Money secrets that can hurt your relationship

By Fiona Zerbst

We share a lot with our partners – meals, bathroom space, children – but this doesn’t mean we’re comfortable revealing the ins and outs of our finances. Our childhood and upbringing, individual personalities, and cultural backgrounds influence how we manage money, and this can lead to friction.

We take a look at why we may keep money secrets from our partners, and consider some ways to overcome this potentially damaging behaviour.

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From small secrets to financial infidelity

We all have an emotional attachment to money, says Gugu Sidaki, a director at Wealth Creed. For many, those emotions aren’t positive, and this comes out in our behaviour.

Although it may seem harmless to hide the R3,000 pair of shoes you bought, or tell your partner you got them for R600 on sale, it’s secretive behaviour – and an even greater issue if you’re taking R2,400 from your monthly grocery- or school supplies budget.

“People who didn’t grow up with much are often tempted to overspend to alleviate their anxiety, but this can derail the family budget very quickly,” says Sidaki.

When two people come together, they bring a lot of baggage with them, and often have different money personalities. Both may believe their views are correct, which can cause a significant amount of stress, leading to disagreements and even deception, says financial planner Sylvia Walker, author of Smartwoman: How to Gain Financial Independence and Create Wealth.

Whether hiding how much you earn, or keeping a ‘secret stash’ in case your relationship doesn’t work out, you’re behaving in ways that suggest you don’t trust your partner. This can drive a wedge between you.

Other secrets include selling joint assets without your spouse’s permission, hiding the fact that you’re in debt, not disclosing that you have a child from a previous relationship, and so on.

“I know of a man who kept two households,” Sikdaki says, “one in South Africa and one in Namibia. Neither family knew about the other, precisely because the husband wasn’t willing to disclose his expenses.”

Although she makes a distinction between smaller and larger deceptions, she cautions against opening the door to any kind of financial infidelity. “It can be a slippery slope – I wouldn't recommend you venture down that road at all,” she says.

Moving beyond blaming and shaming

Walker says it’s vitally important to communicate. This can be difficult as not everyone speaks the same financial language.

“Your partner may feel entitled to spend their money as they wish, but you think the two of you should pool your funds,” she says. “Discuss your approach and try to examine why you hold the beliefs you do.”

Your worth is not just based on money, and you bring more to a relationship than currency. However, it’s easy to ‘blame and shame’ your partner if they’re not contributing in ways that you think are fair, which can lead to them keeping secrets from you. “Money should never be a battleground, but trust issues often manifest in the financial realm,” says Walker.

Everyone has the right to privacy and agency over their finances, and you shouldn’t have to account for every cent you spend. However, your actions can impact your partner’s life, and you owe it to them to be honest.

“People who have the strongest relationships are those who are in it together,” says Janet Hugo CFP, a director at Sterling Private Wealth. “They feel secure with their partner on every level - financially, emotionally and physically.”

How can you close the trust gap?

Hugo says a couple doesn’t necessarily need counselling – they just need to be willing to pay attention to the issue. One solution is to see a financial adviser together, which makes it easier to plan as a couple, rather than as two separate individuals. A third party can also be a mediator, helping you to get past some of your sticking points.

The only real solution, however, is radical honesty – with yourself and with your partner. “There is a lot of freedom and vulnerability that comes with opening up, allowing the person in your life to gain insight into your feelings. Revealing these insecurities can help to strengthen your bond,” says Sidaki.

If you’re not willing to play open cards with your partner, you may need to re-evaluate the relationship itself.

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