Money secrets: Should you keep a secret bank account?

A person inserting a Visa Premier credit card in an ATM.

When someone leans in to tell me their money secret, it usually goes like this: "I don’t want him telling me what I can and can’t buy.” Or, “She doesn’t know a thing about our finances—and I like it that way.” Rarely, someone will throw in, “It’s not his responsibility—I don’t want to bother him with it.”

There's a common thread here. Money secrets aren’t about money at all. Keeping a loved one in willful ignorance about your finances is about control and the need to feel autonomous.

That stinks! And it certainly doesn’t bode well for any relationship to use money as a device for control. Yes, you want to be able to buy those albums on iTunes and not have to check in with your tightwad spouse or partner. You want to be able to hold onto your fat investment portfolio and not be seen as Queen Money Bags by your future less-wealthy spouse.  (Psst, pre-nup.)

How can you feel in control yet get rid of the relationship rot of money secrets?  Forget going NSA on each other.  Instead, talk often about your joint financial goals—beyond the household bills.  What are you saving for?  Do you agree and know how much you need to save and why?  To keep your autonomy (Lord only knows we all want to be treated like grown-ups), set a rule that after household bills are paid and savings goals are met, you each get to put money into your own account to spend as you’d like.  To make the worrywart in your family relax, set a limit on monthly discretionary spending—say, $100—and anything below that limit is fair game to fly solo.  Anything above, you’ll check in with each other.

As for keeping a spouse or partner in the dark about investments or debts, what would happen if something happens to you?  How would that surprise go over?  Would you want your partner to keep you in the dark? No one likes that kind of surprise. 

Money secrets have a big, bad way of getting found out.  Ask yourself truthfully why you’re keeping one.  Your answer says a lot more about you and your relationship than about your money.

About the author

Carmen Wong Ulrich is the former host of Marketplace Money, APM’s weekend personal finance program.

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