Are You Keeping Money Secrets From Your Partner?

What they don't know can hurt you, right?

If there is a single upside to marrying your high school sweetheart, it’s that you start out with way less baggage. There are no prior relationships to worry about (or really, any that count). No bad credit or investments. If there are any skeletons in your closet, they’re prepubescent. Which is why I’m always surprised when friends reveal to me that they keep money secrets from their partners. Because for me, that was never an option. When I signed my first college loan, Michael was there. When I over-drafted my account for the twenty…. thousandth time, he linked his account to mine as backup. And I remember a pre-smartphone life when I would call him from the grocery store checkout line to make real-time transfers between our bank accounts when my funds ran low. We’ve racked up debt together, and paid it down together. If money grew on trees, ours would be like that quote from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

But I wonder what it would be like if we met later in life? After I signed on for an $80,000 student loan? After we developed our wildly different spending habits and landed $30,000 in debt? Would it be so easy to be honest with each other? When I polled some friends recently on whether or not they shared finances, I was shocked to hear that many of them did not, for fear of letting financial skeletons out of the closet. But the most shocking part was how inconsequential the skeletons seemed, compared my own financial blunders. Someone wrote to me that they never merged their finances, for fear that their partner would find out about their less than $1,000 in credit card debt. Not that a thousand dollars is inconsequential, but it’s nothing compared to the bills I’ve racked up.

The thing is, keeping secrets about your finances in a marriage is kind of… robbing Peter to pay Paul? Cutting your nose to spite your face? Pick your idiom. Because sans prenup, in pretty much every state in the U.S. your partner’s money is your money, and your debt is their debt. So keeping secrets from your partner is potentially very destructive. (It’s not like they aren’t going to find out eventually, even if it’s in divorce court or sorting through paperwork after your death.) Though for what it’s worth, lying to your partner about your spending is way more common than I would have thought.

But then I started thinking about my own money habits. And I realized that while it’s impossible to avoid my gargantuan student loans (hiding five-figure debt takes commitment), the financial habits I’m inclined to cover up are the small things. Overspending a bit on my fun money for the month here. A late fee because I forgot to pay a bill there. Transgressions small enough that I don’t worry they’ll impact my partner in any real way. But just big enough that I’d prefer he not know about it. And I think that’s why those lies feel easier to justify.

Though maybe it feels easier to justify because when I boil it down, keeping money secrets in a marriage doesn’t really feel like it’s about the money at all. It’s often about power dynamics and values. Or as one of the friends I polled wrote to me, “Money is too emotional for us to keep it separate. Nothing that makes us feel that strongly can be separate.” Which I wholeheartedly agree with. But it’s also feelings that make me want to keep secrets. Feelings like shame, guilt, and embarrassment. Which is why money can be such a loaded thing to bring to a marriage in the first place. I mean, maybe it’s only by the grace of our epically long relationship that Michael and I keep our money secrets relatively small.

When I polled the same friend group about keeping money secrets specifically, the answers varied wildly. One friend hid secret credit cards from her partner until he found out in the checkout line at Home Depot. Another lamented that her partner failed to cancel subscriptions during a time when money was particularly tight, and it became a point of contention between them. As for me, even though Michael and I are super open and communicative about our budget, sometimes I simply feel like I’m keeping a secret if I’m spending on something Michael might not necessarily agree with. Even if it’s budgeted. (Knee-jerk charitable contributions come to mind.)

But I’m curious to hear what your experience is. Do you have any financial secrets you’ve kept from your partner? Or secrets you were keeping but later revealed? Did you find out your partner was keeping money secrets from you? And if you are keeping financial secrets, how do you balance that with the knowledge that (again, sans prenup) your secrets belong to your partner too? Is the old adage true, that what they don’t know can’t hurt ’em?

Have you kept money secrets from your partner? Credit cards they didn’t know about, or debts you brought into the relationship? What about vice versa? We promise no shame here. 

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