Secret cash and hidden debts: How couples can avoid money fights

30 May, 2021

Secret stashes of cash, hidden debts and different spending habits are just some of the money minefields that can spark conflict for couples.

But if you’re open about money from the start, rather than sticking your head in the sand, it will pay dividends down the track.

More than half of Australian couples have fought about money, while more than 10 per cent admit to keeping financial secrets from partners, including bank accounts, credit cards or other debts, according to research commissioned by dating website eHarmony.

And one in five couples still keep their finances separate, the survey of hundreds of singles and couples found.

Victoria Devine, who is a financial adviser and creator of popular finance podcast She’s on the Money, said while she advocates always having your own emergency fund in case you need to leave a relationship, that is different to having secret stashes of cash or credit cards.

“It’s not healthy to feel like you shouldn’t share things with your partner and, more often than not, I do think it’s an indicator of a bigger trust issue in your relationship,” she said.

“I have met people who say they have $20,000 in a bank account that my partner doesn’t know about and you go,’Great – aren’t you saving for a house together, aren’t you trying to achieve big financial goals together?'”

Relationships Australia NSW chief executive Elisabeth Shaw said people commonly make assumptions about their partner’s spending habits and financial goals.

She said people often don’t discuss money well into a relationship, when a couple might be considering whether to buy a house or have children.

“It’s only then that you realise just how many assumptions have been made,” she said.

Ms Shaw said conflicts arise when someone who values saving is perceived as tight or a generous person is painted as irresponsible.

“When couples get polarised where one feels ‘Well, I’m the sensible one and you are the irresponsible one’ that is where couples can get into difficulty.”

A good way to start the conversation with your partner about money is to talk about your financial philosophies and hopes for the future.

Bank on communication

“If you make it that bigger, visionary conversation you are less likely to move into particular differences or accusations,” she said.

“That is where couples can feel more creative or imaginative, whereas when you start to read your bank account statement you can already be overwhelmed by the problem.”

It’s also important to be curious and understand the reasons behind your partner’s approach to money, whether you perceive them as too tight or a spendthrift, Ms Shaw said.

“Then your partner feels that you’re interested in their perspective rather than coming to it from the point of criticism,” she said.

Ms Shaw said each member of a couple tends to alter their behaviour depending on the other, so a more conservative person will be even more so if they view their partner as careless with cash and vice versa.

“Both people tend to defend their position in contrast to the other and that makes the problem worse,” she said.

When it comes to a potential partner’s debt, over half of singles quizzed in the survey said they felt no more than $20,000 was an acceptable level outside of a mortgage but one third said there should be no debt.

Ms Shaw said it was important to be open about any debt and your plan to deal with it once you are moving into a committed relationship because it can have an impact on things like going for a bank loan.

“Disclosing it early rather than trying to cover it up or take out other loans to cover it up is going to be much better for the relationship,” she said.

“A surprise debt later is usually a big problem.”