It started with Melissa Houston buying small indulgences online — shoes, clothes, handbags. Then, she moved on to major purchases, renovating the family room and putting a swimming pool in the backyard. She says her spending spree spiraled her family's finances into massive debt — and she hid it from her husband.
"I went off the rails and I accumulated over $100,000 worth of debt through credit," said Houston, 48, a mother of two who lives in Ottawa, Canada.
"I would tell him here and there the cost, but I wouldn't tell him the running tally," she said. "I definitely concealed that part because I knew that if he knew, we wouldn't be doing these renovations."
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A former accountant turned entrepreneur, Houston also was in charge of managing the household expenses for her husband Jamie and their children. It made it relatively easy to keep this secret about her spending, she said.
Jamie, 49, said he was "a little suspicious, but I trust my wife, so I didn't really push it."
Eventually Melissa told him that she'd racked up six-figures in credit card debt — and they're now working through this crisis together, although Jamie admits he's still "leery."
"I've always got my guard up just a little bit," he said.
Pandemic fuels 'money secrets'
A survey finds nearly 60% of adults say the pandemic has increased financial stress in their relationship. For some couples, that stress may lead to hiding a bill, purchase, bank account or credit card statement from their partner. Among adults who have combined finances, another poll found 43% of adults confessed to having committed some form of financial deception or financial infidelity.
"Financial infidelity is hiding financial information, financial transactions, from your partner in a situation where you have a reasonable grasp of knowing what they want to know," said University of Minnesota law professor Jill Hasday. "And, keeping the information is harming them."
Hasday, author of "Intimate Lies and the Law," says discovering financial deception is often difficult. "Society tells us to trust our intimates — and it's very hard to overcome that," she said.
Yet, many couples don't talk about the one issue that can make or break that trust — money. A report by Personal Capital finds 39% of adults avoid talking about money in a romantic relationship.
Getting serious ... and honest
Kelsey DiCarlo, 29, says she hesitated discussing money with her boyfriend, Michael Mancuso, at first.
An account manager at a New York-based insurance company, DiCarlo said she skirted the issue for months, "no longer sharing anything about money with him just to avoid the conversation."
"You don't want to share too much too soon when you're dating someone," said Mancuso, 33, an appliance technician.
After dating for more than a year, the couple decided to move in together. Then, conversations about her student loan debt and his desire to buy property became more honest.
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"We finally reached a point of comfort and trust," said DiCarlo, who also has a tutoring business on the side.
She admitted that she didn't want to co-own property yet. He bought the property on his own.
"It makes it more comfortable to figure these things out together," Mancuso said.
Although talking about money is a key step to building trust, DiCarlo says it's not easy. "It does take effort," she said. "It's not always an organic conversation."
Start having 'money talks'
To build or rebuild trust, "it can be helpful to set consistent money dates," said Dominique Broadway, a financial literacy advocate and founder of Finances Demystified. So, "you have time set aside to talk about your finances and your mutual financial goals."
One way to initially get the "money talk" going is to do a little "show and tell." "This can be as simple as opening your bills together or putting all of your finances on one Google sheet and reviewing together," Broadway said.
Checking up on someone who has financially cheated in a relationship takes a few more steps. Hasday recommends reviewing bank statements and credit card bills for accounts you hold jointly, as well as joint tax returns, to make sure you and your partner are on the same page.
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