Cash Confessions: True Tales of Secret Spending

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businessman putting cash into his coat
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Lucas learned at a young age to lie about how he spent money.

"My parents always thought travel was a waste of money," he says. "During high school, if I went to a movie with my friends, that was OK. But if we went out of town to see the movie, my parents would be upset that we had spent money for gas."

Now almost 30, Lucas' travels are more elaborate, more expensive, and more covert. "As far as they're concerned, my only travel expense is commuting to work," he says.

Is it OK to keep spending secrets from loved ones? We asked readers to weigh in -- and to share their own tales of covert spending.

Charity Begins at Home

Mercedes, a programmer living in New Jersey, also keeps a spending secret from her family: how much she gives to her church. "My family really wanted me to save money for my wedding, even a decade ago when there was no man in sight," she says. Being first-generation American, she suspects culture played a large part in their disapproval. "Maybe it's an immigrant-society thing, because many of the adults in my community came from India, they want to save money versus giving it away to charity."

That financially independent adults hide expenses from their parents isn't a shock, and probably won't cause too much of a rift -- especially in cases like Lucas and Mercedes, whose spending doesn't impact their welfare or that of their family members. But in intimate relationships, financial secret can indicate a deeper struggle.

Lucas' partner Mario keeps a little spending secret of his own. "Lucas thinks computer gadgets or video games are pointless, and so when I order something, I'll keep a close eye on the mail to get to it first," he says.

Hearing this, Lucas laughs. "I know you're doing that," he says. "Because you never check the mail otherwise."

Divorce attorney Randall Kessler, of Kessler & Solomiany Family Law, and author of "Divorce: Protect Yourself, Your Kids and Your Future," says this sort of not-really-a-secret is much better than a spending habit that's truly hidden.

"Imagination is always worse than reality," Kessler says. "If you don't tell your wife or your husband what you're spending on, and they see that money is disappearing, they're going to assume the worst. It's just human nature."

Spending that May Cross the Line

But what about the tipping point of secrecy, when it goes from harmless to harmful? Kessler says it's less about what you're buying, and more about how long it's been going on and how much money you're spending.

"If it's a couple months, that's one thing," Kessler says. "But if it's something they've been doing for 10 years, that's money that wasn't spent on your family, on a needed new car or a nice vacation. That might be harder to overlook."

Newport Beach, Calif.-based relationship therapist Lisa Bahar says that there are many reasons why couples keep financial secrets from each other. "You don't always want to reveal your spending habits to your partner because you're used to being independent," she says.

That's certainly true in the case of Roger, who doesn't tell his girlfriend that he still pays for his ex-wife's salon appointments. "If the girlfriend knew I was springing for hairstyling on top of everything else -- house, electricity, insurance, taxes -- she would not be pleased. "

If you've got a secret spending habit and want to come clean, Kessler says it's best to confess before you're caught. "If you can stop the behavior, stop it, and admit it later," he says. And if you can't stop, or if those spending secrets are more serious than a weekend trip or giving to charity, it might be time to get help.

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