Keeping Money Secrets From Each Other: Financial Infidelity On The Rise

Apr 29, 2019
Originally published on April 29, 2019 7:25 am

When Ann and Ed Coambs met 15 years ago, she was impressed that he had his financial act together: He owned a house, had a job and managed his budget.

But years later, after they married, Ann learned something that shocked her: Ed had secretly taken out debt and hid it from her for over a year.

Ed Coambs borrowed several thousand dollars on his business credit card — the only account he didn't share with his wife, Ann — without telling her.
Courtesy of Ed Coambs

Ultimately, the truth came out: One night, after their three sons went to bed, Ed told her. Ann recalls the initial shock: "In a span of a couple minutes, you're like, 'What just got swept out from underneath me?' "

Then she got angry.

"Everything in me wanted to just yell and punch a pillow," Ann says — especially when she considered how he'd advocated for openness and transparency during their whole marriage. She wondered, "What else don't I know? What else is he hiding?"

"When that happened, the trust part was the hardest thing to get back," she says.

Getting it back required couples counseling, apologies, transparency and time. Even in forgiveness, Ann admits she resented repaying his debts.

"I feel like, 'You should bail yourself out for what you caused,' " she says.

Marital infidelity is well-known, but financial infidelity might actually be more common.

The few academic studies have estimated that as many as 41% of American adults admit to hiding accounts, debts or spending habits from their spouse or partner.

"It does seem that financial infidelity is on the rise," says Ted Rossman, an industry analyst for CreditCards.com. That company's recent survey found that millennials are nearly twice as likely to hide money or accounts from partners than other generations.

It's easier to conceal, Rossman says, because of technology: "You can sign up for the account, you can get the statements, you can do your spending — all without anything showing up in the mail."

Every couple might differ in how it defines financial infidelity. Typical cases often involve hiding compulsive shopping or gambling debts. In others, a spouse might siphon off cash from the family's funds for a secret purpose. Either way, when the deception is exposed, it often evokes feelings of betrayal and loss of trust that can lead to the dissolution of the relationship.

"It's hard to realize someone could be so fake to you, someone you thought you understood and could read," says Megan McCoy, a professor at Kansas State University who specializes in financial therapy, a new field that combines financial advice with family counseling.

Money signifies safety in retirement or a child's college education. "And that's why money fights are nastier and last longer" and why financial deception cuts deep, McCoy says.

That is painfully familiar to Ed Coambs. He met Ann 15 years ago at a party he hosted when they were living at opposite ends of Houston. At 23, Ed already had his finances in order.

This impressed Ann, who was three years older and saddled with dental school debt. "I thought, 'Gosh, I've hit the jackpot. This is amazing,' " she says.

Within two years, they married and settled in Charlotte, N.C. In the process, they navigated a few differences in how they wanted to manage their funds. Ed, for example, argued for joint accounts.

"I never had the idea that people would, in a marriage, keep their money in separate accounts or hidden from each other," he says. His parents had joint accounts, and anything else seemed foreign.

Ann, meanwhile, says she felt skittish about that, in part because she'd watched her parents fight over money during their divorce. But the money discussions with her own husband weren't acrimonious, she says.

"Eventually I got around to saying, 'OK, let's do this,' " Ann says. So all their accounts — including those for her dental practice — were all mutual and shared.

Ed stayed home with their young boys and helped her manage her business accounts while his wife supported them. Later, he returned to school to become a therapist, but his counseling practice was slow to take off.

"I had a period of struggle," he admits. "It had to do with my own insecurities and what it meant for me to be a provider or not being a provider." That's when Ed borrowed several thousand dollars on his business credit card — the only account they didn't share — without talking to his wife.

Ironically, the practice Ed was building was based on financial therapy — counseling for couples fighting about money. Meanwhile, over the following year, the debt grew to more than $20,000, but he didn't tell his wife about it.

In many ways, Ed says, he fell into some of the typical patterns of financial infidelity. He says many people justify financial unfaithfulness because there's a disparity in income or they feel deficient. He kept his secret under wraps, all the while hoping his business would grow and he could repay the credit card debt. Instead, the debt grew. Even to him, it made no sense. He feared how Ann — who referred to him as "Mr. Financially Responsible" — might react.

He says the strain of hiding isolated and depressed him.

"For the most part, people thought, 'Well, Ed's successful, he's smart, he's capable,' " he says. "Internally, nothing else felt further from the truth."

It has been over 2 1/2 years since Ed came clean with Ann over his debt. He says he has learned to empathize with those, like himself, who break their own moral code — and with people like his wife, who work hard to forgive. The Coambs say they agreed to tell their story in the hopes it might help others in a similar position.

To those still hiding in the shadows, they say: Come forward — the sooner, the better.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. So there's marital infidelity. What about financial infidelity? This is when people hide their accounts, their debts or their spending habits from their spouses or partners. Studies estimate up to 40% of American adults admit to some form of this. And therapists and financial advisers say it can really undermine relationships because of all the lies. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports on one couple's journey from deception to disclosure.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Ann Blaine met Ed Coambs 15 years ago at a party he hosted in Houston. At 23, Coambs already had his financial act together.

ANN COAMBS: He owned a house already. And he had a job, and he managed his budget.

NOGUCHI: Blaine was three years older and saddled with dental school debt. She found his financial security super sexy.

A COAMBS: I thought, gosh, this - I've hit the jackpot. This is amazing.

NOGUCHI: They married and settled in Charlotte, N.C. They had some differing views about money.

ED COAMBS: Well, I never really had the idea that people would, in a marriage, keep their money in separate accounts or hidden from each other. Joint accounts was the way that my parents managed the household finances.

A COAMBS: I was real skittish about that, I guess 'cause my parents went through a not-very-pretty divorce.

NOGUCHI: But these differences, they negotiated.

A COAMBS: Eventually, I got around to saying, OK, let's do this. So, like, all of our accounts were mutual and shared.

NOGUCHI: That sharing extended to Anne Coambs's dental practice. Ed Coambs stayed home with their boys while his wife supported them. Later, he returned to school to become a therapist. But his counseling practice was slow to take off.

E COAMBS: I had a period of struggle. It had to deal with my own insecurities and what it meant for me to be a provider or not being a provider. And I borrowed more money and wasn't talking to my wife about it.

NOGUCHI: Ironically, his practice focused on financial therapy - counseling for couples fighting about money. Meanwhile, Coambs himself secretly borrowed thousands of dollars on a credit card. Over the following year, that debt metastasized to over $20,000. He told himself he'd repay it as he won more clients.

E COAMBS: I just need more time.

NOGUCHI: But every month, the debts grew. His wife? She didn't notice.

A COAMBS: I'll be honest. I was probably more oblivious than I'd like to admit that I was.

NOGUCHI: Guilt consumed Ed Coambs. He thought about it hourly.

E COAMBS: Even talking about this with you now, like, I have my own sense of shame that's coming over me 'cause I'm like, man, did I really do that?

NOGUCHI: He agreed to tell his story because he thinks it might help others in the same boat. The few academic studies on the subject say between a quarter to about 40% of American adults deceive their partners financially. Ted Rossman is an industry analyst for creditcards.com.

TED ROSSMAN: It does seem that financial infidelity is on the rise.

NOGUCHI: His firm's recent survey found millennials twice as likely to hide money or accounts from partners than other generations. And digital life makes doing so easier.

ROSSMAN: You can sign up for the account. You can get the statements. You can do your spending, all without anything showing up in the mail.

NOGUCHI: Ed Coambs kept his secret under wraps for a year. The debt grew. Even to him, it made no sense. His job, after all, involved helping couples navigate financial conflict. His wife called him Mr. Financially Responsible.

E COAMBS: It is ironic.

NOGUCHI: He says the strain isolated and depressed him.

E COAMBS: For the most part, people thought, well, Ed's successful. He's smart. He's capable. Internally, I just - nothing else felt further from the truth.

NOGUCHI: Ultimately, the truth did come out. One night, after their three sons went to bed, he told her. Ann Coambs recalls the initial shock.

A COAMBS: In the span of, you know, a couple minutes, you're like - what just got swept out from underneath me?

NOGUCHI: Then she got angry.

A COAMBS: Everything in me wanted to just yell and, like, punch a pillow. And, like, I think when he's been so - we got to share everything, we got to do this for your business and my business together all the time - when that happened, the trust part was the hardest thing to get back.

NOGUCHI: Getting it back required couples counseling, apologies, transparency, time. Even in forgiveness, she admits, she resented repaying his debts.

A COAMBS: Like, I don't want to do that. I feel like you should bail yourself out for what you cost.

NOGUCHI: It's been over two years since he came clean. Ed Coambs says he's learned to empathize with those like himself, who break their own moral code, and people like his wife, who work hard to forgive.

And are people, generally speaking, able to move through that?

E COAMBS: You know, you heard me take a deep breath because it's easy to talk about on the phone in an interview, and it's harder work to do week in and week out.

NOGUCHI: To those still hiding in the shadows, both he and his wife say - come forward, the sooner the better. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.