Many of us carry financial secrets. Are they bad for our relationships?

By: Alexandra Bosanac on February 14, 2018

A.J. lives with her boyfriend of four years. They share a lot hobbies, including a mutual love of stand-up and live music. But as close as they are, neither of them knows much about each other’s finances.

“I don't want my boyfriend to [hear] me talking about financial stuff,” she says over email, her preferred mode of communication.

She made the conscious decision not to share information about her account balance, her bonuses, and most notably, the inheritance she received last year.

General relationship wisdom says that couples should be transparent about money matters if they want their long-term partnership to succeed. But being financially opaque is surprisingly common.

According to a joint study between the Financial Planning Standards Council (FPSC) and Credit Canada, 36% of Canadians confess to deceiving their significant other about their finances — and the number swells to 44% amongst adults aged 18 to 54.

So, if we know talking about money is important, why do so many of us keep financial secrets?

The reasons for financial secrets

“People do this because they don’t have trust or confidence in their partner,” says Gary Direnfeld, a registered social worker based in Dundas, Ont.

“They’re worried that they can’t agree on how to handle money and when couples do this — spend without the other, or have other sources of income — we actually refer to this as financial infidelity,” he says. “Once we keep secrets on our finances… that’s a statement on a relationship and it’s not a good statement.”

There’s room for debate about whether non-disclosure qualifies as an outright lie.

Financial infidelity occurs when a couple determines the parameters of how they’re going to handle their finances and one party goes back on their word.

In A.J.’s case, she and her boyfriend have similar attitudes towards money — and it’s working for them.

“My partner respects my privacy and my decisions,” she says. “We're on the same page in that I don't ask him specifics of his finances. We have the type of relationship where we split all shared bills and rent 50/50 and anything beyond that we pitch in when we can. So it's a good give and take for the most part.”

Kelley Keehn, a personal finance expert, says that norms around the way couples talk about and share their money are rapidly changing.

“Things are more complex these days,” she says. “There’s no world anymore where you graduate university, get a job, get married, have kids…. There are no norms in relationships anymore. How can we expect there to still be norms with finances?”

However, couples should still be having these conversations, even if the conclusion they reach is that they’re not ready to be 100% transparent yet, says Keehn.

People might have valid reasons for wanting to not be immediately transparent about their finances, she says. For A.J., having negative experiences with money and past partners has meant she doesn’t feel comfortable being open.

“I have been in both the position of being the one who has more money and having that become an issue when I ended up spending a lot more money than an ex, and I've also been the one who was struggling financially,” she says. “When I was the one in past relationships who needed help, it was later used against me when we broke up.”

“That experience definitely put my guard up when it came to relying on another person financially, and the other experience of feeling like I was always giving too much made me feel like setting up boundaries was important for my financial health and mental and emotional health,” A.J. explains.

‘Blue sky’ questions

There are ways to soften the blows that often accompany frank discussions about money. For starters, sharing how events from your past have shaped your values around money can help your partner better understand where you’re coming from.

Of course, there’s no predetermined time to have the money talk. That’s part of what makes it so difficult to have in the first place. It’s best to start talking about your values around money early on in the relationship — though you’d be forgiven if you don’t mention it on the first, second, third, or even fourth date.

The right time to talk is “when you see the relationship has legs,” advises Direnfeld. The way he recommends people go about is to have “blue sky” or “what if questions”: where do you want to be in five years? What are your financial goals?

If you can’t come to an agreement, get some counselling, says Direnfeld. He has an unconventional solution: divorce financial professionals.

Their expertise is in helping quarrelling couples come to an agreement about their finances, so even partners who aren't splitting up could find their services useful. “And they’re not there to sell you on any product,” says Direnfeld.

A.J. agrees that a deeper commitment would mean she would need to disclose more to her partner. But that’s something she’s not ready to contemplate yet.

“I don't hold any particular moral stance on being married I do think that being married is different than just living with a boyfriend. Particularly if we were to get married and start a family, things like savings and life insurance and beneficiaries would require more openness about my financial situation,” she says. “Until then though I think it's important for me to protect my own financial interests first and foremost.”

‘These owls are going to come back to roost’

Of course, all this leads to the question: when should you know about all of your partner’s finances? We’ve heard the horror stories: the husband who hid secret gambling debts for years, the woman who is overloaded with credit card debt. Financial secrets can literally ruin a couple: once you’re married, your partner’s debts can legally become yours as well.

There are any number of solutions available to these problems, but they’re only available if they're talked about in the open.

“When you get involved with someone you’re making a lot of assumptions,” says Direnfeld.“More often than not our assumptions are not the same.”

And that’s fine if you have a casual relationship, or you’re not living together or married. But the more serious a relationship becomes, the more important it is to know exactly where your partner stands financially. Their debts, how much they make — even their credit score. After all, the latter will come into play if you’re ever looking to buy a home together.

The last thing you want to find out is that you can't get a mortgage because your partner’s credit score is ruined.

“These owls are going to come back to roost,” says Direnfeld.