It’s a common enough problem that it’s been jokingly inscribed into welcome mats: Sometimes, people in relationships hide their spending habits. (Or savings accounts, for that matter.) And while these behaviors might not seem like as big of a deal as physical cheating, Julia T. Kramer, who’s been working as a financial therapist for almost a decade now, calls this problem what it is: financial infidelity.

Worse yet, being dishonest with our partners around money can be a symptom of more deeply rooted issues like emotional dysregulation. “Hiding from your partner,” Kramer says, “is really a subconscious way of hiding from yourself.” 

4 Steps to Owning Your Habit

Although many of us are having an especially hard time with money right now (thanks, COVID-19), relatively few of us are actually doing anything about it. According to one recent survey, some 42% of Americans have cried about money at some point during the pandemic, but only 18% said they made an actionable plan to resolve their financial issues.

Fortunately, when it comes to overspending, there are some specific steps that can help you climb your way out.

1. Track your spending — all of it. 

In order to get honest with your partner about your spending habits, you’re first going to have to get honest with yourself. And while there are many apps and platforms that make it super easy to create a budget online, Kramer’s recommendation is a little more old school: good ol’ pen and paper.

When it comes to documenting spending, especially excessive spending, “there’s a difference between looking at a screen and writing it down,” Kramer says. Your latte-a-day habit may seem like no big deal until you find yourself scrawling Starbucks five times in a single week.

2. Identify which needs your expenses are meeting.

Most of us intuitively understand that we need money to pay for both our needs, like utilities and groceries, and our wants, like our streaming subscription services or a new pair of boots.

But to Kramer, all spending is a reaction to some kind of need — it’s just about identifying what, exactly, that need is and whether or not there’s a more affordable way to meet it.

Take, for example, that coffee habit. Your coffee might be a form of self-expression, Kramer suggests: you see yourself as an oat-milk-cappuccino-type, which that five-dollar cup reflects. Or maybe coffee is a means of connection: you gather with your friends each morning at the cafe. 

Kramer also suggests that many people who turn to “retail therapy” are, indeed, trying to soothe themselves: impulse spending, and credit card spending in particular, delivers a hit of dopamine that can help allay our depression and anxiety, if only temporarily.

But no matter what the underlying need or emotion is, identifying it is one of the most important parts of figuring out how to find alternative (and less-expensive) ways to meet it.

3. Stop the shame spiral — and start spending smarter.

Once you’ve got a sense of where your money is going and why, you can start to hatch a plan to fix the problem, both by decreasing your spending and dialing down any debts you’ve racked up. For example, a credit card balance transfer could help you consolidate debt you’ve spread out across a variety of credit cards — which is an easy way to disguise how much you’re actually spending. 

Meanwhile, though, try to keep negative self-talk out of the equation. It’s not helpful, and it may even cause increased stress that could send you right back into a spending spree. 

4. Communicate with your partner.

Once you’ve identified the problem and begun to take action, it’s time to bring your partner into the equation. 

And as guilty as you feel, Kramer advises keeping in mind that it’s almost always a two-way street. Yes, one partner may be an impulsive spender while the other is more prone to saving, but hiding any behavior, financial or otherwise, speaks to one person feeling a lack of security in the relationship.

Obviously, there’s no way to predict how your partner will respond once you confess your financial infidelity — and indeed, they might be angry. But when Kramer works with couples, she tries to identify the lapses in communication that underlie the actual financial behaviors. 

Then, she asks partners to work together to find a compromise: Ask each other, “How can we honor both of our ways of being with money?” she suggests.

Together, you can move forward with a new and improved financial plan that works for both of you — and in which both of you feel seen and satisfied.