Financial infidelity (keeping money secrets in a relationship) is strongly frowned upon – except when advising women. Instead, when discussing finances to an audience of women, the relationship advice is geared toward protecting oneself. This leads me to put on my Carrie Bradshaw advice column feathered cap and ask: Is financial infidelity ok if the woman is cheating to protect herself?
Surely everyone has heard the sob story of a man leaving his wife and kids penniless. The advice goes, if only she had kept a secret account, she would be in a better position now. Of course, one has to wonder if the secret bank account contributed or foreshadowed the relationship’s failure. Can you trust someone while actively protecting yourself from them? Here’s what those handy relationship listicles don’t mention – secret bank accounts create more problems than they solve.
Is This a Thing? Who Advises Women to Cheat?
The idea for this article came from reading Moneyist articles, an advice column for money and relationships. Moneyist doesn’t advise keeping secrets, but that’s often what people ask about. One story involved a husband keeping secret accounts for 30 years. And another one was a woman seeking to hide money from her fiancé.
Then I fell down the rabbit hole of secret account info. 6% of people admit to keeping a secret account from their significant other. A quarter of survey respondents believe financial infidelity is worse than physical infidelity. Yet if you look up whether women should keep secret accounts, a number of sites approve, as a means to protect women, and, even, as a form of “self-care.”
How a Lawyer Approaches Problems (of the Heart and Otherwise)
There’s a misconception that lawyers are solely concerned about risk mitigation. Of course, you hire a lawyer to protect you. But just as a good bodyguard learns to differentiate between friends and enemies, a good lawyer tries to protect the good while mitigating the bad – not block everything out.
For example, as a lawyer, I understand the benefits of prenups. But prenups aren’t for everyone and the more concerned you are about a prenup, the less likely you should marry this person. Prenups are not a solution for a bad match; they are a mitigation technique for a disastrous decision. Far better not to make the bad choice.
Further, prenups are different than secrets in that prenups have to be signed by both parties and generally don’t kick in until divorce. Prenups don’t weigh on your relationship every day the way that keeping secrets from your spouse will.
So there are quite a few differences between something a good lawyer might recommend for protection (a prenup) and a secret bank account. It’s like the difference between having a fire escape plan and having a secret apartment and secret family in case your first one disappears in a fire.
Let’s Talk Practicality
So let’s say …you’re in love, planning cohabitation or marriage, and someone says, keep a secret account.
How much will you need? Probably at least 6 months worth of expenses – first and last month‘s rent plus current rent for a new apartment, a moving company, furnishings, child care, debt payments, food, divorce attorney retainer, etc. This 6 months of expenses is designed to last you 3 months with all these new costs. So it’s enough to get you a start, but you’ll have to hustle.
Let’s say 6 months of expenses is $18,000, a considerable amount of money. That’s more than the median net worth of the average American under 35. It’s about 20% the net worth of Americans between 35-44.
Only 25% of Americans have 6 months of expenses saved up, and this is 6 months ON TOP of normal savings. Also, while you’re saving this money, and when you have it saved, you keep it a secret. It’s $18k that your significant other doesn’t calculate into retirement savings, emergency funds, debt payments, breathing room. That’s a big secret to keep.
And do you even get the security you craved? I doubt it. I think more likely, the more secrets you keep, the more secrets you assume of your partner. If one person cheats, they get more paranoid of their partner cheating. Most people believe physical infidelity is bad but it’s the secretiveness that makes it impossible to overcome.
What About Those Financial Infidelity Success Stories?
Of course we will hear “success stories” of women who used their secret fund – but it’s only a success if we know for sure that the secret stash didn’t contribute to the demise. It’s also likely that women who have secret accounts intuited that they (rightly) couldn’t trust their partners. That certainly doesn’t mean that women who trust their partners need to follow the same action. That’s like saying healthy people should take chemo. The cure has to fit the disease.
Never trusting anyone means you are potentially better situated in a disaster situation but 1) the better solution is to avoid the disaster and 2) the mitigation technique also freezes out the best case situation – a good relationship.
There’s No One Way to Do Relationship Finances
I know people who combine finances and those who keep things separate. One group doesn’t necessarily have a better relationship than another. Every couple should do what’s best for them.
A former boyfriend told me he favored joint finances because any money secrets would only serve to erode the trust in our relationship (but allowances could be made for surprises). Having everything out in the open did have some appeal. Though I was worried that I would have to answer for my purchases, having separate accounts doesn’t shield you from judgement.
And the bonus with joint accounts is that they are mutual – he was as open to judgement and ruin as I was. (He made more, for what it’s worth). But we had respect, reciprocity, and trust, and those are amazing necessary things in a relationship, whether you combine finances or not.
Preparing for the Worst Freezes out the Best
Either one of you could drain the funds- man, woman, non-binary. Your safety in this situation is that you’re entering an agreement with someone else who also stands to lose everything.
There are so many ways to protect yourself without having a secret account. You could choose to have separate accounts or separate credit cards, or create a trust solely for you. There are so many options I’m a little surprised why anyone would need an additional separate secret account.
So am I saying, throw caution to the wind and share all your money with someone who might be untrustworthy? NO!
If you don’t trust someone, don’t share ANY finances with them. Don’t keep a secret account – keep all your accounts secret. Ideally, break up with them if they’re untrustworthy or go to therapy if you feel like the lack of trust is solely in your head. If you stay together, keep totally separate accounts. If you want to combine accounts, keep a separate account, but tell your significant other about the account.
And yes, I think even telling your significant other that you have an account just for yourself is better than keeping a secret account. They cannot access it but at least you can talk about it. The secrecy is destructive, not the accounts.
Preparing for the Worst Changes your Mentality
If your bike gets stolen, you’ll be chastised for using a weak bike lock or parking in a dangerous area. I’ve heard that in the 70s, people would leave their doors and bikes unlocked. Sure, things got stolen, but the victims were never chastised for trusting. Instead, the blame was all on the perpetrator. It’s not, shame on you for not being constantly vigilant, but shame on them for stealing your bike.
I lived for a year in China where petty crime was a constant threat. When I got back to America, my mind almost instantly eased up. I didn’t have to worry about watching everything all the time anymore. I felt like a huge burden came off my head.
If a woman doesn’t have a secret bank account and her spouse leaves her stranded, let’s not blame her for acting like a totally normal person who made reasonable trusting judgements. The guy or girl who drained her accounts was at fault (just like the bicycle thief) but it’s not her fault for not wanting to be in high alert all the time, expecting the demise. It’s a terrible way to live.
So much of money advice is “feeling smart.” So we chastise people who have unpredictable outcomes as “just not being smart.” As if exerting massive effort into preparing for once in a blue moon outcomes is “smart.” But it makes us feel like we’re in control of something we’re not. Sometimes people screw you over. You try to prevent it but you are not perfect.
Secrecy Never Leads to Trust
Let’s say you had a secret account and needed to use it, or you didn’t have a secret account and got burned. I’m sorry. That sucks.
But please don’t take the lesson that you have to be MORE secretive next time. The lesson isn’t “trust no one.” The lesson is, don’t trust people like the guy who drained the account. Don’t become that person, either.
Don’t beat yourself up over it. If you went in with an open and trusting heart, try not to let this cad ruin that for you, or for the next person you invite into your life. He doesn’t deserve it.
The Benefits of Trust/Joint Finances
There’s convenience, ease, and stability in joint finances. My parents always only had joint finances.
Yes one of them could have run off with all the money. Yes my mom or my dad could have kept a separate account “just in case.”
But as a child I would have been worried. Like, are you anticipating this is going to break down? Should I be prepared to leave the family in case this hits the fan? Why were you not “all in” on our family? I’m positive kids can sense the secrets and the fact that the parents don’t trust each other. What a terrible example to set!
The thing with secret accounts is that you’re the one who’s cheating. Yes, maybe your spouse will cheat on you. But no one says, better have an affair before your spouse does! No one advises, hit your partner before they hit you! If you cheat because you’re afraid your partner will cheat, guess what? You’re the cheater, not them.
Let’s Talk Gender
Ive heard that what men earn is joint income. But when women earn money, they are more likely to consider it theirs and theirs alone. So when there’s a male breadwinner, people will frown upon him putting spending restrictions on his wife. But for a female breadwinner, a spending allowance for the husband is understood.
Yes I know there’s a pay gap. I know that these stories are typically men running out on wives. And I still don’t think there should be a gendered difference in how money should be treated in relationships. Infidelity is bad whether it’s a man or a woman, physical or financial.
Let’s Talk About Society
If men catch on that women are taught to stash secret money, it leads to men draining accounts. After all, their spouse may have been draining the account the whole time to fund their secret account.
If my brother or sister married someone who was keeping a secret account, I would definitely tell my sib to drain the accounts. It’s an arms race and the secret account is the first shot fired. I am all for hiding money when the relationship has already broken down, just not before.
And the more we hear stories of secrets and drained bank accounts, it becomes a vicious cycle. It makes it seem more prevalent than it really is. Then we all become less trusting. We see the story, we follow the script, and then we believe, all along, there was no other way to act.
Before it breaks down, keeping a private separate account means you are the one stealing. You are the one draining the account.
As unromantic as lawyers are portrayed, a lot of what we do is balance protection with, well, life. If anyone tells you to keep secrets from your relationship, they don’t understand the importance of trust in relationships. And trust is good even if you’re burned. Better than being paranoid every day of your life or skeptical of those around you.
Ideally, the advice is, don’t pair up with someone whom you don’t trust. The “best case scenario” with a secret account is that your partner really is untrustworthy and that you lose 99% instead of losing 100%. And the divorce court may end up giving that money back anyway.
If you will not give up on this person, then keep separate accounts. Or talk to them about expectations and trust.
The worst case scenario was that your spouse was on the up and up, and you broke the relationship with your paranoia.
Life is short. Don’t spend your life with someone you don’t trust, with your heart or with your money.