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Marriage: Cheating about money

Sleeping around isn't the only kind of cheating that leads to breakups.

So does being less than honest about money. A problem needn't be as severe as pathological gambling or addictive shopping to wreak irreparable havoc on a marriage. It can be as simple as "I don't like how you manage money, so I'm putting some of mine away so you can't get to it."

If you keep personal purchases a secret from your spouse or partner, or stash cash that your significant other is unaware of, you're cheating. And a recent survey has found that many American couples are doing just that.


• 91 percent avoid discussing money with their spouses or partners

• 50 percent made a purchase their spouse opposed

• 30 percent admitted to hiding purchases

SOURCE: American Express survey of 2,000 adults

Of 2,000 people polled by American Express, 91 percent said they avoid discussing money with their spouses or partners, half made a purchase that their spouse was against, and 30 percent admitted to actually hiding what they bought.

Twin Cities financial counselors say the bad economy has brought on more of the flip side of being unfaithful about funds: spouses who keep serious debt to themselves until it's too late.

Susan Zimmerman, a marriage and financial counselor, said she sees three times more couples who are grappling with money issues than clients who are dealing with sexual infidelity. "There's a greater feeling of ethical wrong with sexual infidelity, while the multiple ways people can keep financial secrets isn't seen as so bad. You start with one little secret and if you get away with it, it turns into a strategy."

The money gap

People may find illicit money affairs easier to rationalize than physical affairs -- but not easier to understand. The core problem is not so much money itself as the fact that spouses haven't learned how to bridge their differences.

"Fights about money are really about the couple not having figured out how to make decisions fairly and listen to each other without defensiveness," Zimmerman said.

Money is one of the most avoided topics in a marriage, even though it's also one of the most important. That avoidance is usually what turns a small issue into a significant one. Many couples don't talk about money at all until after they're married, and then start learning things about their spouses that they don't like.

Confusion about money management arises, experts say, because spouses rarely view it the same way.

Role models are a huge influence, something that Wendie Pett learned the hard way.

Pett, a small-business owner in White Bear Lake, has been divorced six years. Financial infidelity wasn't the only reason for the split, but it was one of the ex-couple's biggest problems, she said.

"I grew up in a family where the kids always got what we wanted; it didn't matter if my mom had to take three jobs and put things on layaway. So I was a spender. My ex was very frugal, like his family, and wanted to save," she said. "He was so detailed about the finances that once there was a quarter missing and he wanted to know where it went."

The couple's money war "kept getting brushed under the rug and finally the pile of dirt was so big we were tripping over it. I was buying clothes he didn't know about and I would lie and say I've had it forever. I would hide receipts and break down boxes and stuff them down deep in the trash. I would hide new clothes until my birthday so I could say they were gifts."

After her divorce six years ago, Pett was determined not to repeat her mistakes, and has taken steps to avoid it, including money management classes.

"If I get married again, I don't want to have the same patterns, and it's also helped me understand money better for my business."