D.J. never thought about financial infidelity until it rocked her world. The twenty-six-year-old from Long Beach, California had been going steady with a guy for about six months. She thought everything was going great until they decided to move in together. When it came time to apply for apartments, he dropped a bomb. He had been paying his ex-girlfriend’s rent ever since they broke up a year ago. And he had kept it hidden from D.J. “I felt like I was doubly betrayed,” said D.J. “It was like he cheated on me twice.”
Unfortunately, she’s not alone. Not even close. Chances are you can talk about pretty much anything with your significant other: favorite sex positions, religion, and even which politician you’d banish into the cornfield. But despite being together for so long, money remains a hush-hush subject.
If this is true, you could find yourself stuck with a major “oh shit” moment when you discover the person you love the most has committed an act of financial infidelity: a bank account you never knew he had, thousands of dollars of credit card debt, or gambling bets that include more zeros than you thought you needed to retire on.
Here’s what to do.
Know the Signs
While D.J. found out through a confession, you may not be so lucky. Knowing the warning signs can help. If you can check off any of these boxes, your significant other may be keeping a money secret from you:
Changes in spending or behavior. We mean abrupt changes that are straight up baffling, such as going on mad spending sprees or an inexplicable mood swing.
Sudden shifts in income without netting a raise. That money had to come somewhere, right? It’s possible your significant other has a gambling problem.
New bank statements in the mail. If your spouse signed up for paper statements, you might find suspicious notices sprouting up in your snail mail.
Money that’s gone missing. Conversely, you might come across money you didn’t know you had. Probe a bit further before you blame it on temporary amnesia.
Check Yourself before You Wreck Yourself
D.J. began to wonder what other shady financial stuff her beau had been up to. Even if you aren’t married to your partner, you could be in trouble if they have had access to your cards or bank accounts. Even a wallet left unattended could spell problems.
But before you panic, check your credit card statements to see if there’s any suspicious activity. Additionally, you can order a free credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
Comb through your bank statements for signs of suspicious activity. You can also order a consumer report from ChexSystems, which will show all savings and checking accounts opened in your name in the last five years. It will note any inquiries made to your account that may not have been made in your name.
Place a fraud alert on your accounts. This will alert creditors and lenders to look for suspicious activity. In turn, they’ll have to take extra steps and contact you before pulling your report. You can also place a credit freeze, which means no new accounts can be opened in your name until you say when.
Size Up the Credit Score Situation
If you’re married and your spouse ran up debt on credit cards, you may or may not be responsible for the debt if he or she defaults. This is where it gets a tricky: If you don’t live in a community property state, you most likely won’t be responsible for any debt that’s only in your SO’s name.
On the other hand, if you live in a community property state (Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, or Wisconsin, we and the IRS are talking to you), any debts or property obtained during your marriage would be divided if the marriage ends. So his or her credit card debt could be yours if you live in one of those nine states.
When you’re married and have joint credit cards where the perpetrator is an authorized user on your card, you’re both equally responsible for paying off the balance. Any late or missed payments can do serious damage to your credit score.
Look Toward the Future
You’ve dealt with the immediate issues. Now it’s time to protect yourself going forward. Financial infidelity can be just as scarring as your partner cheating on you. Set clear boundaries and expectations going forward. Be transparent about your finances and have your partner to do the same. While the betrayal D.J. felt stung hard, luckily they were able to resolve things and progress in the relationship. But that may not be the case for everyone. Figure out what’s important for you to know at different stages of relationships and go from there.
Knowing the signs, setting boundaries, and taking action to protect your finances can soften the blow of financial infidelity. While it’s never going to be great, and it’s never not going to be an “oh shit” moment, there are things you can do to get back to good.