My Ex Hid Her Debt and It Cost Us Both — Here’s What I Learned from the Experience

Learn why open communication around money is important.
  • Financial infidelity is one of the main causes for divorce, according to a recent study from GOBankingRates.
  • And yet, an alarming 22 percent of Americans lie to their partners about money.
  • Author and podcaster Marcus Garrett shares his firsthand experience with financial infidelity and what it taught him about money and relationships.

A recent GOBankingRates study found that more than a quarter of respondents — 27.1 percent — would consider divorce over issues with financial secrecy. Second only to marital infidelity, financial infidelity is one of the leading causes of divorce. According to the survey, the magic number for how much debt a partner can hide before considering divorce is $15,050 for men and women.

Although I haven’t quite made it to the altar myself, I do have experience with financial infidelity from past relationships. When you write a book called “Debt Free or Die Trying,” it’s difficult to hide how much debt you do or do not have from your partner. Here are the money lessons I learned from my previous financial fallouts.

Have an Honest Money Talk with Your Partner

Our anonymous survey results suggest just how difficult it is to talk openly about money. In almost every instance, fewer people were willing to admit they ever “lied to their current or ex-partner” as they were willing to accuse ex-partners of lying to them. This could be a happy coincidence, or as a meme of yesteryear asked the masses, “Why you always lying?”

Have you ever lied to your current or ex-partner about any of the following? Select all that apply.
Female Response RateMale Response Rate
My spending habits13.4%5.8%
My debt9.4%6.8%
My salary or income6.7%4.8%
My savings5.7%3.9%
My investments3.0%2.9%
My credit score1.7%3.4%
My gambling habits2.7%1.4%
None of the above76.9%80.2%

Here’s what respondents thought their partners had done to them:

Has your current or ex-partner ever done any of the following to you while you were in a relationship? Select all that apply.
Female Response RateMale Response Rate
Lied about how much of my money they’ve spent16.1%10.1%
Lied about how much money they have saved14.7%5.3%
Stole my money or used my credit/debit card without asking11.7%6.8%
Lied about how much debt they have9.7%8.2%
Lied about how much money they earn10.0%4.8%
Opened a secret bank account without telling me6.4%5.8%
Committed identity fraud (opening a credit card in my name)2.3%2.9%
None of the above71.9%80.7%

I can relate to the struggle. In one relationship, I didn’t want my partner to worry about her outstanding debts while I walked around debt free. I paid off her tax liens, used a zero percent balance transfer to clear her credit and added her as an authorized user on a zero balance card so she could rebuild her credit score through positive spending habits.

These were all noble acts, and in fact, they did help in the short-term. But, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I made several mistakes and assumptions. Here’s what you should do differently to maintain financial peace with your partner:

  • On our podcast, “Paychecks and Balances,” we break down people along a spectrum of “natural spenders” and “natural savers.” Because opposites attract, it is important to know what group you and your partner fall into, in order to avoid unnecessary money fights. For natural savers, saving money comes easy. For spenders, everything is an emergency. Before adding your partner to any credit card or account, agree on what entails an “emergency,” since it is likely you and your partner have very different definitions.
  • Agree on the exact dollar amount you both believe requires discussion before purchase. For example, “any expense over $100 needs approval from both partners.”

It helps to have a household budget, too. A well-designed budget means you only discuss surprise expenses, which shouldn’t occur often. Trust me, there is nothing worse than opening a credit card bill at the end of the month — one that you expect to be at $0 — and seeing a new balance in the hundreds or thousands. That is a fight waiting to happen, whereas, defining a max charge upfront can usher in financial peace.

Use Apps to Track Your Household Finances Instead of Joint Accounts

Several soon-to-be married listeners of our show ask if they should immediately combine accounts. The universal answer is: “Nope!”

Rather than join accounts, use apps like Mint that can automate your household’s budget tracking process while still allowing both partners to maintain financial independence over the money they earn. At best, you need a household money management discussion before combining accounts.

To minimize misunderstandings, I recommend keeping some accounts completely separate. I consider joint accounts for things like bills, savings and investments. These type of combined accounts allow you and your partner to accumulate money faster, reach your joint saving goals quicker and maximize benefits from compound interest. After these are defined, each partner should openly — not secretly — maintain his or her own spending accounts.

One key question to ask: Will you both contribute to the individual debts/student loans you accumulated before marriage, or will you continue to pay for those exclusively from your own earned income? This is a discussion most partners do not have until it’s too late. “Paychecks and Balances” recently spoke about a couple that was near divorce because one partner secretly used $45,000 from the joint savings account to pay off their student loans.

Use Money Dates to Have Low-Stress Money Talks in Your Home

Even with over a decade of experience analyzing money and risk, it is still difficult for me to talk about money management with a new partner — and I talk about money every day of the week! It’s one thing to have a great handle on my own money management skills, but I still made the mistake of not having money discussions with my partner. I assumed they would learn through observation only. This was a stupid assumption.

I had to accept that my personal finance discussions needed to evolve to include my partner. This takes practice. Money is inherently personal, and it always will be. Some great advice for couples I once heard is to “remember it’s we versus the problem, not us versus each other versus the problem.” You’ve committed to each other for the long-term, so keep the same outlook when tackling your household finances.

If one or both of you are still uncomfortable, simplify the money talks in your house by making it a more natural part of your everyday conversations. It might sound ridiculous at first, but give a money date (or similar activity) serious consideration; you don’t want your first money discussion with your partner to be with a divorce lawyer.

Click through to read more about ways happy couples talk about money.

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