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Are you guilty of financial infidelity?

Are you cheating on your spouse with money?

If you've ever hidden a purchase from your spouse or secreted away some household cash for a rainy day, you hereby have been deemed financially unfaithful and may now commence the walk of shame.

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If you have a secret credit card, bank account, sports bookie or standing tab at that bar on the way home from work, forget the walk and start running.

Financial infidelity -- those money secrets we keep from our significant others -- takes many forms, ranging from harmless and idiosyncratic to hurtful and destructive. Nearly one-third (29 percent) of people in a committed relationship say they have been dishonest with their partner about spending habits, according to a Harris Interactive survey.

Money counselor Ruth Hayden says there are some telltale signs that help distinguish injurious money secrets from those that are merely innocuous.

"If it feels bad, it's infidelity," says Hayden, who is based in St. Paul, Minn. "As long as I'm not doing something with the money that breaks a code for us, an agreement or moral issue, then we're fine. Trust is the key with any kind of infidelity."

Money troubles are often cited as a primary contributor to a national divorce rate that hovers just north of 40 percent. So it seems likely that money secrets at least undermine a relationship, if not hasten its demise.

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"What people don't understand is that most trust is built up with tiny little things and can be destroyed by something tiny as well," Hayden says. "Disrespect can foster doubts about whether you can trust your partner, or whether you can trust and face yourself."

Day trading was his mistress
Hayden sees many forms of financial infidelity in her practice, most of it harmless -- at least at first. She says women in particular are often advised to keep a secret stash of cash on hand "just in case."

"There's a Yiddish word, 'knipl,' for little pots of money that have been used over the years by women," she says. "That's why when you clear out the house of an old woman, you go through all the pockets of all the coats and look through all the important books like the Bible, because there are little pots of money everywhere. Somehow, there is the illusion of safety if I can tuck away a $20 here and a $50 there."

In fact, women are more likely than men to stray financially (33 percent vs. 26 percent), in part because they tend to oversee the household budget (41 percent vs. 21 percent), according to the 2005 Harris Interactive survey that sampled 1,796 adults between the ages of 25 and 55 and was commissioned by Redbook magazine and lawyers.com.

When sparks fly over money, it usually involves individual purchases (50 percent), general household budget (45 percent), credit card debt (32 percent) or spending on the kids' toys and clothes (26 percent).

Some financial infidelities may be well-intentioned. Perhaps you secretly save money to surprise your partner on a birthday or your anniversary. Or you tuck away some cash as a safety net for a spouse who has trouble holding on to the stuff.

But even well-intentioned hoarding can backfire, as Hayden found out 36 years ago when she secretly saved to buy her husband a special present on their second Christmas together.

 
 
Next: "Why would you cheat financially?"
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