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Gary Clement for The National
Gary Clement for The National

On the Money: Financial infidelity is the oldest 'new normal' around

A recent survey found that three in 10 American adults who have combined finances lied to their spouses about money.

Like most people, I have a friend who loves to shop. And no, before you ask, this friend is not a cover for me despite my affection for a spot of retail therapy every now and again.

Luckily, this friend lives in Hong Kong, where she has been able to immerse herself in her favourite pastime in a city that is bursting to the seams with fellow shopaholics.

The last time I saw her, she was blinged up to the nines with her latest baubles - a couple of huge diamond rings and a very cute pair of pearl drop earrings. As it turns out, rings and earrings were her favourite buys because they could slip into the background unnoticed when worn with a few other big-bling items.

What I didn't know (until much later, of course) is that she usually de-blinged on her way home because she didn't want her husband to know what she'd been spending the housekeeping money (remember that?) on.

Her husband almost cottoned on to her ruse once, after spotting her sporting a new pair of expensive earrings, but she shrugged off his questions with: "What, this old thing? You bought it for me years ago, honey!"

Her husband was puzzled, but for the life of him, couldn't remember if he'd bought it or not because, by this time, they'd celebrated 10 or so anniversaries and he'd never followed that boring western tradition of a paper gift for the first year, cotton for the second and so on. So he let it go, much to her relief.

These days, she's a little more careful about her spending, especially since the downturn. Besides, she's got enough carats tucked away in her jewellery box(es) to last a lifetime, while her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, if it's not been sold off by then, will inherit dozens of sparkling reminders of her days as a shopaholic in the city that never sleeps. Too bad they won't know the story behind them.

So what's the point of my reminiscing? A recent survey on "financial infidelity" got me thinking about my friend and her blinged-up escapades.

Commissioned by the US-based National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) and Forbes.com, the survey found that three in 10 American adults who have combined finances lied to their spouses about money.

"Financial infidelity may be the new normal," Forbes.com said after the study was released.

Call me a little cynical, but I'm surprised the study found that only one in three US adults admitted to financial infidelity. Perhaps the rest were lying. But what puzzles me is how it can be the new normal when people, just like my friend in Hong Kong, have been committing so-called financial infidelity for years. I don't think it's new. It is just that somebody - in this case, the NEFE and Forbes.com - had the smarts to do a survey on something that has been practised for millennia, probably after they got stung themselves. Then again, perhaps Forbes.com's reference to it being the new normal really refers to a 21st century resurgence thanks to the global financial meltdown.

Either way, the study did uncover some interesting facts, such as 58 per cent of respondents admitting that they hid cash from their spouse and 54 per cent saying they had hidden minor purchases.

Thirty per cent of those surveyed said they tucked away a bill or statement from the prying eyes of their wives or husbands, while 34 per cent failed to tell the truth about their finances, their true level of debt and how much money they really earned. How is it possible to lie about your salary or level of debt to your spouse?

According to Ted Beck, the president and chief executive of NEFE, money can provide a potential conflict point in a relationship.

"Couples should talk openly about money and do so early in the relationship," he says. "Each person should understand their partner's values about money. In doing so, they have a better chance to build a more stable relationship, both emotionally and financially."

While American couples might be lying to each other about their finances, what about the millions of other people around the world - married or not - who have failed to be truthful about the reality of their financial situations?

I'm referring to the people who have buried their heads in the sand and ignored their financial responsibilities and commitments because they've overbought, overborrowed and, in many cases, lost their jobs.

In effect, they are lying to themselves by failing to face the music, which begins with unopened credit-card statements, leads to ignoring warning letters from the bank and culminates in hiding from debt collectors.

Forbes.com has got it wrong. I reckon the practice of "burying our heads in the sand" has become the "new normal" in the 21st century. What do you think?


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