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Money Secrets or Money Privacy?

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One of the projects I’m currently involved in with co-authors Ted and Brad Klontz is a book for couples about financial infidelity. In that work, a question that came up is the difference between financial secrets and financial privacy.

Our society does not encourage us to talk about money in personal ways. For example, making a public announcement of your salary, your net worth, or the amount of your debt would be a social faux pas. On the other hand, we tend to expect couples to be completely open with each other when it comes to money. In most cases that expectation is reasonable and useful. Keeping financial secrets within a marriage can have lasting and destructive consequences.

Yet where do couples draw the line between keeping harmful secrets and respecting one another’s privacy and autonomy? This can be a complicated question for any couple. It gets even trickier for two-career couples, those in second marriages, and those in non-traditional families.

One thing we tell couples in our Healing Money Issues workshops is that each of them needs to have a certain amount of money that is theirs to spend in any way they wish. The amount will vary according to the family income, but having this separate personal allowance is important. It gives both partners a chance to spend some guilt-free money on themselves. This money is clearly private.

Other situations are less clear. Here are some possible circumstances where limits on a spouse’s knowledge might constitute privacy rather than secrecy:

· The couple has agreed to keep their income and assets separate and has established a method of sharing the expenses (such as housing) that are their joint responsibility.

· One spouse owns a separate business with which the other spouse is not involved. It’s reasonable for the non-owner spouse to expect to be kept informed of the business’s earnings, significant changes or problems, and the like. The details of its day-to-day affairs aren’t necessarily the non-owner’s concern.

· One spouse manages the financial affairs of an elderly parent or other relative.

· Spouses in a second marriage have children from previous marriages and have brought separate assets into the marriage.

In any of these examples, it’s not possible to define a one-size-fits-all boundary between privacy and secrecy. Each couple needs to draw that boundary for themselves, depending on their particular circumstances.

One factor in establishing such a line could be how much support or help spouses might need from each other. If you are paying your mother’s bills, for example, you might want your spouse to be able to step in at times you aren’t available. If you own a business, you might want your spouse to know enough about it so you can discuss problems or plans for the future.

Another significant factor might be other relationships and commitments within the family. Suppose you are in a second marriage and have adult children who have previously been told they will inherit your assets. Keeping those assets separate from your spouse’s assets might be the best way to avoid confusion, misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

The key to deciding whether keeping a money issue separate 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 with your spouse knowing something, it’s probably a potentially destructive secret. There’s a simple way to judge: if you really, really don’t want to talk about it, talking about it is probably exactly what you need to do.

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