Thea Fitz-James, an academic and theatre practitioner, has been trying to be more open about her finances. She's actively chatting about salary and debt with her partner and peers, as a means of addressing her fears and hang ups about cash. Fitz-James’ parents divorced when she was 7. Her early relationship to money was created by scarcity. When Fitz-James lost her father in her teens, she was left with an inheritance of roughly $100,000—a mix of insurance and RRSPs—that she couldn’t touch until her 20s. Dealing with grief coupled with the knowledge of the money caused internal tension that carried on as she started her post-secondary education.
“I had a lot of shame tied up with the inheritance,” said Fitz-James. “I had been using the money to fund my education and other arts projects despite the fact that I should have been buying, I don’t know, a house. It all felt kind of frivolous but it was my life. I consider myself independent and self-made. I never had a lot of money growing up. But then there is this blood money and if people know about it they treat me differently.”
Fitz-James was hesitant to share information about the inheritance with her long-term boyfriend. They never spoke of finances despite the fact that the two were almost engaged.
“With past partners we never spoke about cash because they had it and I didn’t,” said Fitz-James. “They ended up paying for everything because that was the gendered expectation. I had definitely taken advantage of being the poor girlfriend in the past.”
While talking about your finances can be difficult, not discussing money with your significant other can cause major problems in your relationship. Despite a third of romantic partnerships ending due to fights around finances, TD Bank’s 2019 Love and Money survey found that 27 percent of millennials were keeping a financial secret from a partner (though that number dropped significantly for Gen Z, who are at 8 percent).
Those secrets are rooted in concepts of financial infidelity: deception around cash. It ranges from things like hiding bank accounts and credit cards, to holding back information about debts, to making major purchases without consulting your partner.
“Often times a partner will hide a credit card bill or low score due to guilt or embarrassment,” relationship expert Rachel DeAlto said in the survey. “Yet when the debt comes to light it’s often not the debt that creates the conflict—it's the secrecy.”
According to the survey, which polled 1,753 Americans who are married, in a committed relationship, or divorced, hiding credit card debt was the most common secret among millennials (at 48 percent). A gambling hobby (15 percent) and unpaid student loans (12 percent) took up the second and third spots.
“If you want to maintain trust with your partner, own it and create a plan to improve your financial situation,” said DeAlto.
While Fitz-James and her ex split up for other reasons, she’s tried to learn lessons from her past financial secrets. Being open about money in her current relationship has come with its own challenges, but for Fitz-James that kind of honest communication has brought her closer to her partner.
“So much of my emotional worth is caught up in my ability to save money,” said Fitz-James. “And I haven’t been that great about it. I’m trying to practice forgiveness and cultivate better habits.”
Crushing student loan debt
Playwright and journalist Frances Koncan’s significant student debt has kept her from starting relationships at all.
“My crushing, un-repayable student loan debt is between me and the credit collectors only,” said Koncan. “I don’t have any money, but money is so important that I’ll fake it almost at any cost.”
Koncan says that her student loan debt is still around $30,000 after years of trying to pay things off. Getting too comfortable with anyone would mean having to reveal the fact she has money issues. She fears those issues somehow limit her worth as a human. It has been an impediment for dating.
“I’m very independent and it’s always been a priority to establish my career and finances as an independent person,” said Koncan. “Now that I’ve mostly done that, I’m starting to be more open to long-term commitments and planning for the future and it’s terrifying...I’m worried about how an income disparity may impact balance in a relationship and I’m worried about ever having to financially rely on someone else.”
Koncan has internalized the notion that talking about money is inappropriate. While she now a stable career and notoriety in her field, the looming debt has carried forward to new stages in life including relationships. Sometimes this information feels heavy; other times she’s playfully nihilistic about the whole thing.
“Like I’m never gonna pay it off, so it’s Monopoly money. Who cares?” said Koncan.
For Annie—who preferred to use only her first name for this story—financial secrets kept from her during her teens have dramatically affected her adulthood.
At 18, Annie was part of an abusive relationship. Her boyfriend was a decade older and pushed Annie to open multiple credit cards he would immediately max out.
“Over the span of nine months he was abusive in several ways, including being financially abusive,” said Annie. “He racked up $60,000-$70,000 on my credit. I knew a little bit about the spending but didn’t know the full extent of what he had purchased.”
Annie’s ex-boyfriend promised he was coming into a windfall of cash that would immediately wipe all the debt he had accumulated under her name. In the meantime the debt from one credit card would be paid off with other lines of credit. The boyfriend made extravagant purchases like vehicles for himself and his family members without fully consulting Annie, pushing and pressuring her for bigger and bigger spending. She also trusted her partner with finances because she loved him. He wouldn’t do anything that would intentionally hurt her, she thought.
“He kept on promising me that this big cheque was coming in five months. Then five months would roll around and nothing would happen,” said Annie. “There was no money coming in. I was the only one working...I felt like he had so much control over me at the time.”
The situation only ended when Annie’s parents intervened, moving her away from the boyfriend, and into their home several states away. The massive debt accumulated by the boyfriend meant that Annie had to file for bankruptcy before the age of 20. It ruined her credit rating.
The consequences of that have kept Annie from many symbols of adulthood. She isn’t able to get a mortgage. Her finances have always needed to be separate in serious relationships. But more than either of those things the spectre of bankruptcy feels embarrassing and emotionally difficult, despite the fact it wasn’t Annie’s fault. In long-term relationships she wouldn’t speak of her bad credit or bankruptcy because she was afraid people would look down on her. She hopes that being open about her story will inspire others to recognize that abuse can take many different forms and that financial literacy is an extremely important skills.
“The incident happened when I was a teenager but still had a really huge impact on how I perceive financial health and my day-to-day life,” said Annie. “When you’re in an abusive relationship it can happen in so many different ways. I wish I hadn’t felt embarrassed about it for so long...but financial literacy around these things is also so important. I think one of the reasons he was able to take advantage of me in the beginning is because I didn’t know how any of it worked. Knowing lets you protect yourself a bit better.”
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