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Financial infidelity: Are you a cheater?

Financial infidelity might sound sexy. But in fact, it's a serious breach of trust in a relationship and can result in a big argument, or worse.

Financial infidelity occurs when one spouse or relationship partner hides assets or debts, or commits other acts in secret that are detrimental to the couple's joint finances, says Lili Vasileff, founder of Divorce & Money Matters LLC, a divorce financial planning firm in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Examples include excessive spending, buying or mortgaging personal property, lending to or borrowing from family, friends or a retirement account, making risky investments or starting an ill-conceived small business -- all without the other person's knowledge and consent.

Financial infidelity gets its name because "it's just as serious as a sexual betrayal," says Mary Gresham, a psychologist in Atlanta.

"You're taking resources that belong in the couple or partnership and funneling them off. It leads to a lot of divorces," Gresham says.

Man and woman sitting apart after fight © CandyBox Images/Shutterstock.com

Keeping your spouse out of the loop

Financial infidelity isn't uncommon. One in 3 people who said they'd comingled their finances also said they'd either committed or experienced an act of financial deceit, according to a January 2014 survey by the National Endowment for Financial Education, or NEFE, a Denver-based nonprofit.

If you suspect your significant other has been financially unfaithful, here are some signs to look for.

Perhaps the clearest sign of possible financial infidelity is missing or misdirected documents.

If your partner has bank statements, credit card bills or other important financial information sent to his or her office instead of your home or if your partner's executive assistant or secretary handles your joint financial matters, deception could be at work.

"If the office is taking care of personal accounting, that usually is a huge flag," Vasileff says.

Other flags include:

  • You're cut off from a joint credit card.
  • You see no activity by your partner on a card you've normally both used.
  • You receive statements in the mail from a financial company you've never heard of.
  • Your partner intercepts bills and statements so you don't see them.
  • Cash goes missing or is unaccounted for.

Financial sob stories

Another warning sign can be sudden inflated and emotional claims of unusual or severe financial hardship or debt.

"Very often, a precursor to divorce is one of the spouses will tell all of the economic stresses and woes so you will get into the mindset of, 'We have no money, business is terrible.' Then, your expectations are low. That's all premeditated," Vasileff says.

On the flip side, sudden out-of-character generosity also could signal mischief.

"The spouse wines and dines the person, takes them on an extravagant vacation or tells them to go on an extravagant vacation by themselves, tells them everything is wonderful, when it's just the opposite," Vasileff says.

Gail Cunningham, spokeswoman at the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a nonprofit credit counseling organization in Washington, D.C., says it's important to keep your eyes open and not be willfully blind.

"Do they never look around the house? Never notice their lifestyle?" she says. "A person may choose to look the other way because he or she is enjoying the benefits of the spending, but I refuse to believe (that person is) totally blind to it."

Spending addictions

Gambling might seem harmless and day-trading stocks might seem smart, but done to excess, these activities can be addictive and trigger financial treachery to support the habit. If your partner has a financial addiction, watch out for financial infidelity, as well.

"When people have financial addictions like gambling, spending, trading stocks or lending money to family and friends to feel like a good person, those are often part of the infidelity where there's no consensus, no communication and no permission in advance. They are acting unilaterally and don't disclose it," Vasileff says.

Disclosure after the fact doesn't count and can be manipulative, Vasileff says.

Money moodiness

Couples in healthy relationships have open, honest discussions about income and debt.

If you want to talk about a money-related subject and your partner isn't responsive, that could be a warning sign, says NEFE spokesman Paul Golden.

"If you bring up a conversation point about money with your significant other and he or she isn't engaged or the person is withdrawn or defensive, those (behaviors) are big red flags," he says.

Most people have some financial baggage and many are uncomfortable talking openly about their finances.

Discomfort isn't necessarily a sign of financial infidelity, but it should prompt further discussion.

"If a person is reluctant, you need to know why," Cunningham says.

Gresham, the Atlanta psychologist, also points to unexplained dispiritedness as a possible sign of financial distress or misdeeds. Too often, these signs are understood only too late.

"You see it after the fact, and now you know why your partner was anxious or depressed or seemed withdrawn or secretive." she says.

The next steps to take

If you suspect your spouse or partner hasn't been honest with you about his or her income, assets or debts, or if you simply want to improve your financial communication, try to set up a time to have that discussion, Cunningham says.

"You need to be willing to be financially naked with the other person," Cunningham says. "Set a date -- 'Saturday morning I will meet you at the proverbial kitchen table and let's have a financial checkup.'"

Be ready to share your credit report, credit score, tax returns, and statements for bank, investment and retirement accounts. Ask your partner to bring all that information, too.

Getting financially naked "doesn't have to result in a terrible meltdown of the family," Cunningham says.

If you or your partner has been less than truthful, a call to a financial or marital counseling service might be a smart last step.

Bankrate Audio

Financial Infidelity: Are you a cheater?

Transcript

Financial infidelity might sound silly, but it's a serious breach of trust in a relationship. I'm Amanda Rowe with your Bankrate.com Personal Finance Minute.

Financial infidelity occurs when a partner hides debts or harbors a financial secret that can be harmful to the couple's overall finances. It can range from something like excessive spending or making risky investments, to borrowing money from family members or dipping into a retirement account—all without the other partner's knowledge.

Some red flags include cash going missing, bank statements being sent to your partner's office instead of home, and little or no activity from your partner on a card you both use. Experts suggest that you keep your eyes open and don't willingly be blinded by the situation.

Couples should often and openly discuss their finances. If your partner shuts down on you during this talk, that could be a red flag that they're hiding something. Whether it's financial infidelity, or just reluctance to talk about money matters, you need to find out so you and your partner can tackle the problem together.

For more on this and other personal finance tips, visit Bankrate.com. I'm Amanda Rowe.

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