I remember it like it was yesterday: the day my wife-to-be and I signed our ante-nuptial contract. It was a sobering experience for a starry-eyed, about-to-be married, twentysomething – setting out what would happen if our marriage were to end. Before we had walked down the aisle, we were deciding who’d keep the house if it all came crashing down.

And there’s a good chance it would. According to the annual report by the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, the number of divorce cases increased by 28% in 2013. Divorce is on the rise. Marriages fail. And partners cheat. Maybe you’re keeping something from your wife – that email from your ex, that moment at the office party with Mandy from finance. But maybe it has nothing to do with another woman at all. Maybe it’s another credit card.

A lot of us are doing it, reveals a recent study from self.com – despite 70% of 
couples agreeing that honesty about money is as important as monogamy.

Having been a keen trail runner for a number of years, an injury towards the end of last year forced me to consider some alternate forms of exercise. I decided that mountain biking might be cool and I started looking for a bike. I chatted to a few friends who are mountain biking regulars and the consensus was that I would need to spend at least R25 to R30k to get a full suspension (better than entry-level) bike.

Instead of being impulsive on a big spend, I did some homework and chatted to my wife about it. We decided that there was no way we were going to spend that much money. I settled for a less fancy option while I decided if this was something that I really enjoy doing.

When I showed my purchase to my friends, I was branded an idiot. I mentioned the reasons and how it was a joint decision with my wife. This was met by stunned silence and then the following: “You just broke the cardinal rule. You never tell your wife what you spend on a bike. And what colour is it? Because now you’ll have to keep that colour, so that each time you upgrade, she won’t notice.”

I thought it was a joke. But I soon discovered that it was the norm. Guys spend fortunes on bikes and their partners are none the wiser. I heard of friends who kept their second bikes at a mate’s house and of others who have separate “bike” credit cards that their wives know nothing about. There’s even a local pub that has changed its name to “The Bicycle Shop”.

But it’s not just men who are secretly 
spending. I spoke to a woman who owns a laser hair removal business and she says that most of her clients put only a small amount of the total cost on their credit cards. They then pay for the balance in cash – so their partners don’t discover the real costs of their treatments. And the old cliché of the countless shopping bags that sit unopened and unworn in a women’s cupboard? They really do exist.

Both women and men are hiding what they spend. It’s called financial infidelity. Martin Hickman, author of Financial Infidelity: The Things We Buy, the Lies We Tell, describes it as the secretive act of spending money, possessing credit and credit cards, holding secret accounts or stashes of money, borrowing money, or otherwise incurring debt 
unknown to one’s spouse, partner or significant other. A survey of 24 000 men and women found that almost half of married adults admitted to keeping 
secrets from their partners. (The survey also 
revealed that more women admitted to lying 
about their spending patterns than men.)

The US National Endowment for Financial Education found that 31% of people who combined their finances have committed some type of financial deception – from hiding purchases to lying about the amount of debt they owed – with as many as 58% admitting that they hid cash from their partners. Few relationships survive sexual affairs, so why then do we choose to expose them to the additional stresses of financial infidelity?

I used to be part of a guys’ book club and we really did read books. (At least in the beginning.) Eventually, reading took a bit of a backseat and we started dealing with some of the life issues we faced. One guy’s mother died, one was estranged from his father (who later died, but not before they were reconciled as a result of our talking about it) and one of the guys ended up having an affair. He left his wife and two young girls for a divorcée with a young son.

I remember one evening, before my mate left his wife, when we discussed how affairs happened. He told us that they’re a bit like the alphabet. You don’t go straight from A to Z: you go from A to B to C and so on, just one small step at a time, until you finally go from Y to Z… It’s the seemingly innocent flirting, the shared coffees and lunches, the emails and phone calls – and with each little encounter you find yourself a step closer to cheating.

Pity he didn’t follow his own advice.

Just like a physical affair, financial infidelity seldom happens abruptly. Bethany and Scott Palmer, co-authors of First Comes Love Then Comes Money, say: “Overspending, separation, lack of planning, control and secrets – these forms of financial betrayal can be just as damaging to that trust as sexual betrayal… The first betrayal leads to the next and to the next, and before long, the relationship is dying.”

And that’s why it’s so dangerous. Just like sexual infidelity, financial infidelity starts with an innocent business lunch or a little flirtation over a latte. It begins with that first secret, that first half-truth, that first hidden purchase. Or maybe it’s about control, says Palmer. “It’s two people maintaining separate accounts because they don’t trust each other enough to pool their resources.”

And trust is key. A successful partnership or relationship needs trust – without it, you’re most likely to end up another statistic. And divorce rarely leaves you financially better off than your marriage. Clearly, learning to talk about money with your partner is critical. This may be difficult at first, especially if you have never done it before, but here’s how to make things easier.

First off, create a monthly meeting to talk 
about your finances. It might be challenging initially and maybe you’ll want to enlist some help by setting up a counselling appointment. Check out therapistdirectory.co.za for a list of marriage and relationship counsellors in your area.

If you’re meeting without a therapist, set up some rules for your chat. You have to be truthful at all times. And you’ll have to be kind to each other – you’ll admit any secret spending more readily if you know that there’ll be no judgment or anger.

Then, agree to start over and decide on a 
budget to combat any debt efficiently. But, at the same time, make provisions for the things you both want. Without that, you’ll be just be stepping 
backwards towards financial infidelity.

Gregg Sneddon