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Many Americans are keeping financial secrets from their loved ones. Among those secrets: whether they have credit card debt and how much of it they have.
NerdWallet’s annual consumer credit card report found that about a third of Americans with credit card debt (33%) say no one knows how much they owe. They may be keeping it under wraps because of stigma — a new NerdWallet survey finds that 2 in 5 Americans (40%) think it’s embarrassing for a person to have credit card debt.
The new NerdWallet survey of more than 2,000 Americans, conducted online by The Harris Poll, asked Americans with significant others — also referred to as “partnered Americans” throughout this report — what, if any, financial information they hold back from those significant others. We also asked Americans about lying to their parents or adult children about their finances.
Many partners keep money secrets. More than 2 in 5 partnered Americans (43%) say they have withheld financial information or lied about it to their significant other. And nearly half of Americans overall (49%) believe it is OK to have savings that your significant other doesn’t know about, according to the survey.
More than half of parents of minors hold back financial information from their own parents. Thirty-nine percent of Americans in the survey say they’ve withheld financial information or lied about it to their parents. Those with their own kids under 18 are more likely to say this than Americans without minor children (54% vs. 31%).
Most parents share financial information with grown children. Sixty percent of Americans think parents should be financially transparent with their adult children, and they mostly are: Nearly three-quarters of Americans with adult children (74%) say they’ve never withheld financial information or lied about it to their grown kids, the survey found.
“Money and communication don’t always go hand in hand,” says Melissa Lambarena, a credit card expert at NerdWallet. “It’s understandable if there’s shame attached to regretful financial decisions, but concealing the truth about your finances could lead to unrealistic expectations by loved ones.”
Financial infidelity isn’t uncommon between significant others
Love might not cost a thing, but romantic relationships aren’t immune to the influence of finances. Among partnered Americans, 43% say they’ve withheld financial information or lied about it to their partner. The No. 1 thing they’ve lied about or held back? The amount they spent on a purchase (23%), according to the survey.
Unmarried Americans with significant others are more likely than married Americans to say they’ve withheld financial information or lied about it to their partner (54% vs. 35%), the survey found. There’s also a generational difference: Younger partnered Americans are more likely to say they’ve lied or withheld financial information — 63% of Generation Z (ages 18-26) and 58% of millennials (ages 27-42), vs. 44% of Generation X (ages 43-58) and just 19% of baby boomers (ages 59-77).
Americans are split on whether it’s OK to have a secret credit card or savings that their partner doesn’t know about. While 2 in 5 Americans (40%) say having a credit card your partner doesn’t know about is OK, nearly half of Americans (49%) say the same about savings. In both cases, unmarried Americans are much more likely to say this than married Americans — 48% vs. 31%, and 58% vs. 38%, respectively.
Parents are often in the dark when it comes to adult kids’ finances
Some Americans are keeping financial secrets from their parents — 39% say they’ve withheld financial information or lied about it to their parents, according to the survey. Around 1 in 5 Americans (21%) say this about the amount they’ve spent on a purchase, and 14% say this about their income.
Americans with kids under 18 are more likely to say this than those without minor children: 54% of those with children under 18 say they’ve lied to or withheld financial information from their own parents, compared with 31% of Americans who don’t have kids under 18, the survey found. The No. 1 thing these parents have lied to their own parents about is the amount they spent on a purchase (28%), followed by their income (20%).
Adult kids mostly know their parents’ financial status
Parents are mostly transparent with their adult children. According to the survey, just over a quarter of Americans with adult kids (26%) say they’ve lied to or withheld financial information from those kids. Roughly 1 in 10 parents with children over 18 say they’ve lied about or withheld information about their income (9%) and the same proportion say this about the amount they’ve spent on a purchase (9%).
This tracks with the survey finding that 3 in 5 Americans (60%) think parents should be financially transparent with their adult children. However, millennials are more likely to say this than baby boomers (63% vs. 57%), which might indicate that adult children are more likely to feel this way than their parents.
Examine why you’re holding back from loved ones: Nearly two-thirds of Americans (65%) agree that you don’t have to disclose your financial information to loved ones. But if you’re keeping financial secrets from the people closest to you, it’s worth asking why. If it’s someone you trust, maybe you’re feeling shame about your finances, or you’re worried about judgment. You might be surprised to find that the people in your life are holding back for the same reasons; financial struggle isn’t an uncommon problem.
Consider opening up to someone about your finances: If it’s safe to do so, telling someone you trust about your finances can be cathartic and possibly helpful. This can be particularly true if you need assistance getting out of debt or working on a spending problem. Whether they can offer you a fresh perspective, accountability or even financial support, having someone to talk to can make a big difference.
“If you’re struggling financially, opening up about your financial situation with a trusted friend or loved one could have a positive impact,” Lambarena says. “You might get much-needed advice or understanding when you decline a pricey invitation.”
Seek out help if it’s unsafe to share your finances with a partner or parent: Maybe you’ve held back or lied about finances because sharing them could put you in a risky position. In that case, there are places to get help for those experiencing financial and/or physical abuse. If you are with someone who makes you feel unsafe, regardless of their relationship with you, keeping financial secrets could be a way to protect yourself and prepare financially while you seek help.
“Financial secrets can thrive in the dark, potentially feeding the cycle of shame or abuse that prevents you from seeking help,” Lambarena says. “If you can cautiously bring those secrets to light with someone who can offer a safe space — a loved one or a professional at a trusted organization — you might find the guidance or support that’s been missing to thrive financially.”
This survey was conducted online within the U.S. by The Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet from April 27 to May 1, 2023, among 2,078 U.S. adults ages 18 and older. The sampling precision of Harris online polls is measured by using a Bayesian credible interval. For this study, the sample data is accurate to within +/- 2.8 percentage points using a 95% confidence level. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, contact Lauren Nash at [email protected].
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