Worst Case Scenario: My Spouse Hid Money From Me
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Worst Case Scenario: My Spouse Hid Money From Me

What can you do if you suspect that your partner is secretly saving – or spending -- family funds?

She sneaks through the garage carrying $200 worth of new shoes after a trip to the mall.  He opens a credit card and starts charging tech gadgets, or squirrels away money into a separate account.

There are a variety of ways in which couples choose to manage their money.  Some maintain joint accounts; others maintain separate accounts. Some have a mix of the two. But however it’s done, there’s accountability and each knows what the other is doing.

This isn’t always the case, however, especially when a partner opens credit card accounts in their own name, spends beyond the family’s budget, or is hiding money in savings or investments – all serious indications of a lack of communication and trust between the couple. But does that automatically mean the relationship is on the rocks?  

Not necessarily. “There are two types of money hiders,” says Ramani Durvasula, PhD, psychologist and author of Should I Stay or Should I Go? Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist.  “There are the dark hiders. In this case the relationship could definitely be in trouble. They could be headed for a divorce and hiding assets, or they may not trust their partner.”

Then there are the more common shameful hiders. According to Dr. Durvasula, these are typically people who overspend to the point of it being an addiction. “Like any addiction, you want to hide it,” says Durvasula. “They’re buying junk online and having it sent to the office. They’re opening credit cards.” Secret spending could also be a sign of an affair or other inappropriate behavior.

Outing the Big Spender
So how does a spouse typically find out that something’s amiss with their family finances?  The most obvious indicator is funds missing from a checking or savings account, or seeing a statement from a bank or lender that you don’t recognize. In some cases it comes to light when the couple applies for a joint purchase, like a car loan, and the application is denied because they carry too much debt or have a low credit score.

“In one-income families it’s not unusual for the breadwinner to feel like they control the money, and for the person who is not earning money to sometimes be sheepish about spending,” says Durvasula. This imbalance of power can be a recipe for disaster. “Income and spending shouldn’t be secret,” says Durvasula. “Both need to be stakeholders.”

Overcoming Secret Spending
It can be challenging for some couples to be open about how much cash they spend and how they spend it simply because they’re used to being autonomous in handling their finances. “Nowadays, people are older and more independent when they marry,” says Durvasula. With remarriage there could be resistance to commingling finances, especially if a partner is responsible for supporting a child from a previous marriage. She says that while it’s understandable that a couple may want separate accounts, in a committed relationship there needs to be an agreement about how much discretionary income each can spend, no questions asked.

Managing Money Together
According to Durvasula, one of the most important things couples should do as a team is file their taxes -- even if you file separate returns. “Taxes are never one person’s job,” she says. “You both need to know the financial health of the family. If one of you died, the other can’t be left in the dark.” Taking this one step alone can bring transparency to your finances. “Marriage is a financial relationship,” says Durvasula. “What each person does in the relationship has ramifications.” If you do find unusual payments or accounts, the first step is to have a calm conversation about it. It may be old spending habits that aren't necessarily suspicious or a problem, but may bear further discussion. If the root of the problem isn’t quite so benign, you may find that couples counseling can help you work out any trust or other issues. While addressing financial problems can sometimes be painful, the long-term rewards of a healthier relationship – and a more secure financial future -- will be worth it.

Anxiety over money can hurt your health. Check your stress levels and get tips to manage it with our Financial Stress Test. 

Deborah Wilburn is a personal finance writer, author of  For Richer, Not Poorer: The Newlywed’s Financial Survival Guide (Perigee/Penguin Publishing Group) and Senior Content Producer at MoneyFit/Sharecare.