How secret spending and hidden debts affected three women’s relationships

Written by Natalie Gil

29% of the female population would rather share details of their dating history than talk about the state of their finances. Here, three women open up about the hazards of keeping financial secrets from their partners.

It’s been a tough year in many ways, especially financially. Many of us are dealing with debts, financial strain or money worries that have accumulated over recent months. And that’s before we look at the splurge in online shopping to minimise social contact. 

Recent research from the Money and Pensions Service (MaPS) found that nearly half of us (45%) are keeping financial secrets from our partner – which can include anything from undisclosed savings account to hidden credit cards – and 23% of those in relationships suspect their other half has kept a money secret.

Meanwhile, research by Fidelity International found that 29% of women would rather share details of their dating history than talk about the state of their finances, and over a fifth (22%) are keeping secret savings funds from their partner in case their relationship ends.

While the stigma surrounding money talk is slowly falling away, it can still be challenging opening up if our finances aren’t where we’d like them to be. Feelings of shame, embarrassment and not wanting to burden others can stymie our desire to open up, even to our partners.

Dee*, 36, a receptionist from Lancashire, found herself in £13,500 debt two years ago during a period of low mental health. Extravagant purchases – a new coat here, a designer handbag there – brought fleeting happiness and made her feel better about herself. Soon enough, Dee became “addicted to the high of buying something new,” and used store cards, buy-now-pay-later schemes, and credit cards to fund her habit.

“My partner isn’t materialistic and couldn’t tell the difference between a £50 coat and a £500 coat, so he never asked how I was affording everything,” Dee says. “He knew I had a couple of credit cards but didn’t think it was anything I couldn’t manage.” So, she kept her addiction secret from her husband for 18 months.

Dee’s compulsive spending, coupled with the cost of raising two children, meant she was in deep financial trouble. She didn’t acknowledge the seriousness of her problem at first, but then came the shame and fear that he wouldn’t understand and may even leave.

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“I’ve never been unfaithful to my partner, but I can imagine it was a similar sort of guilt. I knew I’d let him down and it was my fault. While I was always worried he would find out, I didn’t think he would, purely as I kept my spending in my own private accounts, and he was oblivious to how much my new possessions cost.”

When Dee finally sought help from Freeze Debt, she felt she had to “come clean” with her husband, who was understanding and reassured her that he’d help get it sorted. “I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders and that, with his support, I could get through it.”

While she is still paying off the debt, she is receiving counselling for her mental health, which kickstarted her debt spiral in the first place, and now talks to her husband about money “constantly”.

Dee’s advice to others in her situation? “Be transparent with your partner, and if you are in debt, there is help available.”

Georgina Lynch, 45, a counsellor, coach and yoga therapist from Devon, spent £25,000 on building her online business in 2020 and remains £15,000 in debt. She used credit cards and took out a loan. But she kept it to herself initially, given that she and her husband of 14 years had only finished paying off another £15,000 in debt three years ago, which was also spent on her business, among other things. She’d promised him she wouldn’t use credit cards again.

“I’ve always been fairly secretive about my spending,” she says, adding that they’ve always kept their finances separate, making it easier to hide her spending patterns. “In the end, it affected my mood. I felt low from the shame of not being honest. I felt like I was deceiving him, which made me feel bad.”

Georgina was “scared of being judged” for her secrecy and perceived deception, and she “didn’t have the balls” to tell her husband face to face, so she sent him a well-thought-out text. He was forgiving and she says that “the relationship feels stronger than ever now that there are no secrets. I was afraid he’d be angry, but I took full responsibility for getting myself into the situation and planned to get myself out of it.”

Georgina now helps other women to end their patterns of overspending and stop getting in debt. “The only way to deal with these patterns is to address the underlying reasons for needing to prove yourself,” she says. “From my personal and professional experience, it is usually a lack of self-worth and self-belief that keeps you repeating these patterns, and as I discovered, this is the real cause of debt.”

Like Georgina, Stacey Louise Sargison, 37, decided to keep her business development spending hidden from her partner of three years, but he wasn’t so understanding. The mentor and lifestyle coach from the Cotswolds spent £40,000 on coaching six years ago, maxing out three credit cards to pay for it, rather than paying off existing debt.

“There was no way my partner would have supported my decision to invest in myself and my business when we had other priorities,” Stacey says. Yet she felt “immense guilt, shame and hardly slept” over not telling him, so she decided to open up before they got married. “I wanted to go into the marriage with no secrets.”

While opening up about her financial situation made them closer initially, Stacey’s husband couldn’t support her continual willingness to invest financially in her business and personal development and they eventually divorced. She managed to pay off all her debt with the income from her business.

Difficulty discussing money and finances is “one of the most common issues couples face,” because total openness about how much we have or how much we spend is tricky for so many of us, says Relate counsellor Holly Roberts. This may be compounded after a particularly extravagant time of year.

“Perhaps our saving and spending habits reveal something about us that is too private and difficult to share. But if a large debt or a secret stash of savings is discovered, this can damage the trust in a partnership,” she adds.

Not divulging money secrets can drive a wedge between you – and conflict is more likely to happen as the lack of trust drives suspicion, Roberts adds. “This can spiral into antagonistic patterns of communication, which lead to resentment and the barriers get more impenetrable.”

Roberts recommends counselling if you find it difficult to open up to your partner about money or are dealing with the aftermath of a money secret revelation. “You may become angry and resentful to your partner because of money secrets, so you find it hard to be kind and caring towards them. If you don’t address these issues you may find that in time you are feeling very distant from your partner, and it’s hard to come back from that.”

According to the analysis of 11,196 couples, it’s the relationships we build, not the personalities of the people involved, that contribute most to relationship satisfaction.

“Perhaps our saving and spending habits reveal something about us that is too private and difficult to share”     

Practically, if you have overspent, the first thing to do is write down everything you owe, which may be overwhelming but will help in the long run, says Sarah Porretta, strategy and insights director at MaPS.

“You should pay any priority debts first, such as mortgage, rent and energy payments before debts like credit cards and personal loans. While it can be tempting, try to avoid high-cost credit – if you do need to borrow, shop around and consider more affordable options like credit unions. Most importantly, seek help quickly as the sooner you act, the easier it will be to manage.”

Porretta recommends browsing the Money Advice Service’s Debt Advice Locator Tool, which can point you to a free debt adviser in your local area, while its Money Navigator Tool provides personalised guidance if you’re struggling with money worries due to the impact of Covid-19.

*Real name withheld to protect the interviewee’s identity.

Speak to a Financial Conduct Authority registered financial adviser before taking financial advice, and think carefully before making any decision.

If you’re concerned about debt, please get in touch with Step Change, Citizen’s Advice or National Debtline. If you’re worried about your mental health, you can contact Mind or Samaritans. 

For advice around dealing with debt, visit the Money Advice Service’s Debt Advice Locator Tool. For counselling and support for couples, visit Relate’s website.

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