Financial cheating and how it can impact your relationship

Financial cheating and how it can impact your relationship
  • PublishedJune 11, 2024

Most of us are familiar with how affairs can harm trust in relationships, whether from personal experience or through someone we know.

But what about financial cheating?

A recent Finder survey of more than 1,000 Australians found one in five people felt financial infidelity was worse than adultery.

Financial educator and author Melissa Browne says that’s unsurprising in the current climate.

“So many people are financially stressed with the rising cost of living and interest rates, so to have their partner do something that threatens that financial safety could feel like an enormous betrayal.”

What is financial infidelity and why do people do it?

Financial infidelity can range from some “low-key sneaky spending” on clothing, through to racking up debt on a secret credit card, or gambling away savings, says Ms Browne.

Whatever the betrayal, Relationships Australia NSW CEO Elisabeth Shaw says it’s when spending is contrary to a couple’s agreement and goals.

“It has those same features as infidelity, which is unilateral decision made in secrecy.”

Our experts say motivations for financial cheating can be wide-ranging:

  • The pleasure that comes from secrecy
  • Risk-taking mindset
  • Compulsive behaviour like a shopping or gambling addiction
  • Embarrassment, shame, or fear of judgment about a poor financial decision, such as a bad investment
  • Finding money hard to talk about, poor communication, or conflict avoidance.

“Someone who is highly conflict avoidant, they know [the spending] will go against their partner’s wishes, but they don’t know how to argue for what they would prefer,” Ms Shaw says.

“They might think, ‘I can just take this offline and do it privately and maybe it will never be noticed.'”

Financial infidelity is different from financial abuse in that it is less about control and more about self-interest, says Ms Shaw. However there can be some crossover.

If you or someone you know is experiencing financial abuse, reach out to 1800 RESPECT for support.

The impact on relationships

The scale of the betrayal will shape the impact it can have on the relationship, says Ms Shaw.

How much the other partner is compromised financially will also play a role.

“Finance goes to our very survival,” says Ms Shaw.

“If people are thinking their sense of survival or safety has been compromised by a partner, or their picture for the future has been spoiled, then that could feel … hard to come back from.”

For example, if someone were to gamble away life savings or a superannuation fund, that could be “irrecoverable”, she says.

There may even be legal implications, such as during property settlements in family law disputes.

Sometimes couples see the discovery of an infidelity as a chance to “do better as a couple”, suggests Ms Shaw.

“Sometimes out of these crises, a person can learn they need to be more engaged [financially].

“Maybe they never had a good financial plan, or transparency or accountability in place … it’s a chance to look under every rock.”

Three white stools in front of three poker machines lit up in a dark gambling room.
Gambling addiction can sometimes be associated with financial cheating.(Pexels)

What to do about financial infidelity

Making sense of the betrayal is the first step, says Ms Shaw.

“Get a deep explanation of how this could have happened and what does it mean for us.

“A quick apology won’t suffice.”

She says couples should make a plan on what they need to do to move forward, and may need support from a couples counsellor or psychologist to do so.

From there, she says you can decide if the relationship is recoverable.

Couples will then need to work on rebuilding trust, Ms Shaw says, and map out what they can learn from the experience.

“For example, if it came about through gambling, then your partner may need to enter an addiction program.”

As well as seeking couples counselling, Ms Shaw says there may be a need for financial — and even legal — advice.

To protect yourself from further financial infidelity, Ms Browne suggests:

  • Working together on creating financial goals you are both motivated and excited by.
  • Scheduling regular check-ins to create accountability, such as monthly money chats.
  • If you share finances, setting money aside for each of you to spend as you please.

“My husband does not need to know how much I spend on shoes. I’m sure you feel the same with whatever your equivalent is,” Ms Browne says.

“It’s only possible to maintain, however, if you’re both contributing to your shared goals, you have money of your own and you’re checking in regularly to make sure you’re on track.”


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