Do you keep secrets about your spending from your significant other? Research shows that 44% of partners do. Some money secrets within a coupleship are matters of privacy or convenience, while others cross a line into financial infidelity.
A recent survey by CouponBirds framed the question of financial infidelity in a specific way. It asked 4250 people how much their partner could spend without consulting them before they would consider it financial infidelity at a level that would cause them to reconsider the relationship. The responses found that the average “financial infidelity threshold” was $13,510.
What is your number? You may never have thought about this, or you may know it exactly because you and your partner have an explicit agreement about the amount of a purchase that requires your joint approval.
This question was hard for me to answer because financial infidelity hasn’t been a big problem in my marriage. Years ago, my wife did confess to donating money that I didn’t know about. She was sending $25 a month to a child in India. I was not upset in the least and fully supported her giving, so I know my number is something over that.
There were considerable differences in couples’ infidelity spending thresholds geographically. Massachusetts residents showed the highest, $23,416. Rhode Islanders have far less tolerance, considering unauthorized spending of just $2,389 a violation. South Dakotans came in at $12,067, nearly double neighboring Wyoming’s limit of $6,884.
The study also found that 51% of respondents said they avoid talking about money with their partner altogether, because it can lead to arguments. And of those that do discuss money issues with their partner, it ends up in an argument 37% of the time. When asked about how often couples argue over their personal finances, over one in 10 (13%) said every day.
Note that this survey did not ask participants what level or type of separate spending they would consider financial infidelity, but what amount would be serious enough to for them to consider ending the relationship. The distinction is important. Even a small dollar amount of secret spending might qualify as financial infidelity, depending on the specific circumstances. This is one of the major topics of my new book, Coupleship Inc., co-authored with couple’s therapist Debra Kaplan.
It’s not possible to define a one-size-fits-all spending threshold between privacy and secrecy. Each couple needs to draw that boundary for themselves, ideally after serious and constructive conversations about their finances. Distinguishing between secrecy and privacy can be complicated. It’s important for partners to respect one another’s privacy and autonomy, and it’s equally important for partners to be transparent and trustworthy around money.
One money management option that works well for many couples is for each partner to have an equal personal allowance—in whatever amount is appropriate for the family budget—to spend in any way they wish. This separate money to spend on themselves is clearly private. At the same time, the partners agree that larger purchases and money decisions that affect the coupleship will be made jointly.
The key to deciding whether keeping a particular money issue to yourself is secrecy or privacy is the reason behind the decision. If you don’t have a lot of energy around the matter one way or another, it’s probably a privacy issue. If you would feel embarrassed, ashamed, or otherwise uncomfortable talking with your partner about it, you may be keeping a potentially destructive secret. If in doubt, here is a simple guideline to follow: any secret around money that you would feel ashamed to have your partner discover is an example of financial infidelity.