Financial Fidelity

Scott Farrell comments:

Michelle Singletary is a popular personal-finance columnist for the Washington Post. Her new book, Your Money And Your Man, looks at the financial evolution of a healthy relationship, from the first date and wedding plans to retirement and life insurance. (Although her book is marketed as “women’s financial advice,” there is plenty of sound information about spending and investing for men too.) Throughout the book, Singletary emphasizes one of the principles of chivalry that is crucial to a good relationship: Honesty. A spouse who isn’t honest about what they’re spending (or saving) is likely to be dishonest about other things as well. As Singletary points out with her typical dollars-and-cents savvy, dishonesty indicates disrespect, which “will bankrupt your relationship.” Although the following excerpt is full of good financial advice, there are also some valuable lessons to be learned about faith, trust and chivalry in relationships.

Common cents and the cost of lying to your mate

SingletaryIn a marriage, financial honesty is right up there with fidelity. And yet men (and women) think nothing of keeping financial secrets.

Look at one reader’s plight. She wrote:

“I’ve been married for two years, and I’m at my wit’s end. My husband, while a bright and caring husband and physician, is completely irresponsible with money. He has obtained numerous credit cards without telling me, and has the bills sent to his mother’s house (I found out when his mom forwarded the bills to our house). I find hidden purchases all over the house, or he tries to pass off brand-new stuff (a $1,200 PDA) as something he’s always had. We’ve talked about this endlessly, and seen two marriage counselors. He promises to change and then just goes back to his secretive and expensive ways. He is a good man, but I’m wondering at what point I should just give up on this marriage.”

Honestly, as I told this reader, a good man wouldn’t lie to his wife. Nor would a good woman lie to her husband.

A woman often hides her money from her husband just in case he turns out to be a philanderer, spendthrift or financial control freak. There are experts who advise women, especially stay-at-home moms, to keep a separate stash of cash. They even provide tips on how to carry out the deception. Here are just a few:

  • When you go to the grocery store, write a check for an amount over the total and hoard the cash you get back.
  • Secretly sell off odds and ends around your home at swap meets, flea markets and garage sales.
  • Find a part-time job that will pay you in cash.
  • Open a non-interest-bearing account in your maiden name in another city. Make sure all bank statements are sent to a secret post office box.

Almost anything goes to protect your money. Women are told not to feel guilty about hiding money so they can shop without having to justify purchases, or invest without their husbands’ knowledge, or raise cash for a rainy day.

After all, it’s about time that women – who are increasingly earning more than their husbands and bringing more assets into a marriage – learn to conceal their true financial situation the way some men do.

I hear it all the time. Women should strive to maintain as much financial independence as they can. Experts advise women to keep separate accounts and sign up for credit cards in their own name just in case they get divorced. Fail to do so, they warn, and you may have trouble getting credit after the marriage ends.

I know many women who harbor fears that their husbands will have affairs and clean out their bank accounts. It would be foolish not to protect your financial interests at a time when so many marriages end in divorce.

But that fear, however realistic it may turn out to be, does not justify dishonesty. It’s possible to have financial independence without being deceitful. A marriage in which someone is hiding assets or skimming money from the joint bank account is a sorry marriage.

In extreme situations – if a woman is being abused either physically or emotionally – she may need to squirrel away money to get out of a horrible or life-threatening relationship.

But that is the extreme.

If you have enough faith in your man to marry him and trust him with your life, you need to trust him with your money. More important, if you are going to have children with him and trust him with their lives, you should trust him enough to divulge everything about your finances, even assets you want to keep separate from your community property.

But trust doesn’t mean turning over complete control to the degree that you are clueless about the family finances. As Ronald Regan said when negotiating with the Soviets: “Trust, but verify.”

Black Dresses and White Lies

Have you ever hidden a shopping bag full of clothes in the trunk of the car or in the back of the closet to keep your honey from finding out how much money you spent at the mall?

Do you intercept credit card statements so your spouse won’t yell at you for overspending?

If you answered yes to one or both of these questions, you have plenty of company. In one survey of 1,000 married couples conducted by Reader’s Digest, 48 percent of wives and 49 percent of husbands said they kept how much they paid for something from their spouses.

Interestingly, couples with higher incomes lied more about what they spent.

What’s going on here? If you’re lying to your husband about purchases, shame on you. And if you’re lording over the family finances, making your husband feel like he’s your child waiting for his weekly allowance, shame on you, too.

One way to stop the lies is to create a fair and equitable system in which each partner has his or her own pocket money. That doesn’t mean setting up separate accounts. Just allocate a certain amount that you each can spend without any judgment. Consider this money your personal allowance. You can’t and shouldn’t be judged on how you use it.

You might ask yourself, “How harmful is it to keep quiet about what I spent on a pair of shoes or a stereo system?” You might feel entitled to spend the money you make the way you want. But keeping secrets and failing to communicate about your spending is a symptom of a big problem in your partnership. Your sneaky spending is sabotaging your family’s financial goals, and lying about how much you spend is no trivial matter. Keeping secrets ruins relationships.

©2007 Michelle Singletary

Money-ManAbout the Author: Michelle Singletary’s Washington Post column, The Color of Money, is now syndicated in more than 130 newspapers across the country. She is the author of Spend Well, Live Rich (previously published as 7 Money Mantras For A Richer Life), as well as her new book, Your Money And Your Man. Singletary is a graduate of the University of Maryland and has a master’s degree in business from Johns Hopkins University. Visit her website for more advice about money and investing, or to sign up for her weekly e-newsletter.