Financial secrets are bad for marriage

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Dear Debt Adviser,
I just got engaged after living with the same person for the last five years. I have asked him to show me his year-end credit card statements, and he refuses. He says he will tell me balances and rates but says that (my request to see) what he has spent his money on is an invasion of his privacy. He says his account is separate for a reason. I think he is hiding something. Is it unreasonable to ask for the last year’s detail to know what I am getting into as far as his spending habits? We are talking about buying a house and/or doing renovations to his current house, and that is “getting into bed” financially for a lot of money. Just curious about your thoughts.
— Nancy

Dear Nancy,
If I ever told my wife that I didn’t want her “invading my privacy,” not only would she be hurt, but I’d probably get hurt in the bargain. I have no problem with separate finances. After all, how else can he buy you presents, using only his money? But, secrets are not something you want between you and your fiancé, and starting out believing that your partner is “hiding something” doesn’t bode well. When two people are considering marriage, I recommend full disclosure.

As far as disclosing a potential partner’s finances, I believe it is reasonable to request to see copies of that person’s credit reports as well as other financial documents such as credit card statements. The reason that I recommend full disclosure with finances is because the majority of fights in a marriage center on the issue of money.

The way to avoid fighting about money is to understand each other’s spending styles, “money tapes” and general ideas about money. What I mean by money tapes is the things that we tell ourselves, usually what we learned growing up, when it comes to money. One of your tapes may go something like this, “Credit is bad. I need to save money to buy this item. It will have to wait.” Where problems arise between couples is when your partner’s tape on the same issue is exactly the opposite. Perhaps, it’s something like this, “I want this item and I’m going to charge it on my credit card, because I deserve it.”

Understand, I’m not passing judgment on either approach. They are just vastly different. In order for two people with opposite or quite different approaches to money to get along, an open dialogue needs to take place, concerning major money issues. Even if you have similar ideas about money, a frank discussion before marriage is a must.

Money issues to discuss with a potential partner
  • Checking accounts: Will you have only a joint account that you share, or will you each also have your own checking account?
  • Bill paying: Will one person be responsible for paying bills, or will you share the responsibility?
  • Financial responsibility: If you keep separate accounts, who is responsible for paying what?
  • Spending: How will large purchase decisions be made, and what is considered a large purchase?
  • Debt: If any current debt exists separately, how and when will the debt be paid? How will decisions be made about incurring debt for which you both may be responsible?

Nancy, don’t give up on him, but don’t let him keep any financial secrets. Keep the dialogue going until he is willing to have a thorough financial discussion. Until then, I would be leery of “getting into bed financially” with him.

Good luck!