“Sneaky” Spending Behavior

As with other syndromes described in this kit, there are several ways for this phenomenon to take place. If it occurs in the context of more generalized lies and deception, stop here and go to read about the intentional deception syndrome described elsewhere in this kit. If the furtive spending occurs in the context of a drug or alcohol abuse problem, stop here and go read about substance abuse problems also described elsewhere in this kit. A Bipolar Affective Disorder can also cause wild spending during manic episodes. However, such behavior is usually much more overt than the furtive spending addressed here. For all of these types of syndromes, the following recommended interventions will be ineffective. If the furtive spending does not involve alcohol, drug abuse, generalized lying within the relationship, or a likely Bipolar condition, then read on and consider the following interventions.

Furtive spending may occur within compulsive spending and debting behavior. If such is the case, then an excellent intervention is to get involved with a community self-help program such as Debtor’s Anonymous. Such a program helps to detoxify shame, reduce distortions of judgement, and better manage the impulse problems inherent in a spending compulsion.

If a spending compulsion is not apparently involved, secretive spending may reflect boundary problems within the relationship. In this latter scenario, the involved partner will frequently be under-assertive about privacy and their need to exercise more authority over finances. In a high percentage of such cases, only one spouse has the responsibility for paying bills and planning the finances. Also, there is usually no formal agreement about how to go about private discretionary purchases. The problem with this kind of scenario is that one partner has bought into being infantalized. The transgressing partner may have an actual emotional investment in having the other partner shoulder the detail work of the family finances. They may unconsciously desire having their partner play “mommy” or “daddy” for their convenience. However, the downside of such infantalization is covert anger. Even without conscious awareness, the “sneaky” spending partner will be acting out their anger of both their dependence and lack of authority. While this may seem a paradox, such paradoxes of human nature are often seen in the conflict between the need for dependence and the need for autonomy.

To remedy an imbalance of financial authority in the relationship, a double-pronged strategy works best: 1) Restore equal authority for finances by setting up a financial structure that requires detail work and accountability by both partners. 2) Create additional areas of personal spending authority by establishing private discretionary accounts for each partner. This latter strategy is extremely important and should not be ignored. The first strategy in incomplete without addressing the psychological need for some autonomy within the relationship. Both parties may underestimate this need because it may be so covert and unconscious. However, if it is ignored, many budgetary plans will subsequently be violated. This is because the financial structure of a relationship will optimally mirror healthy psychological boundaries. When a relationship does not tolerate any privacy or separate desires, it will usually start to dysfunction. A healthy relationship psychologically balances each partner’s need for separateness versus their need for togetherness. A financial structure that allows no private discretionary spending may not keep such a balance. Especially where one partner is under-assertive about selfish desires, they will have a tendency to satisfy their unconscious need for autonomy via “sneaky” spending instead of conflicted negotiation. For this reason, establishing separate private spending accounts can have a powerful emotional benefit for the furtively spending partner.


INTERVENTION #1 (When a spending compulsion is involved)

Start attending Debtors Anonymous. For the Raleigh, North Carolina area, the current group is small and informal. You can call Cary Counseling Center at (919) 467-1180 to obtain a current contact name and telephone number. If you live outside of the Raleigh area, you can click on DA’s website at www.debtorsanonymous.org to obtain meeting information. You can also read the excellent book by Jerrold J. Murdis titled How To Get Out Of Debt, Stay Out of Debt, And Live Life Prosperously.


INTERVENTION #2 (When one partner is holding all the financial authority)

1) The partner with a history of furtive spending sets up a series of meetings with a financial planner to involve both partners. In these meetings, a long-term financial strategy is developed. A by-product is a current budget. 2) Set up different pots of money for different purposes. For example, there may be one actual checking account for routine monthly expenses. Another account may be set up for intermittent periodic expenses that hit only occasionally. Yet a third account might be mutual discretionary spending for entertainment. Other possible accounts include: vacation and holidays, emergency, long-term investment, child college fund, etc. Set up a joint account into which all marital income is first deposited. This helps to symbolize that all the income is a joint product of equal partnership. From the joint account, monthly transfers can feed the other accounts. Some banks and credit unions can set up automatic monthly transfers for your convenience. Even though so many accounts will cost more maintenance fees, the psychological benefits are often worth it. There is much more clarity of thinking when discretionary funds are unbundled from a mix of other types of funds. Some couples use accounting software such as Quicken. While this works for some couples it doesn’t work for others because the separateness of different kinds of monies is less tangible. 3) Make sure you set up private accounts for each partner for their private discretionary spending. Negotiate how much the accounts will be “fed” each month from the joint income. Ideally, the private accounts should be equally fed. Otherwise, there is likely to be symbolic inequity with subsequent covert resentment. 4) Negotiate a routine time and place when both you and your partner are to get together to pay bills and review your financial status. You may start off every 2 weeks and go that way for 3 months. Then you may negotiate different financial tasks that each of you will handle alone. However, make sure you keep a schedule for revisiting the overall financial status and budget at least every 2 to 3 months. If you do this correctly, each of you should wind up with equal emotional “ownership” and authority over your finances. If so, then each partner has less emotional need to act out covert resentment.