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Written by: Kristen Jowers, M.S., and Nichole Huff, Ph.D, CFLE

Money can evoke a variety of feelings like avoidance, safety, and trust. In a romantic relationship, each partner brings their own thoughts, feelings, dreams, and ways of doing things to every aspect of their relationship and the same is true for finances. Service providers can help military families increase connection through financial conversations, including using “money dates” as a tool to improve trust and synergy. Money is a hot-button issue in many relationships, and conflicts around money, including financial infidelity, can cause partners to seek couples’ therapy or become a topic of discussion with their financial counselors.

Defining Financial Infidelity 

Traditional infidelity is often thought of as an emotional or physical infraction that disrupts trust. Just as traditional infidelity has nuances (i.e., different partners have different definitions of what constitutes infidelity, such as differing levels of emotional or physical intimacy), financial infidelity is nuanced as well. One definition of financial infidelity is, “engaging in any financial behavior expected to be disapproved of by one’s romantic partner and intentionally failing to disclose this behavior to them” (Garbinsky et al., 2019, p. 1). 

Financial infidelity can look different for each couple, particularly for military-connected partners where financial secrets may not be kept intentionally. For example, getting an unexpected windfall from a tax return while a service member is deployed, or receiving an inheritance notification by mail to a former address/duty station. Intentionally failing to disclose these financial matters could look like putting that tax return or inheritance in a secret, separate account. Having separate bank accounts or splitting who manages the finances does not make a couple more or less likely to experience financial infidelity (Jeanfreau et al., 2018). For some military families, financial management roles may fluctuate depending on a service member’s deployment, and during major life transitions, like a permanent change of station. 

Secretive Money Behaviors

Financial secrets can erode a foundation of trust similar to traditional infidelity and some individuals may feel that financial infidelity is as damaging as or worse than physical or emotional cheating. Financial secrets can be around spending, saving, income, debts, or gift-giving. Below are fourteen secretive money behaviors identified as financial infidelity in a study conducted by Jeanfreau et al. (2018).

  1. Pretending a new purchase is an old one 
  2. Paying full price but saying it was on sale
  3. Hiding purchases/receipts
  4. Taking money out of savings without telling their partner
  5. Hiding credit card statements
  6. Opening a credit card without telling their spouse
  7. Keeping a secret account
  8. Lying to cover up debt
  9. Keeping a raise or bonus secret
  10. Spending money on the kids without telling their partner
  11. Gambling away money without telling their partner
  12. Lying about the price paid for something
  13. Spending money on pornographic material 
  14. Filing for bankruptcy without partners’ knowledge

Gender and Marital Status

According to Mong et al. (2021), there are not any differences in financial infidelity across genders. This suggests that men are no more likely than women to keep financial secrets. However, the same study found that married couples were more likely to commit financial infidelity than cohabitating partners. This could be due to married couples being more likely to opt towards joint accounts than their cohabitating counterparts (Mong et al., 2021).

Generational Differences

The OneOp webinar, Mind and Money: Connecting Mental Health and Financial Well-Being, discussed the financial “deal breakers” for dating a new partner across generations (Gen Z, Millennials, and Gen X). Although financial infidelity was not named as a “deal breaker” in any age cohort, some generations may be more likely to keep money secrets than others. A 2023 Bankrate study found that 67% of Gen Z adults living with or married to a partner confess to keeping at least one type of financial secret, followed by:

  • Millennials (57%)
  • Gen X (34%)
  • Baby Boomers (33%)

Gen Z leads the pack in exhibiting behaviors associated with financial infidelity. Gen Z is traditionally understood to be individuals born between 1997 and 2015. Therefore, the oldest Gen Z service member born in 1997 is currently 27 years old in 2024. In the Department of Defense (2023) 2022 demographics of the military report, 43.5% of active-duty members and 32.2% of Reserve members were 25 years or younger. With Gen Z being the largest generational cohort of service members and the largest group to self-report keeping financial secrets, service providers may want to ask service members and their romantic partners about secretive money behaviors, including unpacking the history of money secrets in their family or in their relationships. 

Identifying Intention

There are nuances to financial infidelity and space for service providers to engage in conversation with service members and couples to understand the intention behind financially secretive behavior. Knowing what the motivation is for keeping secrets may also be worth exploring. Some reasons for keeping financial secrets may include: 

  • A desire for privacy around finances
  • Desire to control their own finances
  • Lack of desire to share
  • Embarrassment about money management habits
  • Avoiding conflict or the topic of finances altogether 

Financial secrets don’t have to be intentional to have impact. The presence of financial secrets may be an indicator of shame, guilt or avoidance which may impact other aspects of their financial and family well-being. Learn how to meet Gen Z service members where they are by watching the on-demand OneOp webinar, Helping Gen Z Service Members Navigate Their Finances.


Cover photo by Ян Заболотний / Adobe Stock