Understanding financial infidelity

Jan 13 2013 14:28
Gregg Sneddon
I RECENTLY stumbled across a whole world of financial secrets and intrigue. It happened like this…

Having been a keen trail runner for a number of years, an injury towards the end of last year forced me to consider some alternate forms of exercise and so it happened that I was in the market for a mountain bike.

I chatted to a few friends who are regulars and consensus was that I would need to spend at least R25 000 to R30 000 to get a full suspension (better than entry-level) bike.

Trying not to be financially impulsive, I gave it quite a bit of thought and did my homework. I also chatted to my wife about it and in the end we decided that there was no way that I was going to spend so much money on something that I might not actually enjoy doing.

In the end I settled for a substantially smaller amount while I decide if it is something that I really enjoy doing (I can always upgrade later if necessary).

When I told my friends of my decision, I was called an “idiot” (to be polite). I mentioned the reasons for the decision and also that I had discussed it with my wife.

This was met by stunned silence and then the following: “You just broke the cardinal rule – you never tell your wife what you spend on a bike. And what colour it is? Because now you will have to keep to that colour so that each time you upgrade, she won’t notice.”

I thought they were having me on but I soon discovered that there is a whole world out there where people are spending fortunes on bikes and their partners are none the wiser. I heard of a guy who keeps his second bike in the roof, another who keeps his second bike at a friend’s house.

Still another has a separate “bike” credit card that his wife does not know about… and so it goes on!

I used to be part of a guys’ book club and we really did read books (at least for the first three years) and then the reading took a bit of a back seat as we started dealing with some of the life issues we all face.

One guy’s mother died, one was completely estranged from his father (who later died but not before they were reconciled as a result of our talking about it) and one of the guys ended up having an affair – he left his wife and two beautiful young daughters for a divorcee with a young son.

I remember one evening when we discussed how affairs happened (before he ran off) and he informed us that they are a bit like the alphabet – you don’t go straight from A to Z, but rather you go from A to B to C and so on, one small step at a time, until you finally go from Y to Z… it’s the innocent flirting, coffees and lunches, emails and phones calls and each little encounter is a step closer to the “end” when you finally find yourself at “Z”.

Pity he never followed his own advice.

In the US, 51% of marriages end in divorce and almost 80% of couples cite “money” as the primary cause of the marital demise.*

The National Endowment for Financial Education (in the US) also found that 31% of people who combined finances have committed some type of financial deception – from hiding purchases to lying about the amount of debt they owed, with as many as 58% admitting that they hid cash from their partners.

Marriage and relationships are hard enough and few survive affairs, so why do we expose them to the additional stresses of financial infidelity? “Financial affairs” are not new and they are not limited to men only – many women are just as guilty of financial infidelity.

How often do we make financial decisions without our partner’s input, or fail to disclose the full extent of our purchases to partners?

Just like a physical affair, financial infidelity seldom happens abruptly. It sneaks into a relationship through those little lies and seemingly harmless secrets that we keep about money.

“Just like sexual infidelity starts with an innocent business lunch or a little flirtation over coffee, financial infidelity begins with that first secret, that first half truth, that first hidden purchase…

"It starts when a guy gets a private credit card. He convinces himself he’ll only charge R1 000 a month. But then the R1 000 turns into R5 000 and the R5 000 into R20 000, and the spiral just keeps swirling down.

"It starts when a woman tells her partner she spent R500 at the mall instead of the R1 500 she really dropped because she doesn’t want him to get mad at her. It starts when he hides the real depth of the debt he’s bringing into the relationship or when she refuses to participate in managing their family finances.

“It is two people maintaining separate accounts because they don’t trust each other enough to pool their resources. It is the desire to control another person’s life by limiting his access to money. It is what happens every time a person lies, cheats, or deceives his partner about money.

"It is a betrayal of the trust that two people put in each other when they commit to a relationship. Overspending, separation, lack of planning, control, and secrets – these forms of financial betrayal can be just as damaging to that trust as sexual betrayal…The first betrayal leads to the next and to the next, and before long, the relationship is dying.”**

Money touches every part of our lives and once trust has been eroded by deceit and secrets, the relationship will be little more than two people living under the same roof.

Seemingly benign behaviours such as telling white lies and keeping little secrets can easily turn a happy relationship toxic. In our experience, we have yet to come across a situation where people are financially better off after a divorce.

When we advise clients about budgeting (especially for those who have never done it before) they are usually amazed how simple the exercise is, and yet how difficult it can be. It can often take many months of hard work to get it right.

If you have been unfaithful financially, and are concerned that it will cause a breakdown in your relationship, then, take heart; with commitment, honesty and hard work, you can rebuild the trust.

Gregg Sneddon is a certified financial planner with thefinancialcoach.co.za in Cape Town.

**From First comes love then comes money by Bethany and Scott Palmer.

For more go to finweek.com or follow Finweek on Twitter.


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