November 27, 2005

Financial Infidelity

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of money is the manner in which it affects practically everything we do and everything we create or take part in. Everything?


Take marriage, for instance.

"Would you ever lie to your spouse about your spending?" asks Michelle Singletary in a recent "The Color of Money" column. Singletary was prompted to ask this question due to a recent survey conducted by Redbook magazine and the website. Being a realist, as well as a bit of a cynic, I sure wouldn't call the survey and its results surprising.

In fact, the more I consider it, the more I think the following estimate is statistically low:

Nearly one-third (29%) of U.S. adults ages 25 to 55 who are in a committed relationship say they have been dishonest with their partner about spending habits.

I say "statistically low" because six of my eight closest coworkers readily admit to doing this very thing with their spouses. And they do it on pretty much a weekly basis.

It isn't a simple matter of grabbing some household cash from an ATM machine, and then spending it on $20 or $40 worth of fishing gear or Jelly Bellies or Go-Kart curb feelers. No, in my coworkers' cases, it's a matter of actually withholding money from their spouses. As in withholding entirely.

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How do they do it? Due to the nature of our business, these guys can receive small, non-scheduled performance bonuses once per week — some less than $100, and some not. Each guy is only too proud to let you know that their wives will never see that money.

"It's hidey-hole money," one once told me. "If Barbara knew I had it, she'd just take the check and deposit it and go spend it on who-knows-what. I mean, where does the rest of our money go, anyway? All I know is there's never any left for the stuff I want."

In other words, if he didn't slide this money under the table, stashing it for myself, then he felt he'd get none of it. So we can figure that his wife controls the household purse strings. Of course, this is the same guy who keeps all his open, zero-balanced credit cards (from playing the balance-transfer game ad nauseum) in an empty goldfish bowl. On a coffee table. By his front door.

Implied in his reasoning, though, is that this little game goes both ways. He's stashing money because he doesn't trust the way his wife is managing the family coffers, either.

As I write this, another of my coworkers is wondering whether his wife has taken the new credit card they recently received and run it up to max without telling him about it.

"We're thinking about maybe selling our house, maybe moving someplace bigger," he said a few weeks ago. "At first she liked the idea. Then, all of a sudden, she got cold on it. Said something like, 'Umm ... maybe we should just save our money for a while.'"

I responded that I wouldn't necessarily consider that a bad idea.

"But that's not like her," he continued. "And she didn't say it like she meant it. It's more like she was hiding something from me."

Hiding something? Like what?

"Oh, you know. Like maybe she's afraid that when we go to buy a home, I'll see our credit reports and find stuff I didn't know was there."

Ah. Seems to me that Coworker #2's conscience is telling him something he doesn't want to hear: Namely, that he doesn't trust his wife with money ... and quite possibly it's for good reason. But he doesn't ask her about it, because he's (1) too afraid of what he'll find out, and (2) too afraid of the knock-down, drag-out that will probably ensue. (He's mentioned before that she comes from a spendthrift family, and has never been particularly good at saying no to buying opportunities.)

I hear all these stories, and their nuclear-disaster ramifications, every week. I feel fortunate, because I don't have this situation in my household. (Although I can't speak for my wife, I guess. If she doesn't trust me with money at this point in our lives, well, she's never let on about it.)

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the implications of such financial deception are pretty stout. Money is a difficult, secretive subject on its own. But then go a step further: Consider that it's tough to improve (let alone remedy) any bad situation when the environment which created that situation is allowed to continue.

"If you and your spouse aren't on the same money page," writes Dave Ramsey, "then achieving financial security is next-to-impossible."

I agree wholeheartedly with that. You can divorce your partner, certainly.

But you can't divorce your debts.

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