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Regardless of what generation you’re from, finding out that your partner kept a big secret from you is always a shock. However, a recent survey found that when it comes to financial infidelity, Millennials are much more likely than older generations to see this kind of secret as a deal breaker. But before we go deeper into the survey’s intriguing findings, let’s talk about what exactly constitutes financial infidelity.
Hiding large amounts of debt, stashing away cash in secret accounts, or concealing a gambling habit from your partner are all examples of financial infidelity. Basically, any money secrets that you keep from your partner count as cheating with your wallet, especially if you know that they wouldn’t be pleased to discover what you’ve been up to. And, according to TD Bank’s Fifth Annual Love and Money Survey, this particular brand of sneaking around is more common than you think.
The survey, which polled 1,753 Americans who are in relationships, married, or divorced, found that 1 in 4 Millennials are keeping a financial secret from their partners, with credit card debt being the most common skeleton in the safe deposit box. The survey also found that Millennials are more likely than Baby Boomers to call it quits over covert financial operations, with 31% responding that they would consider breaking up over financial infidelity.
According to the survey, 40% of Millennial couples indicated that they fight with their partners about money at least once a week. Compare that number to Baby Boomers, among whom only 5% said they argued with their better half about money. At first glance, it might be tempting to draw the conclusion that Millennials are a cutthroat generation, obsessed with money and prepared to cut ties over a few unpaid parking tickets. However, that’s not exactly the whole picture.
The survey wasn’t all doom and gloom when it comes to Millennials and their wallets. It found that Millennials are more open to talking about finances in their relationships, with 21% more people in this age group reporting that they talked about money frequently with their sweeties than in any other generation.
Anita, 30, a Millennial teacher in Oregon who has been in a relationship for about a year and a half, gave us a little extra insight as to what Millennial couples are talking about around the kitchen table. “Before six months ago, my partner and I would talk about finances weekly. That’s because the jobs I had did not provide the income I needed to cover all of my expenses. We were spending a lot and didn’t have two sustainable incomes coming in.”
Anita’s not alone. According to a 2018 survey by Bankrate, half of Millennials work multiple jobs or have a side hustle in addition to a full-time job to make ends meet. Plus, Millennials are saddled with notoriously high student loan debt — averaging around $33,000 per borrower — compared to Baby Boomers, who mostly were able to graduate from college debt-free. Some reports say that 3 in 4 Millennials are in debt and that their take-home pay today is the lowest that it’s been since 1980.
With so many members of the Millennial generation in precarious financial situations involving high debt, low wages, and multiple jobs, it’s no wonder that couples in this age group are talking about money more and more. They have to.
Anita went on to explain how her relationship habits have changed with her income. “Since August, my salary is the highest it’s been yet. We both, independently, make enough to cover our expenses and anything extra we might want. Now we usually only talk about money when one of us has a large purchase to make, like traveling over the holidays to see family.” So, it seems that with greater financial security comes the luxury of having fewer long talks about budgets and bills.
Patty and Dave, 68, a retired couple in San Jose who have been married for nearly 40 years, shared a similar pattern of settling into greater financial stability. Dave said the pair talks about their finances “generally every couple of months. I take care of recording our financial situation. I keep spreadsheets and pie charts … But, we don’t need to discuss that very often because we’ve been over it a few times and know that it’s pretty stable.”
Patty added, “When we were younger and raising the kids, we both were working and things were a lot more separate. I would deposit my paycheck into my checking account and vice versa. Then we just split up what we were responsible to pay for. Now it’s more fluid.” So, in the experience of this couple (and likely many others in the Baby Boomer generation), after decades together and growing financial stability, they find the need to talk about money less and less.
However, there is a chance that this trend in the Baby Boomer generation could be changing soon. As more Boomers are reaching retirement age, low Social Security incomes combined with falling pensions and low saving rates are poised to present Boomers with a retirement crisis. According to one CNBC report, as of April 2019, 45% of Boomers had no retirement savings at all. As this segment of the population ages and hopes to settle into their golden years, they could find themselves with a lot to talk to their honeys about.
On the subject of financial infidelity, both couples admitted that their first reaction to discovering a secret in their partner’s wallet would be shock and surprise. Millennial Anita said, “If he kept a secret from me, I’d be more concerned with him hurting himself in the long run. We don’t expect each other to tell the other everything we spend money on. I’d be surprised and worried about his situation.” Though she didn’t immediately shout, “Deal breaker!” it’s clear that discovering financial infidelity would raise a red flag.
Patty and Dave, our Boomer couple, also expressed shock at the idea of discovering a hidden financial issue, but over their decades together they’ve built up a deep and abiding trust. “I think I would think, ‘Well, he’s doing that for a good reason,’” Patty said.
Often, the real reason financial infidelity leads to a breakup isn’t the money at all, but rather the feelings of betrayal and distrust that arise from discovering your true love hasn’t been telling you everything. Couples who do manage to work through financial infidelity often get through it with the help of a counselor and by committing to complete honesty and transparency in their finances going forward.
Does all this talk about financial infidelity have you wondering if your lover could be sneaking money around behind your back? Here are a few telltale signs you should look out for:
- Did they remove your name from a joint account?
- Do they rush to the mailbox to keep you from getting to the mail?
- Have you noticed they suddenly have lots of new things?
- Are they defensive when you ask about money?
- Have they suddenly switched from paying with their debit card to carrying large amounts of cash?
If you suspect that your partner is cheating financially, a long and honest talk is in order. Pick a calm, quiet moment, and ask if you can review all your finances together. Many counselors recommend centering this conversation around a shared financial goal, such as saving up to buy a house or putting money away for retirement.
Although discovering that your other half has been keeping a big secret can be hurtful, or even devastating, it doesn’t have to mean the end of the relationship. With work, time, and lots of open communication, many couples do manage to work through financial infidelity and get to better, more honest days ahead.
A deeper dive — Related reading on the 101:
Here are some tips on how to get back on track if you and your partner are going through a financial infidelity situation.
Learn more about the differences between Millennial relationships and Baby Boomer relationships.