Financial Infidelity Part 1: Why We Lie About Our Finances

Money is one of the leading causes of stress in relationships, however, it’s not necessarily money itself that causes the pain, but rather the lack of communication and transparency around money. Whether you are the financial cheater, the victim or just looking for ways to avoid it all together, it leads us to the same question – How do we prevent and overcome financial infidelity?
Often times our shame around money can lead us to behave in ways that are totally outside of our character. The shame of not being able to afford our lifestyle, the shame of being irresponsible with credit cards, the shame of not being as “together” as everyone thinks we are. You may be the ‘responsible’ person in your family. You stayed out of trouble, you got through school, you got a good job, but no one knows that even with your salary, you are barely getting by – and no one sometimes includes your significant other.
Often times in relationship arguments, there is the paradigm of the perpetrator (the person that did something wrong) and the victim (the unknowing recipient of the wrongdoing). We strongly suggest that perpetrator/victim could be the wrong paradigm in most cases of financial infidelity. First, let’s define financial infidelity and then talk about reasons why the perpetrator/victim model may not help you overcome it.

Financial Infidelity – The willful and deliberate concealment of financial transactions from a partner in a relationship in which there is financial interdependence.

Financial interdependence can be as simple as splitting the cost of a meal or complex as completely combining your finances. When people in a relationship begin to have joint financial transactions, it creates expectations which require communication and transparency.

The Perpetrator/Victim Paradigm

If someone is walking down the street and gets robbed. The victim has no responsibility to the thief. Anything the victim could have done differently to prevent the thief from robbing them is irrelevant. The thief committed the crime, gets 100% of the blame and goes to jail. Financial infidelity is often not that cut and dry, so before you condemn your significant other to relationship jail, consider there may be a different way to approach the problem.

We Are Often Irrational When it Comes to Money

We are constantly making irrational decisions with our money. For example, if a $100 item is on sale for $40, we’ll convince ourselves we saved $60. We actually spent $40 and saved $0. We spend hundreds of dollars per year on bottled water that in most cases are not measurably better in any significant way to the water in our kitchen sinks. So let’s begin with the idea that we are not purely rational beings when it comes to money.
According to recent studies, the median lifetime earnings for a U.S. college graduate is $2.3M (average of $57K/year for 40 years). That’s almost $5 million for a couple who are both college graduates. $10K in credit card debt or $100K in student loan debt may seem overwhelming, and definitely not helpful in building wealth, but let’s also keep it the context of a larger perspective of $5 million.
 

We Have Different Money Personalities

We also bring different habits and perspectives to money in our relationships. ‘Opposites attract’ also applies to perspectives with money. Many times in relationships you may have a rebel and a conformist dynamic. The rebel lives in the present, appreciates spontaneity and enjoys the discovery. So one of the reasons they didn’t tell you about the $500 purchase beforehand is because they literally decided to make the purchase in that moment. The conformist, on the other hand, is more likely the planner, the one that actually likes to budget and craves organization and doing things ‘a certain way.’ (a.k.a. My way is right and your way is wrong)
Even without financial infidelity, those different perspectives are bound to create conflict. In order to mitigate some of those inevitable conflicts, communication and transparency need to be at the forefront.
 

Our Foundation for Financial Transparency is Faulty

The foundation of financial transparency and communication is the responsibility of both parties. Have you had “The Money Talk” in your relationship? A few questions to assess your relationship’s financial communication:

  1. Have you recently (within the past year) seen each other’s credit reports (not just the score, but the detailed report)?
  2. Do you sit down together and discuss your budget monthly? quarterly?
  3. Do you have a dollar limit that you cannot spend without your partner’s prior knowledge/approval? (even out of your individual account)

In many cases of financial infidelity, the answer to those questions will likely be no, thus the seeds of deceit were planted. In heterosexual relationships, for example, there are often rules of conduct regarding interactions with people of the opposite sex. As an example, dinner and drinks solely with a co-worker of the opposite sex may be inappropriate. Those boundaries will typically be made clear in the course of a relationship. Financial boundaries, however, are less likely to be addressed and without those boundaries, both parties are setting themselves up for failure.
 

Shame and Guilt Can Cause Us to Rationalize Deceit

If lack of communication and transparency are the seeds of financial infidelity, guilt and shame are the fertilizer.

“Shame is a soul eating emotion.” – C.G. Jung

Shame is a very difficult emotion to overcome and can often be at the heart of financial infidelity. For example, if the way one presents themselves to the public is connected to their financial success, admitting financial trouble is like admitting one is a complete fraud. This is another reason why the perpetrator/victim model is flawed. There may actually be multiple victims. It is often difficult to admit failure to yourself, much less a partner or spouse.

“The difference between shame and guilt is the difference between “I am bad” and “I did something bad” – Dr. Brene Brown

Shame can make a liar out of even the most honest person. The extent to which we internalize our actions makes it more difficult to discuss with others. If racking up credit card debt in our mind makes us a terrible human being (as opposed to someone that made poor financial decisions), we are much less likely to admit to someone we are a terrible human being.
Shame lives in hiding, through secrets and deceit. Anger, judgment, blame and contempt only make it worse. The only real way to overcome shame is through vulnerability in an environment of empathy, understanding, kindness and respect. If that sounds too mushy for you, then ask yourself two questions:

  1. Who have you revealed your deepest secrets to?
  2. Were they someone who you knew would be empathetic, kind, understanding and still love you regardless?

If you haven’t created a loving and open environment for your significant other, then you should have no expectation your significant other will be transparent about their shame.

It Takes Two

The perpetrator/victim model doesn’t often work with financial infidelity because the victim doesn’t have any responsibility to the perpetrator. There are certainly extreme cases of gross deceit, identify theft, fraud and financial abuse where perpetrator/victim model does apply (many of these cases are actually illegal). However, in most cases of financial infidelity, both parties have a responsibility to develop a foundation of open communication and financial rules of the road for their relationship. Both parties also have a responsibility to create an environment of mutual respect and empathy from which shame cannot grow.
Financial infidelity, particularly early in a relationship, can be a wake-up call and catalyst for both parties to grow together with their finances. That was certainly the case in my relationship with my wife, which we will share in Part 2.

If You Hate Maintaining a Budget, Track these Two Numbers Monthly

As personal finance nerds, we are interested in where every dollar goes, what bucket it falls into and how that compares to the previous week, month, and year. Most people are generally not interested in tracking every dollar. Some people say, “I’m just not a math person” or “that’s just more detail than I care to know.”

If forced to come up with two metrics to evaluate your financial progress, we would have to say without a doubt, it’s your net income and net worth. Let’s define both and then let’s talk about why these are the most important financial measures to track.

What is your Net Income?

Your net income is simply taking your monthly after-tax income (the amount that comes into your bank account) and subtracting all of your expenses during the month (housing, food, utilities, transportation, debt payments, personal, etc).

Net Income = After Tax Income – Expenses

If you were a business, your Net Income would be called ‘profit’. You need to know what your profit is each monthly. You don’t want to run a business that’s losing money each month. You want your net income to be positive each month and you want it to be growing over time.

A common mistake people make is that as their income increases, they increase their spending along with it (a.k.a. lifestyle inflation). So if you get a 3% raise at work, but you increase your spending by 4%, you could actually be worse off financially, that’s why tracking net income (profit) monthly is so important.

 

What is your Financial Net Worth?

Your financial net worth is simply adding up all your financial assets (everything you own) and subtracting all of your financial debts (everything you owe).

Net Worth = Assets – Debts

Financial Assets can include real estate, securities (stocks, bonds, mutual funds), vehicles, checking, savings, cash or anything you can sell and turn into cash. Alternatively, your debts can include mortgages, credit card debt, personal loans, home equity loans, student loans, etc.

Let’s be clear about a few things, first, never confuse your financial net worth for self-worth. Regardless of whether you’re a millionaire or your net worth is negative, it says nothing about who you are as a human being. We live in a ‘more is always better’ culture, we glorify millionaires and condemn the poor, but that is not the goal of this measure. Your financial net worth is simply a number that applies to you individually or as a family to track and increase over time to assess how close you are to reaching your financial goals (i.e. financial independence).

Second, the majority of Americans have either zero or negative financial net worth, so if they sold everything they owned, they would either have nothing left over or would still owe money. Many young professionals fall into this bucket due in part to student loans. Building your savings and getting out of debt both increases your assets and reduces your debt, thereby increasing your net worth.

Why are net income and net worth the most important numbers to track?

Good question! Why not Salary? Savings? Credit Score? The answer is simple, your net worth is the bigger picture goal, net income is how quickly you’re moving towards that big picture goal.  In your financial journey to your financial destination, your net worth would be the miles traveled to your destination, your net income is how fast you’re driving.  There are all sorts of metrics that you could measure if you were taking a cross-country journey, but if we had to choose only two, we would want to know how far we’ve gone (net worth) and how fast we’re moving (net income).

Both Net Income and Net Worth are simple formulas and there are only two ways to increase them:

  • Increase income/assets
  • Reduce expenses/debt

Increasing Income/Assets

Unfortunately, the majority of our expenses (after our essential expenses) are for items that decrease or depreciate in value. So when we buy a pair of shoes or a phone, if we were to sell it used a month later, we would receive much less in return than we paid for it. On the other hand, if used the same money to purchase stock ownership in the company that manufactured that shoe or phone, that stock could potentially increase or appreciate in value over time. When you hear phrases like ‘the rich get richer and the poor get poorer’ that is partially because wealthy people are more likely and able to purchase appreciating assets (e.g. businesses, securities) and the middle class and working class are more likely to buy depreciating liabilities (i.e. debt – a.k.a. stuff that makes us look/feel rich, but actually make us less wealthy). A depreciating liability, such as a car note, is a double loser because not only is the car rapidly declining in value, but it’s also financed from a bank, which means paying additional money in interest (increased cost & reducing value).

We have to change how we look at what we buy and whether showing off our expensive stuff is more important than actually growing our wealth. Recent studies have shown that 76% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, that includes high-income earners, so the people we compare ourselves to or try to impress are likely broke.

We also have to change the way we think about our income. It’s often said when talking about investing, that ‘you don’t want all your eggs in one basket’, you have to diversify your investment assets to reduce risk. Well it’s much less talked about, but just as important to diversify your income because having one source of income is just as risky as having all your investments in one stock.

In order to put more wins in the asset/income columns, the focus should be to develop multiple sources of income and free your income to purchase assets that appreciate in value. Building an emergency fund, increasing your 401k contributions, contributing to an IRA, are all ways to increase your assets in the near term.

Reducing Debt/Expenses

The other end of increasing your net worth is reducing your debt. Everyone has different types and levels of debt, but the most advantageous position to be in financially is having no debt. There are entire industries that rely on people getting and staying in debt. Credit cards, auto manufacturers, mortgage lenders, banks are examples. In fact, the credit card industry calls people that pay their balance in full every month, deadbeats. They are deadbeats because the card companies aren’t making any money off them in finance charges. If you choose to use credit cards, please be a deadbeat! Unfortunately, in our culture we have become accustomed to debt as a way of life. When we start to understand how much debt impacts our ability to reach our financial goals, we begin to make different choices. Keep in mind, our debt is someone else’s asset (i.e. banks, credit cards, auto companies, mortgage lenders), just like your loss is someone else’s win.  If you are a lender, the loan contract is an asset that appreciates. You lend someone $20K for a car purchase and you’re paid back $22K over 5 years.

In order to reduce losses in the debt/expenses columns, the focus should be to free your income to pay off debt more quickly and avoid additional debt. Also, reduce the purchasing of items that depreciate in value. Tracking your spending for a month, using only cash for 60 days or selling possessions are all ways to increase income or reduce expenses in order to reduce debt.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that we cannot wear or drive wealth. In one camp, the majority of millionaires live well below their means, drive used cars, and live in modest homes (read: The Millionaire Next Door).  However, in the other camp, the majority of Americans live far above their means, live from paycheck to paycheck and finance their lifestyle with debt. There are free online financial aggregators such as mint.com that will allow you to centralize all your financial accounts and calculate your net worth automatically. Tracking your net worth monthly allows you to become more aware of not only which camp you’re in, but also allows you to know how close you are from moving from one to the other.