Jenna* is 42, married with three kids, runs a successful retail business and owns a home in Toronto. She and her husband both work full time, they stick to a budget and use a joint credit card for most purchases — everything from groceries to car payments to the odd big-ticket item like a new flatscreen TV. “We tell each other about almost everything,” says Jenna. Almost.
She also has her own card, a secret second Visa for certain “personal” expenses, like quarterly Botox, or the odd peel or plumping treatment. The bills for that card go directly to her, and she pays them using money from her savings that aren’t pooled with the family finances. “A lot of my girlfriends do the same thing,” she says referring to her secret slush fund, mostly for grooming and personal maintenance expenses.
Jenna’s covert habit might sound like something out of a Real Housewives episode, but it turns out lying about personal spending is actually pretty common. In Chatelaine’s annual This Is 40ish survey, 42 percent of women said they have hidden purchases from their partner and, when we asked around, the reasons ranged from “because I have an uncontrollable shoe addiction,” to “because my husband is insanely anal about spending.” Another third of women don’t tell their partners precisely how much money they have, perhaps because it helps to facilitate the odd fudge.
The term favoured by money experts is “financial infidelity” and, like that other kind of infidelity, it’s a catch-all for betrayals of big and small. Obviously the larger transgressions (several thousand in secret credit card debt, for example) can lead to serious trouble, but are the more common little white lies (“I’ve had these jeans forever”) such a big deal? And maybe a more important question is: In this era of female empowerment, when women are joining the workforce in greater numbers than ever before and at least 40 percent of us are making the same or more as our spouses, why do we still feel the need to fib?
Shannon Lee Simmons, a Toronto financial advisor who works with couples, has seen all sorts of stealthy behaviour among her clients. One “cheats” by secretly putting money into a TFSA because if her husband knew they had $12,000 squared away, he’d want to buy an ATV. Simmons often sees women who have to fight a bit harder for economic power in a relationship simply because, well, 2,000 years of male dominance. While we’ve made significant strides towards equality in the professional realm, old-fashioned gender roles on the home front have proven less permeable to progress.
As well as being workers and earners, women are also supportive spouses, social coordinators, meal planners, lunch packers, laundry doers, and so on (and so on and so on). “Sometimes I don’t want to be a mom, I don’t want to be a wife. I want to have my own money and do what I want with it,” says Jenna with the secret Visa. “Sometimes I want it to be about me.”
She could tell her husband about what goes on her other card, but who needs the conflict? “If he knew I was paying for cosmetic work, he would say, ‘of course you don’t need those things,’ which is partly why I don’t tell him. I always say it’s more expensive to be a woman,” she explains, which, is a stereotype, sure, but not untrue.
From haircuts and cosmetics to the fact that a guy can wear the same navy suit to dozens of events in a row, the expenses associated with womanhood tend to dwarf those of the cheaper sex, as do pressures to look good. It can be hard to make a partner who is celebrated for his wise crow’s feet or sexy salt and pepper sideburns understand why you feel the need for Botox or regular dye jobs — and to have those expenses taken seriously. This may at least partly explain the female inclination to spend on the sly, though the reasons are many and complicated.
Simmons also sees couples who, regardless of gender, just aren’t on the same page when it comes to financial goals and practices. Which, she says, isn’t surprising given that couples are coming together later in life. “Back in the day, you got married at 18, you determined your financial habits together,” says Simmons. “Now people in relationships have often spent a decade and a half of running their own money show.” And by middle age the stakes tend to be higher — we have hit peak earning years and feel a greater pressure to be responsible. Ironically, this commitment to accountability is the fertile soil in which financial infidelity can blossom, since there’s more importance placed on every expenditure: a splurge on something frivolous feels like a bigger deal, so you might be more inclined to hide it.
Staying “faithful” does not require knowing every detail of a partner’s spending, but rather a more holistic awareness of how money flows in and out of your individual lives and your life together. “Once you have done the work and have a handle on your situation, you can figure out how to give each person spending power,” says Simmons.
In Jenna’s household, spending power is actually fairly equitable. Her husband also makes purchases that don’t get her seal of approval. He’ll spend $100 on a bottle of wine, for example — he’s just not inclined to hide it. The difference may come down to the same deep-seated, casual sexism that allows a dude to watch hours of football without apology, but compels a woman to feel guilty about investing that same time into fashion or celebrity gossip. And it’s the reason Jenna occasionally pulls out the secret VISA. “In theory, he completely respects my right to make my own purchases,” she says, “but there is just no way he is ever going to understand an $80 candle. You pick your battles.”
*Name has been changed because Jenna would like to keep her secret credit card a secret.
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