*Editor’s note: Joking about “getting smacked” for a money mistake is one thing, but domestic violence should always be taken seriously. If you think you or someone you know might be the victim of physical or emotional abuse — male or female — please visit http://www.thehotline.org.
In this article, we address a very common relationship problem: figuring out how and when to come clean to your spouse or partner and apologize for making a money mistake.
Money mistakes happen even to the most responsible people. For those of us in relationships, keeping secrets about finances from one’s girlfriend, boyfriend, husband, wife, or partner is much more common than people think. In fact, according to the American Institute of CPAs:
Three in 10 adults who are married or living with a partner have engaged in at least one potentially deceitful behavior related to their finances. The most common such behaviors include hiding purchases and making major purchases without consulting their significant other.
If severe money mistakes or secrecy is part of a pattern of behavior, you may need more (and better) advice than you can get from a blog. This post is also not intended for those hiding major purchases or whole accounts. That’s usually a sign of much larger problems within a relationship and needs serious consideration.
According to Michelle Crosby, divorce attorney and founder/CEO of Wevorce: “When one person lies to the other about their spending, or hides assets intentionally, they’re committing a marital infraction that’s as serious as sexual infidelity. It can damage a relationship, leaving a couple with long-term money problems. When an issue like that goes unresolved, it often leads to divorce.”
Yikes! Yeah, no, what we’re addressing here are honest (and relatively small) money mistakes and the need to bring up this unpleasant issue with your significant other.
1. Determine How Serious Your Money Mistake Really Is
Perhaps you found a bill you thought you’d paid months ago, or you got an email about an online purchase or service you’d forgotten about. The first step in damage control in any situation is to evaluate the extent of the damage. Go fact-finding! Even if you’re positive there wasn’t another unpaid bill or missed receipt, etc, you were incorrect about that in the first place, so go check your accounts and make sure!
Once you’re certain you’ve accounted for any other money mistakes, it’s time to add up the tally. If the total is something you can pay off right away without causing another problem, then by all means!
But if it’s bigger than that, or if there are several such flub ups, bringing all the facts to your partner before making any further moves is probably the better idea. “‘I’ll figure it out,’ is not intimate. ‘Can you help me figure this out?’ is,” says Karen McCall, founder of the Financial Recovery Institute and author of Financial Recovery, Developing a Healthy Relationship With Money.
Either way, if you’re already uncovering the root of the problem, like disorganization or forgetfulness, taking some steps toward self-improvement right away is a good idea. There are plenty of websites and apps out there, such as mint.com, to help you keep track of your spending. Not only does this demonstrate that you take your money mistake seriously and want to be more responsible, but it also helps keep the problem from getting any worse.
On the same token, being proactive now does not earn you “points”, let alone if you failed to come forward right away. The last thing you want is to approach a confession with arrogance or expectations. “We all want to have perfect partners who are happy with everything we do and don’t judge anything and feel completely secure, but that’s rarely the case. You need to deal with the person who is in front of you,” author/speaker Dain Heer tells Redbook.com.
2. Be Honest with Yourself
Before you can come forward about a sticky issue like money mistakes, you must be honest with yourself about why it’s difficult for you. As marriage and family therapist Tara Fields, Ph.D. says, “People keep secrets in the first place because they’re often afraid of what will happen next, or they tell themselves they’re protecting someone else but they’re really protecting themselves.”
There are two main reasons people struggle to admit their faults, especially to their partners: pride and shame.
Pride is the big one for the average guy. We think this piece of advice The Art of Manliness is perfectly suited for “proud guys,” but the quote below applies to anyone struggling with the idea of humbling themselves:
The reason we put up these walls is that we have an overinflated view of our true selves. We’re always right; we always have it together. But it ain’t true. We’re human. We mess up sometimes. You have to accept your imperfection as a part of life. Suppressing it will cut you off from others. Embracing it will allow you to grow….
On the other hand, for those who finds themselves constantly avoiding confrontations, it’s usually shame. In that case, what people from the “man up” crowd don’t understand is that pushing someone who’s already punishing themselves for screwing up is only going to make their reluctance stronger.
Two things: (1) ask Pushy McShoverson from the proud crowd if she or he is afraid of heights or public speaking and how well “just do it” works for her or him there, and (2) realize that if you’re in a healthy relationship with someone who loves you, the odds are that the reward of coming clean will greatly outweigh the perceived risks:
If we feel we are in a relationship with someone we’re hiding from, you may feel ‘you wouldn’t love me if you knew,’ and you don’t have real intimacy,” McCall says. Telling the secret can give you the gift of knowing your partner loves you, imperfections and all. There is no more hiding.
Gerri Detweiler, How a Debt Confession Can Make Your Marriage Stronger, Credit.com.
3. Choose Your Timing Wisely
Timing a confession or apology can be really tricky. Of course, you need to tell your partner about money mistakes ASAP, but realistically, “possible” may not mean “right now”.
It’s actually more important to know when not to bring up stressful issues. “A relaxing Sunday morning is a more ideal time to have a financial conversation than at the end of a long workday when you’re lying in bed and exhausted,” says Alexa von Tobel, founder of LearnVest (CNBC).
That said, timing is something to consider in concert with ending your procrastination. “As Soon As Possible” means finding your very next opportunity and taking it.
4. Stop Putting It Off
You might have meant to bring up your money mistake several times, or maybe your spouse or partner is going through a lot of stress and you’re afraid of overburdening him or her. Unfortunately, “I never found the right time” is the most clichéd excuse ever — even when it’s true. Of course, there will never be a “perfect time”, and any time is better than never.
While it is a good idea to watch for a natural opening, such as when you’re already talking about your budget, what you don’t want to do is let the fear of “bad timing” become an excuse. “But I don’t want to spoil my partner’s mood!” Too bad. The longer you put it off, the worse the impact. Timing is about being considerate, not finding excuses for procrastination (see “Be Honest with Yourself” above). Speaking of being considerate…
5. Take Your Partner’s Feelings into Consideration, and Take Responsibility for Your Actions
If you’re admitting your money mistake out of love and respect, those are the feelings that you need to express. If you care about your partner’s feelings, show that care by putting them before your own need to relieve your guilt or avoid trouble. “Once the truth is out, expect to feel vulnerable and exposed. And know that if your spouse reacts negatively, that’s natural,” says Detweiler.
It might be tempting to try to minimize the situation or its importance in order to “soften the blow”. But downplaying the severity of your own errors, especially if you didn’t fess up in the first place, will only be insulting. So will trying to weasel out of responsibility for your own behavior.
You’ve surely seen politicians say “mistakes were made” when referring to their own misdeeds. How did that make you feel? “Oh, so those files shredded themselves? Do you think I’m an idiot?” Now imagine if that politician were your spouse or partner! Be careful to avoid those and other “weasel words“, and own up to your money mistake.
6. Use This Chance to Improve Your Communication About Money with Your Partner
What comes next is, of course, a matter of your and your partner’s personalities, relationship, and needs. “But one thing that people don’t realize is that there are major opportunities to heal old wounds and strengthen relationships when you’re open and forthcoming about things,” says Fields.
Whatever damage has been done, whether more or less than you anticipated, once emotions have settled, it’s time to rebuild. The beauty of it is, the whole point of a partnership is building and rebuilding together.
“And attacking a debt as a team can help with communication. Working to slay the debt monster is a common effort, and success is a joint accomplishment,” says Detweiler.
On the other hand, your partner might just as well tell you that you made the mess, so you should clean it up. It’s going to take some strategy and careful planning no matter what.
7. Minimize the Damage
Depending on your income and the size of your money mistake, you may not have enough money to cover all your bills. It’s one of the hardest places to find yourself: The ol’ Catch 22, or “robbing Peter to pay Paul” situation. While missing a payment is never advisable, sometimes it can be truly unavoidable. But there are some steps you can take:
- Call your utility company or cable provider and ask if they’re willing to arrange a late payment with you.
- Check for penalties and interest rate hikes!
- Write down the total costs of each bill and compare.
- Choose the bill with the lowest amount you can.
- Do NOT miss payments on more than one bill at a time if at all possible.
- Catch up your bill within 30 days after you miss it (deduct mail time and holidays).
- “Stagger” late payments if you have to. It’s better to pay a bill two to three weeks after its due on one month and then pick a different account on the next, instead of missing miss two or more payments!
Many consumers don’t realize that the “30 days late” marks on their credit reports are 30 days after the payment was due. But paying late isn’t “beating the system”. The system was designed with small grace windows for genuine mistakes, like a delay in mail delivery, but take advantage at your own risk!
Two important things to keep in mind: this is a last ditch effort to be used after every other option has been exhausted, and the fact that what you’re trying to protect from lasting damage is your credit history.
8. Prevent Future Problems and Fix Past Money Mistakes
Once you’ve dealt with the immediate effects of your money mistake, it’s time to think about your credit. If you want to know whether your late payments or any other negative or incorrect info is on your credit reports, you can order them for free at annualcreditreport.com. That’s the official website the big three credit bureaus maintain to provide you one free credit report every year from each bureau, as the government requires.
If you do find negative items on your report, the next step is where monitor your credit proves itself to be essential, as using a credit monitoring service is the only way to access your credit scores. If you want to know how you can dispute negative items and get them removed, just click here to consult with us for free.
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