On the North Shore, a communications consultant is simultaneously concealing from her husband the fact that there was a return fee for a couch she bought but didn’t like, and keeping her mouth shut about the cost of its possible replacement, which is more expensive than the first one. “He thinks there are other things we could spend the money on,” she said.
As Hank Williams might have crooned, Your cheatin’ wallet . . .
Sneaking a new dress by hubby, or the purchase of a fishing pole past the wife, sound like stereotypical maneuvers straight out of an old-fashioned sitcom. But not only is this kind of deceptive behavior getting more common, according to Ted Rossman, an industry analyst with CreditCards.com, it’s so real that it now has a name: financial infidelity, or FI for those in the know.
“We found about one in five people who are in a live-in relationship are hiding a checking or savings account or a credit card from a partner,” Rossman said.
The survey, conducted late last year, also found that 35 percent would view a partner hiding a secret bank account from them as bad as having an affair, while another 20 percent said it would be even worse.
“A big part of it is the break of trust,” he said.
The growth in two-income couples and technology are likely factors in the growth of the behavior, he added. “You don’t need to get paper statements in the mail anymore. That is a prime way [a spouse] finds out.”
Financial infidelity is now the subject of scholarly research, and the problems it causes in relationships are so significant it’s helping to fuel a sub-specialty in the world of marital counseling — financial therapy.
At its most extreme, financial infidelity can lead to divorce and fiscal ruin. A spouse hides a gambling problem that bankrupts the family. Or the partner in charge of paying the mortgage secretly skips payments because he’s spending the money on drugs, and the bank forecloses on the house.
But more common are the petty deceptions. Ploys include scuffing the soles of new shoes to make them look old; making a show of ironing a new garment, as if it were old and wrinkled; and hiding a purchase in the back of the closet, several financial cheaters told the Globe. That way, said Patricia Boudrot, an exercise instructor and former communications manager for Filene’s Basement, when the spouse asks if something is new, one can simply answer, “Oh, this old thing? I found it in the back of the closet.”
Although financial infidelity can lead to marital strife, it can also achieve the opposite, said Paula Gopin, a retired preschool educator who has been married for 50 happy years. She calls her financial infidelity “creative financing,” and it works like this: some purchases she splits between cash and a credit card, making each item look less expensive on the credit card bill.
Or sometimes she pays for what she wants a little bit at a time, in increments that are not noticeable. “I thought layaway was just at Christmas time,” she said, “but you can do it all year round.”
Luciana Schachnik has taken FI to a new level entirely. Hers are not about purchases for herself. “My husband knows I have expensive taste,” she said. Rather, she keeps quiet about how much she spends on him.
For example: She’s said those Camper shoes she buys cost $30 or $40, when in reality they’re in the $140 range. If he knew the true price, she said, “He’d say, ‘I don’t need this.’ ”
In Needham, one long-married couple keeps each other in the dark by mutual non-spoken agreement. “I don’t ask him about his purchases and he doesn’t ask about mine,” the wife said, explaining that he doesn’t understand her need to spend on luxury and convenience, and she doesn’t understand his to splurge on electronics. “We’re very happy.”
But experts caution that even small deceptions can be a gateway to larger problems — it’s apparently a short trip from banana bread to a secret bank account. And that’s where financial therapists come in.
As Ed Coambs, a member of the Financial Therapy Association, explained, FI doesn’t typically spring out of complete financial harmony.
“Before there was financial infidelity,” he said, “there was financial conflict.”
So, while some holiday shoppers are enjoying being their own secret Santas, a new paper in the Journal of Consumer Research — “Love, Lies, and Money: Financial Infidelity in Romantic Relationships” — is here to play the killjoy.
The study suggests that retailers could play a role here, mitigating instances of financial infidelity by offering an incentive to use joint credit cards rather than cash.
“Doing so would not only would minimize consumers’ opportunities to commit financial infidelity,” the study says, “but may also promote responsible spending and benefit consumer financial well-being more generally.”
Yeah, maybe, but what’s the fun in that?