Relationships: Do you hide what you spend from your spouse?

Got a secret stash? When spouses hide spending from each other, it's never just about the cash.

Photo: Tony Lanz. Necklace: Swarovski


Toronto
shopping aficionado Magdalena Rybka has developed a three-step method for downplaying how much she’s buying for her kids. First: Deny. Then, fudge the details. If pressed, emphasize the great deal that was had.

Her husband, however, has honed his sleuthing skills.

“I sneak things into the house — but my husband has a really good eye,” she says. “I can’t seem to get away with it anymore.”

Anyone who has tucked a shopping bag into the back of a closet, or tried to pass new clothes off as old standbys, knows that even if those $50 kids shoes won’t directly sink the family budget, it could compound into serious damage in the long run. But more importantly, outright lying can torpedo the ship.

Read more: 4 smart ways to talk to your partner about money>

“As the saying goes, money really is the root of all evil,” says Toronto therapist and author Sara Dimerman, “even within couples where it should be an equal relationship.” And the ante gets upped when kids and all their well-designed merchandise enter the picture.

Hard habit to break

While Rybka says she and her husband are lighthearted about their ongoing dance around her spending, she admits it’s probably time to curb her shopping. Not only is she on maternity leave, but their home is undergoing a major renovation. However, experts say sneaky spending can be a tough habit to break. Montreal financial educator and counsellor Brenda Shanahan says she’s increasingly asked to help couples sort through newer, more complex iterations of the clichés of a wife hiding clothes or the husband hiding a motorcycle.

“It’s more subtle than that because people are getting married and settling down at an older age, so they’re already coming into the relationship with some long-established spending patterns,” says Shanahan. “So it’s not so much that they’re hiding it from them; they don’t feel the other one needs to know.”

That is, until they do. Shanahan says that the act of hiding spending isn’t the first reason couples seek therapy; it o ften emerges as a potent symbol of deeper issues. (Of course, if the hidden spending is on gambling or addictions, counselling for those issues is job one.)

Control issues

In some cases, spendthrifts and savers may never have squared their beliefs about money and are passively battling out their beliefs over who’s in control. In others, the imbalance may come from di fferences in income. A high-earner may feel he or she doesn’t owe anyone an explanation for indulging.

That’s what’s going on in stay-at-home mom Joanne Brown’s* home. For the past few years, her doctor husband has been splashing out on big-ticket items like kayaks, televisions — even their pet dog — without telling her first. When pressed, he frames the purchases as family-friendly, and fibs about the costs.

“He’s an impulse buyer, and he lies about prices by about 40 to 50 percent,” she says.

In other cases, the parent who earns less or who doesn’t earn a salary may be the one hiding the spending.

“Sometimes, the person feeling less entitled may spend as way of asserting power or feeling better,” says Dimerman. This kind of surreptitious spending can be a symptom of an uneasy purgatory, she says. In the case of a stay-at-home mother, for instance, any desire to deal head-on with unhappiness over feeling controlled by her husband can bump up against a desire to stay home and raise her children. “She doesn’t really want to confront him because she may like the way things are — her not having to be responsible for making money.”

Sneaky shopping

There are also new avenues for stealth shopping, thanks to online buying and savvy retailers who are grouping an ever-widening set of shopping categories under one roof. “A new classic,” says Dimerman, “is one parent hitting a superstore ostensibly to buy, say, school supplies for the children, but maybe she didn’t account for an outfit she bought herself.”

Laura Blair* says that she’s been known to go to great lengths to hide shopping from her husband, such as sneaking new clothing straight to the dry cleaners so they could make their debut out of the closet with an alibi. But now her techniques don’t need to be quite as elaborate. Sneaky shoppers can just pop out for milk and covertly tuck one — or five — new fashion, tech or beau items in among the dinner selections in their grocery cart, and their partners are none the wiser.

So, what to do?

Some therapists, like Dimerman, focus on steering couples to the motives behind the behaviour. Others, like Shanahan, use the nuts and bolts of financial planning to help. She often sees people over a period of months while she gives them deadlines to complete budgets and financial tasks, like creating a joint bank account. One trick is to set a threshold of, say, $50 or $100, under which purchases need not be disclosed. Regular family meetings about how finances look can also be a crucial release valve in case conflicts are lurking.

These are the kinds of strategies Laura and her husband have started to use. Although she admits to still fudging some of her shopping, she also has a sixth sense about where to draw the line. It recently triggered a talk with her husband about a pricey birthday activity she wanted to book for her daughter. After discussing it, he was fine with the idea. “He said, ‘I just wanted to be heard, but if you want to do it, you can, because it’s your money, too.’”

There’s another upside. Laura admits that because this dynamic is working for them, she’s also more likely to lay off the shopping for the next while.

“He didn’t back me into a corner and say, ‘It’s too much money, you can’t do it,’ and maybe create a situation where I may have to be deceitful to get what I want.”

As for Joanne, she’s optimistic about a recent baby step: Her husband just invited her to come along shopping for (another) big-screen TV. She’s hoping to gently influence his decision about cost — and size.

“Maybe it won’t be 70 inches this time,” she laughs.

*Names have been changed.

A version of this article appeared in our April 2013 issue with the headline “Secret stash,” pp. 54-6.

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