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Poll: 13 million Americans commit financial infidelity

Poll: 13 million Americans commit financial infidelity

About 13 million Americans could be maintaining secret bank accounts or credit cards without their partners' knowledge, according to an analysis of a recent poll conducted for CreditCards.com.

One in 20 respondents who are living with a spouse or partner admitted they have or have had a checking or savings account or credit card their significant other didn't know about. Multiplying that percentage by the number of U.S. adults yields nearly 13 million Americans who are withholding financial information from their loved ones -- and that counts only those who confess their secret accounts to a random pollster over the phone.

Financial counselors and relationship experts aren't shocked by the numbers. They say secret accounts are surprisingly common.

The hidden cards and bank accounts, they say, typically don't spring from sinister motives, like wanting to buy drinks at the strip club without spousal oversight. Rather, the secret accounts tend to stem from misunderstandings about how to manage money in the relationship, or maybe even from good motives.

"Sometimes, there are dark, sinister activities they are involved in that they shouldn't be involved in, but the norm I have seen is people who are just trying to make some headway in solving a problem, but they get into trouble with that," says Chuck Bentley, CEO of Crown, a large Christian financial ministry based in Knoxville, Tennessee. "They have good intentions, but it goes really bad."

For example, Bentley says he is friends with a couple in which the husband secretly racked up debt amounting to double the annual household income, on credit cards and loans from friends, to try to finance his business. The husband finally broke down and confessed to his wife, who was shocked. Working together, they cut expenses, increased income and paid off the debt in four years -- without filing for bankruptcy or divorcing.

"They are a beautiful example of what can be done even when someone has a hidden bank account," Bentley says.

Talk early and often
The origins of secret accounts can start early in a relationship.

Laurie Berzack, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based professional matchmaker and relationship coach with Carolinas Matchmaker, advises couples to address potentially touchy subjects early on -- topics such as religion, family and money. Even in the first few months of a relationship, she says, it can be helpful to ask, "How do you like to spend your money?" and "Are you a spender or a saver?" The answers can be illuminating and can provide the basis for future conversations.

"The problem is that a lot of couples don't have that conversation," Berzack says. "They're afraid to have the money conversation. That's where people get into trouble and start lying and hurt feelings are created."

As the relationship progresses and a couple decide to unite their finances, experts say it's important to maintain the ability to spend independently. But there should be rules or a budget and no secrets.

Each couple will have a different system or spending threshold. In the CreditCards.com poll, 41 percent of those surveyed said their spouse or partner should be able to spend $100 or less without telling them. At the other extreme, 24 percent said the limit should be more than $500.

In addition, 19 percent said they had spent more than $500 without telling their spouse or partner. Men were nearly twice as likely than women to have spent that much without telling.

Coming clean
Financial counselors say neither sex is more likely to be secretive about finances.

"It's definitely split evenly between men and women," says Kim Cole, education outreach coordinator with Navicore Solutions, a national nonprofit counseling agency.

Cole says her agency often receives panicked calls from people who have run up credit card debt and want to eliminate it before their spouse finds out. While sometimes that works, the agency typically will "push them to have that uncomfortable conversation."

Many times, the situation seems dire. But it doesn't have to end badly.

"There are a lot of hurt feelings and a lot of anger, but when they come clean, it tends to be a bit cathartic for the relationship," Cole says. The conversations "tend to end a lot better than they initially think it will."

The survey also found:

  • Seniors are more likely to think their spouses should disclose all but the smallest purchases. Among those 65 and older, 24 percent said their partner should spend only $25 or less without telling them -- the highest figure of any age group, and twice as many as in the 18-29 age group.

  • Men were more likely to be OK with their spouse making big purchases. Some 30 percent of men but just 18 percent of women said they were OK with their spouse or partner spending $500 or more without telling.

  • But men were also more likely to make those big purchases, with 24 percent saying they had spent $500 or more without telling. Just 14 percent of women admitted to similar big and secret purchases.

Survey methodology
The CreditCards.com poll was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International Jan. 7-10, 2016. Princeton obtained telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,003 U.S. adults 18 years or older, including 706 adults living with a spouse or partner. Statistical results are weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies such as age, sex, race, education and geographic location. The margin of sampling error for the complete set of weighted data is plus or minus 3.6 percentage points, and plus or minus 4.2 percentage points for respondents living with a significant other.

See related: 6 credit card rules for newlyweds, The key to lasting love? Your credit score