Welcome to Taking Stock, a space where we can take a deep breath and try to figure out what the COVID-19 economy really means for our finances. Every month, personal finance expert Paco de Leon will answer your most difficult, emotionally charged questions about money. This year has forced many of us to reprioritise our finances, and there’s no clear road map for getting through the pandemic yet — but Taking Stock is here to help us figure it out together.
This month, we’re talking about how to deal with a partner keeping a financial secret from you. Has someone you dated ever been less-than-honest about their finances? Was it a deal breaker? Tell us your experience here to be featured in an upcoming Refinery29 story.
My partner and I share our money pretty freely. We don’t have any formal system in place, but we’ll split groceries or dining out, and practice a “one person gets it this time and another gets the next time” policy. We live together and split rent. We tell each other when one of us comes into some extra cash, or when one of us is short and the other helps cover an expense. We’re in a happy relationship. I never sensed any possessiveness or resentment over what’s mine and what’s yours.
But, last week I found out she has a separate savings account she’s never mentioned. A secret bank account, with a nice cushion of money. I feel stunned, but it’s hard to express what I'm feeling to her. I felt that we were on a journey together, as young adults in our 20s, not making a ton of money but getting by and hopefully heading upwards. Now, though, I feel like we're not in this together — we just happen to be walking the same way. She tried to explain that she wasn’t keeping it hidden, this money was irrelevant to our life and our finances because it was a last-resort “get out” fund — something she only uses if a serious relationship becomes toxic and she needs an escape hatch. But that only made me feel worse, like she has always kind of had one foot out the door. I don’t know how to organize my feelings about this or how to talk to her about it further.
I understand that you are hurt by this revelation. But, even though your partner has technically withheld financial information from you, it’s hard to look at this as strictly right or wrong because of the context. As hurtful as it might be, having separate emergency funds is a prudent move — in theory. And yet, putting this theory into practice may not always go as smoothly as planned. Let’s unpack what’s happened and how to move forward.
In this case, it seems like there are two different issues to explore and address. The first is the fact that your partner has technically committed financial infidelity despite good intentions behind her actions. Maybe she could have been upfront about her side cash earlier, and that might have made a difference, but it also might not have because of the second issue — your feelings about her referring to her separate funds as her “get out money”.
With the second issue, she could have been less transparent by referring to her “get out” fund as her “personal emergency fund,” which may have spared your feelings — and is likely more accurate. I imagine she’d use these funds if she was unable to work or some other unforeseeable situation arose. It’s important to realise that just because she has a financial plan named for what she considers the worst-case scenario, that alone isn’t proof that she isn’t fully committed to your relationship.
Figure out your feelings
It sounds like hearing about your partner’s “get-out fund” and realising she kept it a secret makes you think she wants out of your relationship. But you won’t know how she feels until you talk to her. Before you can do that, I suggest sorting through your own feelings and taking responsibility where necessary. That’s the only way you’ll be able to clearly communicate and advocate for yourself from a calm and collected position.
The goal is to get to the root of the story you have about her separate money, her lack of transparency about it, and what the revelation felt like for you. You mentioned not knowing how to organise your feelings around this. How do you normally organise your feelings? What have you done in the past to get a better understanding of what you’re feeling and why? Do you get a better understanding by writing in a journal? By speaking to a therapist? Creating art or going on a run?
Here are some questions I might ask myself if I were in your position: Is my partner’s behaviour a reflection of a larger issue in our relationship? What does my partner having her own “get-out fund” represent for me and our relationship? Why does it represent that? Is this the truth? When else have I witnessed a situation like this, where a partner isn’t fully transparent with me? What happened in that scenario? Does the context of her behaviour change my feelings? What worst-case scenario could I be fearing?
It's normal to feel a range of different emotions when processing our feelings. Take your time, go at your own pace, and make space for healing.
Consider the context
It’s important to remember that each person has a unique perspective on how money works — or should work. Our personal experiences shape our attitudes, ideas, and beliefs.
From your partner’s perspective, she could have been raised with the value of always having a financial backup plan. From a young age, her parents might have told her that she — that all women — should always have their own cash at the ready. She could have started her “get out fund” 10 years ago after reading an article explaining why it can be so important. Or maybe she’s witnessed a scenario where someone in a seemingly perfect relationship escaped hardship with a “get-out fund.”
To be a woman in the world is to almost always feel unsafe or insecure to some degree. It’s knowing that in many situations, and in some relationships, the power dynamics are unequal and not in your favor. Navigating this reality results in things like taking a self-defence class, wanting to be financially independent, or having a safeguard of cash on the side. Furthermore, a woman’s ability to have financial security, independent of their partner, is also a relatively new concept.
What can you do to come together?
While I'm not opposed to separate emergency funds, there are some financial steps that you and your partner can take to move forward and recommit to your partnership.
Having regular money dates where you create the space and time to understand each other’s money stories and financial situations will build a solid framework for your current and future financial lives. You can use the time to learn about a particular financial subject together, discuss and work towards financial goals or manage your budget and organise your finances.
If you’d like to take things a step further, consider opening a joint checking account and use this account to pay for joint expenses. It could be a lot like how you manage your expenses now, but instead of continuing to pay for things from your respective accounts, each of you would fund the joint account each month and you’d pay for joint expenses from that account.
And taking things even further, you could mutually decide on a savings goal and start contributing to a joint savings account. I would also suggest that you create a simple written agreement that states how you'd split the funds you saved together if you do break up. Nobody’s planning or wanting a break up here — but we’re adults, and we want to protect each other while heads are cool.
Your finance friend,