Financial adultery: Why spouses hide the truth about money and how to stop the lies

Published: Monday, April 9 2012 8:39 p.m. MDT

Matt Kelly rides the Felt cruiser bike he bought for about $500 — without telling his wife. Kelly is a Personal Finance Coach and author. He has since sold the bike.

Mccarson L. Jones

The bike still bugs her.

It was a sweet Felt cruiser bicycle with a pumpkin orange finish.

Matt Kelly spent $500 on said bike without asking his wife Cheri.

"She had one mindset of how we were doing," he said, "and I had a completely different mindset that said we could afford a $400 to $500 bike just for the fun of it."

Kelly and his wife had separate bank accounts — an artifact left over from their single days. "We got married and just never combined our bank accounts," he said. "In fact, our banks merged before we merged our bank accounts. Her bank bought my bank."

It wasn't until 1999, four years after their marriage, that they moved from Chicago to Durango, Colo. and combined their accounts. Kelly thinks it took that long because they had a sense they would lose freedom and would have to have a difficult discussion about personal finances.

Since that time, Kelly has become a personal finance coach and author. "I see a lot of clients who haven't bought into merging their finances and their dreams," he said. "When we keep our finances separate, at some level it keeps us separate in the relationship."

Who lies?

Dr. Bonnie Eaker Weil is a family therapist in New York City and is the author of "Financial Infidelity." She works with patients who struggle to communicate about money — and who lie about money.

Not that lying about money is rare.

A National Endowment for Financial Education and Forbes.com poll found that 31 percent of couples with combined finances are deceptive about money. Those couples hide cash (51percent), they hide purchases (54 percent) and bills (30 percent). And they lie about finances, debt and money earned (34 percent).

And with taxes coming due in April, many deceptive spouses are being outed by the cold calculations required to fill out the tax forms. This just happened to one of Weil's clients. The wife spent thousands at Saks Fifth Ave and had to return the $500 jars of cosmetics to the store so there would be enough money to pay Uncle Sam.

"Money has a lot to do with fear, power and control," Weil said. "People don't feel safe discussing money. It's a very hot topic. It is ripe for a power struggle."

Like the time one of Weil's patients wanted a house in the Hamptons — but his wife did not. He put a down payment on a house without telling her. "When people do things like this it makes the other person feel invisible," Weil said. "It is a way of overseering and having a power play."

The couple have since worked out their differences.

Why lie?

Weil thinks money is often a problem in relationships because opposites attract. Spenders are attracted to savers and vice versa. "Right away you start off with a power struggle," she said.

There are a lot of irrational fears and secrecy about money, Weil said. People use it to fill in a void — something they didn't get in childhood or in their current relationship. "Money is a stand-in for love," she said.

With so much deep personal meaning wrapped up in money, people are afraid to talk about it or to reveal what they are doing with it. They keep it secret. "I call it the money mistress," Weil said.

And that mistress, with her lies and deception, can get in the way of real love. It's the deception that destroys the intimacy. And without intimacy, couples can't have true and lasting love.

But there is a better way.

"When you talk about money," Weil said, "it actually strengthens your relationship. It gives you commitment and trust and better honesty."

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