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Speaking frankly about money can be difficult – even when it comes to your nearest and dearest. Behavioural science research shows that a third of people in romantic relationships hide transactions from each other, engaging in ‘financial infidelity’ to keep their money matters private. We explore the science behind the behaviour, breaking down why financial deceit between couples is more common than people think.

A study from UCL reveals that being secretive about money is surprisingly common in romantic relationships. The paper, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, shows that one in three people engage in ‘financial infidelity’ – hiding spending, saving, or debt from their partner. Researchers defined the behaviour as engaging in financial activities that a partner would disapprove of and then intentionally concealing these. Testing it across categories like gift-giving, savings, and gambling, they found that not only is financial infidelity surprisingly common, but that it also strains trust between partners to an extent that is on par with sexual infidelity.

Researchers say it is crucial for couples to communicate honestly about money
Christin Hume (2017) ©

The remedy? Better communication, according to the team of scholars who carried out the study. Getting in the habit of speaking openly about money enables couples to set and work towards shared goals and experiences, eliminating the need for secrecy. “A few things that couples can do to prevent financial infidelity is to talk more, get on the same page regarding both joint and individual goals they might have, and also budget for some occasional indulgences along the way of achieving their long-term financial goals,” says Dr. Hristina Nikolova, a marketing professor who co-authored the paper. 

Being transparent about finances doesn’t always come naturally – many people find the topic too awkward to broach, even with their loved ones. From status anxiety to fear of being reproached or shamed about debt, people have myriad reasons to lie about money, and they do so all the time. However, a lack of honest communication can take a serious toll on a relationship, throwing up heavy questions around decision-making and long-term trust.

With 75% of Americans admitting that financial deceit has impacted their relationships in some way, there is room for brands to actively promote healthy conversations around money, helping people be more open about their choices and enabling couples to align their planning and saving goals. Brands like Fabric are already working in this space, taking a collaborative, streamlined approach to managing family finances. 

Helen Jambunathan is a senior behavioural analyst at Canvas8. An anthropologist and writer, she holds a Masters degree from the University of Cambridge and has more than five years of experience researching the specialty coffee industry. Outside of work, she is a die-hard tennis fan, wearer of many rings and reader of many things.

Canvas8

14 Jan 20
2 min read

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