open conversations: It might help to schedule the conversation in advance. Pick a neutral place to have it and consider setting an agenda upfront. Make sure you both feel comfortable and in a ‘safe space’ to talk. Try to be as non-judgemental as possible. Drill deep into what informs both of your money personalities – including your childhoods and past relationships. Share your worldviews and how you both feel about finances. Then consider how you want to approach money together. You may even want to write an informal ‘contract’ of sorts, where you commit to shared values and being accountable to one another. Sticking to a ‘yours, mine and ours’ money approach is fine, so long as you’re on the same page. And note that money talks are not once-off. They should be frequent. It may be useful to diarise a once-a-month meeting to chat all things finances.
  • Include a financial adviser: Sometimes it really helps to have someone objective in the room. A financial adviser can help mediate a conversation and give you a holistic plan to navigate your finances as a mechanism to achieve your shared goals and build your life together.
  • Find a balance with goals that you’re both passionate about: It’s important to have individual goals. It’s also good to have some shared ones. Ensure that your individual goals don’t jeopardise the dreams you have together.
  • Seek counselling: Often, money brings up a lot of other things. It can reveal unequal power dynamics. It can cause considerable shame. It can uncover childhood hurts and cultural misunderstandings. And it can breach trust – for example, hidden debt that compromises both partners’ long-term financial wellbeing. Sometimes, it’s a good idea to invest in your relationship and seek therapy.

Involve a Financial Adviser

“As soon as you enter a serious relationship, have the conversation with each other, understand the different attitudes towards money, get onto the same page with spending habits and dig deeper into each other’s backgrounds. Consider involving a financial adviser to give you a solid foundation and road map to work from.

“Practise being open about your financial situation as this is crucial to successful financial planning. Your plan is only as good as the information that you provide to your financial adviser, and, if there are things that are not disclosed, this impacts the accuracy of the plan and the eventual outcome,” concludes Hancox.

Sanlam Life Insurance is a licensed financial service provider.
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