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Financial Cheating

(Sydney Morning Herald 08-09-2021)

“We just have to look at COVID and our own online spending habits to see that it is really common that we sort of seek a dopamine hit, or a thrill, when we’re going through something difficult,” says clinical psychologist Dr Phoebe Lau, who has counselled numerous people through the “insidious” fallout of financial infidelity.

One 2018 study found that 15 million Americans were hiding credit cards, checking accounts or savings from their live-in partners.


And of 1049 Australian adults polled in a Canstar study this year:

  • 15 per cent had taken money out of their partner’s wallet or coin jar,

  • nine per cent said they’d bought something on sale (when it was full price), and

  • a combined 13 per cent had either secret debt or

  • a secret credit card,

money money money
money theft

So, just how bad is the relationship fallout if someone is doing any of these things? Or other behaviours that fall under the umbrella of financial cheating, like pretending a new purchase is an old one, hiding credit card statements, having a secret stash of money, or gambling money away behind your partner’s back?

“There tends to be broken trust or the trust is questioned, especially if it’s excessive spending,” says Lau, adding that this can be made up of smaller amounts that add up over time. As for larger financial betrayals, as often happens when someone has a gambling problem? “I haven’t seen it lead to relationship breakup, yet, but definitely close to. A lot of conflict, mistrust, betrayal, hurt.”


(Twenty-eight per cent of 2448 American adults surveyed this year said financial infidelity was “worse than physical cheating”.)

And while people in every demographic are the victims of financial cheating, Lau says it’s more common among couples who just haven’t “really talked about money at all”, and it’s happening more than we think.

Childhood trauma, too, is sometimes at the root of the problem.

“If you have a very poor childhood, and particularly if you get neglected or abused, you’re more likely as an adult to be impulsive,” says Saunders, an expert in addictive behaviours. “You’ll have great difficulty regulating your appetite, so to speak. So what will happen is that you will impulsively spend money, [behave] impulsive sexually, and so on.” It’s a way to self-soothe, he says. This was the case, he says, of his client who bankrupted his family. “He had a feeling of never being good enough.”

So, how can we protect ourselves?

First, recognise the red flags that indicate it might be happening, says Effie Zahos, a financial literacy expert.


  • They include: receiving late bills and

  • phone calls about unpaid bills, and

  • realising that a partner’s financial statements never come home;

  • note if you – or your partner – feel that the emotional or physical intimacy in the relationship has dwindled. This can lead to people spending behind their partner’s backs, as a means of “escape or avoidance”.


If you and your partner are applying for a home loan be aware that they’re going to do a credit check.


But the best way to prevent financial cheating, says Zahos, is to sit down and have an honest chat about money with your partner.


  • Establish what your savings goals are, and what’s acceptable to splurge on.

  • Be involved in your financial affairs by downloading the money app for your bank accounts, so you can monitor your funds.

  • And if you’re nervous about a partner potentially mismanaging joint funds, as with a shared mortgage, ask your bank to arrange for you and your partner to have to both give consent when withdrawing available funds from a home loan.

  • And, of course, seek help if you think there are deeper issues underlying your own, or your partner’s financial behaviour.


“Often times a partner knows about a [partner’s] traumatic childhood, but they don’t really understand or know the ongoing impact it had,” says Lau.


She has seen couples come out of therapy with a renewed sense of emotional intimacy. “Often, just talking about one area like finances opens up a lot of issues in other areas of the relationship that hasn’t really been spoken about. When they’re able to repair and communicate, they learn things about one another.”

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