Money matters can be stressful and fraught with emotion. How much we earn, spend, save, and owe can get tied up with our feelings of self-worth and relationships with others.
We surveyed 2,600 U.S. residents to find out how they feel about their finances and how honest they are with others when it comes to money. Only 11.8% of the study participants said they are “excellent” at handling their finances; 6.8% rated themselves “poor,” and the rest fell somewhere in between.
People are most open with their significant others about money, with 45.7% saying their partner knows “everything” and 30.1% saying their partner knows “quite a lot.” But we are much more guarded about discussing money with family members, co-workers, and even close friends.
Participants told us they are more comfortable talking with others about their age, weight, and mental health than their credit card debt or income. And people would rather talk about their sex lives than how well they’re saving and investing for the future.
Whether it’s done to avoid arguments, cultivate an image of success, or gain a competitive advantage, a whopping 75.3% of Americans admit they lie about money at least some of the time. These are the top lies we tell about money.
Read on for a closer look at who is most likely to tell each lie and possible reasons why.
Maybe you bought something you wanted but didn’t technically need. You don’t want to be judged for spending money instead of saving, or for making an impulsive, emotional buying decision instead of exercising restraint. So you tell a little white lie: “It was on sale” or “It wasn’t very expensive.”
“It didn’t cost that much” is the most common white lie we tell about money — nearly half of us (46.6%) have done it, and the reasons can vary. Maybe we don’t want to make friends feel bad by revealing exactly what we can afford, if they can’t. Maybe we feel vulnerable to think that others can gauge the level of our means. Or maybe just we don’t want to be criticized for spending beyond our means or handling money carelessly, So, we lie to ease the potential friction.
The survey found that women are slightly more likely than men to downplay the cost of something (48.3% to 45%). And younger people are much more likely to do this than older people (57.6% of Gen Z vs. 38.3% of Baby Boomers). One theory is that groups who traditionally wield less buying power feel more pressure to be (or at least appear) fiscally responsible — not as great a concern with more solvent groups who feel free to spend what they have.
People who are dating and living separately (56.7%) are much more likely to underreport costs than those who are married (44.6%). This could have a few explanations: People who are dating are often still trying to present the best versions of themselves, which could include an exaggerated appearance of financial responsibility. It’s also easier to camouflage financial behavior from someone who doesn’t live in your household or share your bank statements.
But plenty of people feel guilty about indulging themselves, especially if their spending outpaces their savings or debt levels. Those who underplay expenses are more than twice as likely to feel guilty about or ashamed of their spending habits as those who don’t (21.9% vs. 9.9%). They’re also more likely to feel hopeless and embarrassed about their debt than those who are truthful about the price tags on their purchases (33.4% vs. 26.6%).
Rather than face criticism for buying another pair of shoes, an upgraded gadget, or a cute outfit for the baby, you hide your purchase in the car trunk until the coast is clear. Then you remove the tags and whisk the new item into your home, taking care to dispose of the packaging. With any luck, your partner or family won’t notice and make you feel guilty. If they do, you can try the old standby response: “Oh, this old thing? I’ve had it forever!” and hope they believe it.
A little more than 40% of us are likely to hide something we’ve bought from someone we live with, and women are slightly more likely than men to conceal things they’ve bought (42.3% to 38.1%). Some might consider this a psychological holdover from times when husbands controlled the family finances and gave their wives an allowance from which to run the household. Girls who saw their mothers’ personal pleasure treated as an indulgence to be scrutinized may have grown into the package-hiders of today. However, plenty of men hide purchases, as well.
Another interesting finding: By a margin of almost 10%, parents of young children (50.3%) are significantly more likely to hide purchases than people without children (40.7%). If the item is for themselves, they may feel guilt over not spending that money instead on their children. Or it could be a case of “retail therapy by proxy,” in which a parent overindulges on trendy things their kids don’t need.
The study also found that the lower your income, the more likely you are to hide purchases: 42% of people with household incomes of less than $30,000 a year admitted doing it, compared with 32.9% of those whose household incomes were more than $100,000 a year. On a similar note, people who did not go to college are more likely to do this than people with college degrees (46.9% vs. 38.7%).
This all likely goes back to the earlier hypothesis about the cycle of poverty and self-denial: The less money you have, the less free you feel about spending it, and vice versa. People who hide purchases are more than twice as likely to feel guilty or ashamed of their spending habits as those who don’t (23% vs. 9.9%). They are also more likely to feel negative about their level of savings (35.7%% vs. 21.3%).
You’re going through the annual ritual of applying for health insurance and you reach the part where it asks: How much do you expect to make this year? How much are your family members going to earn? Since 2013, answering these questions has been a crucial step in applying for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Currently, if your income is less than $51,400 for an individual, $68,960 for a couple, or $104,800 for a family of four, you can get assistance paying your premiums. The lower your income is, the bigger the subsidy you receive from the government. A few thousand dollars of income could make a big difference in the amount you pay each month. What do you do?
It’s common knowledge: Getting caught in a lie on federal financial forms can have hefty consequences, including paying back the full amount of ill-gotten gains. Any health insurance subsidy you receive is reconciled with tax returns at the end of the year, making discrepancies easy to spot. Yet 27.4% of people still try underreporting their income, betting the prospect of a discounted health insurance subsidy rate against the hope of not getting caught.
The survey found that men (at 30.8%) are more likely than women (at 23.6%) to conceal or misrepresent their income on health insurance applications. It’s possible that since women still make an average of about 79% of men’s paychecks, their income levels are less likely to disqualify them for coverage.
Parents of school-age children are almost six times more likely to lie on health insurance forms than people without kids (42.6% to 7.6%). But it makes sense that this is such a popular money lie for parents: Insurance is expensive, and child-raising is expensive. Put the two together, and it might seem awfully attractive to cut down the combined expenses by any means necessary — even dishonest ones.
People with college degrees are almost three times more likely to fudge answers on a health insurance application (34.1% vs. 13.7%) than those with only a high school education. Perhaps this is because higher levels of education usually go hand-in-hand with greater exposure to money and people who know how to use it, for better or worse. You can’t game the system if you don’t know how.
Financial aid situations are some of the only instances in America when a larger income is a relative disadvantage, so a correlation might exist here: People who lie about income on health insurance applications tend to feel more confident than average about their finances. Among those who admitted lying, 69.1% said they were proud of their salary or income and 60% said they felt good about their level of debt. (By contrast, among those who haven’t lied on health insurance forms, only 43.8% were proud of their salary or income and 43.5% felt good about their level of debt.)
You never know what will happen in life, so it makes sense to have access to your own funds outside of any joint accounts. Maybe you’d established an account long before you met your partner and merged finances, and it seemed simpler to keep quiet. Or maybe you blended your households, then discovered your partner’s bad at handling money. A secret account is just another way to keep finances safe, you rationalize. You’re being prudent. Separate accounts are more common than they used to be. And what they don’t know won’t hurt them, right?
Keeping a bank account or credit card secret from a partner is common for 24.2% of us, and the potential reasons are many: If there’s credit card debt involved, some people don’t want to burden their partner. Others feel their partner might not handle the money correctly if they had access to it. Still others enjoy the freedom of having “their own” money, whether to save for security or to spend for fun.
Men and women are almost equally likely to conceal a bank account or credit card from a partner (24.0% of men, 24.6% of women). This belies a historical belief in many communities that it’s common for wives to hide a stash of money from their husbands, “just in case” — meaning that if things go badly, there’s always the secret stash to fall back on. In the current reality, though, it’s just as common for husbands to conceal the same from their wives.
Looking at the age scale, millennials are the generation most likely to keep their accounts secret (22.9% of millennials vs. 9% of Gen Z, 20.9% of Gen X, and 19.7% of Baby Boomers). Likely this is due to millennials’ coming of age amid the serious financial instability of the Great Recession; the prospect of disclosing and merging finances with another person might seem to them so optimistic as to be foolish.
Married people are much more likely to keep secret accounts than those who are just dating (29.9% vs. 13.2%). This may point to the heavier financial implications of marriage. In a dating scenario, no one is expected to share (or even know much about) their partner’s finances. But marriages involve responsibility for the couple’s joint financial health, which partially depends on honesty. This phenomenon and other money lies told between partners gave rise to the term “financial infidelity.”
People who conceal a card or account tend to feel more positive than average about their investments, with 58.9% saying they were confident or satisfied, compared with 47.8% of those who have never hidden an account from a partner.
You’ve worked hard to keep your finances strong. You budget, put money into savings each month, and keep your credit score as high as you can. So why should you be punished when you apply for financial aid? You’re not that rich yet! You know there are serious consequences for lying on your application — but without financial aid, you can’t access the resources you need to climb to that next level. So you fudge your numbers, conveniently forgetting about last year’s side hustle or the money your folks gave you. It’s all in the name of progress, after all.
Nearly a quarter of Americans (23.4%) admit to misrepresenting their finances on a financial aid form. In this sticky financial and moral situation, men are more likely (26.4%) to lie about their income levels on a financial aid application than women (20.1%).
Applying for financial aid requires a balancing act between too little income and too much, and lower- and middle-class applicants often feel squeezed between the thresholds. With housing and education costs at an astronomical level, even assistance provided by financial aid can seem paltry, prompting lots of people to hedge their bets however they can.
For example, consider the formula devised by the all-important Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA): It often vastly overestimates applicants’ income while underestimating their cost of living. The formula seems to be based on the idea that a four-person family can subsist on less than $30,000 a year. But the alternative — no financial aid at all — is worse.
This might explain why people with household incomes between $50,000 and $75,000 are most likely to fudge their application numbers. Of that group, 30.5% admitted to concealing or minimizing income, compared with 15.8% of those earning $30,000 or less and 14.5% of those earning more than $100,000.
The study found that people who conceal income or assets on financial aid applications tend to feel better about their savings and credit scores than people who don’t. Among those who admitted lying, 65.5% felt proud of their savings compared with 47.5% of those who were truthful. And 69.4% felt good about their credit scores vs. 60.7% of those who didn’t lie.
Your friends always have great shoes and hot new tech. And your sister always seems to be driving a different new car each time you see her. You want to show you’re at their level, even if you’re not quite there yet. You know “fake it ‘til you make it” is real; your Instagram shows you’re getting there! So when someone compliments your jewelry or new phone, you tell them it cost more than it actually did. If they’re impressed, so much the better. If not, nobody gets hurt.
You bought it, you brought it home ... and you told people it cost more than it really did: This is a familiar story for 22.1% of people. Men are much more likely to upsell their expenses than women (24.9% to 18.5%), and younger people are far greater perpetrators than older people. Gen Z, at 30.6%, is more than twice as likely to inflate costs in the retelling as Baby Boomers, at 12.1%.
People in a dating relationship (24%) are much more likely to exaggerate costs than single people (18.1%) — again, maybe on the presumption that having more costly things make a better impression on a date … or simply because they can get away with it.
People whose household incomes are between $50,000 and $75,000 a year (roughly the national median) were most likely to do this, with 26% admitting that they sometimes inflate what they spent compared with 18.4% of those earning less than $30,000 a year and 18.8% of those earning more than $100,000 a year.
People who exaggerate prices may be living beyond their means and trying to project an image of being more successful and affluent than they really are. Among people who exaggerate how much things cost, 33.5% said their friends and acquaintances probably think they’re richer than they actually are. Only 19.8% of those who don’t lie said friends and acquaintances probably think they’re richer than they really are.
It’s a wickedly uncomfortable question with potentially costly consequences: “How much did you make at your last job?” Depending on your field, it may be unlikely that the interviewer could verify it. So, do you tell the truth? Bump the number up a bit? If it’s too little, you might undercut a higher amount they’d otherwise have planned on paying you. But if you bump it up too much, it could blow your chances of getting an offer. Finally, you weigh your odds, make a choice, and pad your answer by several thousand dollars.
Probably the most egalitarian money lie told by 21.5% of Americans is the one about our previous income when asked by a potential employer. Men and women are almost equally likely to hedge their pay numbers when pressed, with 21.6% of men and 21.2% of women admitting to lying about their previous salary in a job interview.
There was no statistically significant difference by age group, either. Less than a percentage point exists between Gen Z, millennials, Gen X, and Baby Boomers who answered this question. This highlights the universally sticky place in which most job-seekers find themselves at least once during a career move — at the fulcrum point of getting paid more than before … or less.
People with household incomes between $75,000 and $100,000 were most likely to lie in this situation, as 24.3% admitted to having done. This is compared to only 20.6% of the same lies told by those making $30,000 or less (a level where potential employees might have less negotiating power) and 16.9% of those making more than $150,000 a year (a level where many other benefits and perks come into play during salary negotiations).
Is it a lie, or a smart negotiating tactic? People who lie about their income during interviews are generally more satisfied with their salaries than people who don’t (and naturally, they want to keep feeling satisfied with them). Among those who lied, more than half (52.8%) said they felt good about their salaries. Only 43.8% of those who were honest felt the same way.
You’re starting a new life with a partner, and there’s a lot to calculate (pun intended). Maybe you’re coming into the relationship carrying debt from college, an old medical emergency, or that period when you had to live off your credit cards. You don’t want to burden your partner or scare them off, nor do you want a lecture about protecting your credit score. So when the subject of debt comes up, you play it down, naming a number less than the amount you really owe. Maybe by the time it becomes an issue, you’ll have paid down your debt to the number you claimed!
Exactly 15% of us have lied to a partner about our debt level, and there can be any number of reasons for doing so. The situation has been lampooned in sitcoms and with memes, but it’s no laughing matter. According to some psychologists, it can have mental health consequences that are worse than cheating.
Romance is often the foremost thing on new lovers’ minds. But once they begin to share expenses, partners often figure out they have different values. The spending that one partner sees as “no big deal” can seem excessive to the other — especially if it means going into debt. Maybe one partner defaulted on student loans and the other didn’t, or one has an addiction, like gambling or smoking, that’s more powerful to them than the fear of owing money.
In all, men are more likely than women to fib to their partner about how much they owe, at 16.3%, than women are, at 13.5%. As more couples marry later than life, both may come into the partnership having racked up their share of debt. They also may have defined already how they spend their money and may be less flexible — and forthcoming — than if they had developed those patterns together.
Gen X is most likely to be dodgy about debt, with 18.8% lying to partners about it. Gen Z is at the low end with 6.7%. Perhaps this isn’t too surprising, considering Gen Z’ers (born after 1996) haven’t had as much time to accumulate debt, so they have less to lie about. In the middle, 14.1% of millennials and 12.9% of Baby Boomers admit they’ve lied about their debt.
Why do people lie about what they owe? They often feel ashamed, guilty, or hopeless about their credit scores and the amount of debt they have. Among those who lied to their partners, 31.8% said they felt embarrassed about their level of debt, compared with 26.6% of those who didn’t lie. And 21.3% said they were ashamed of their credit scores, in contrast to 13.7% of those who didn’t lie.
Last year you cut your spending drastically and picked up a lucrative side hustle that helped you pay off some debt, with even enough left over to support your favorite charity. Good news, right? Sure — until it’s time to file income taxes. That extra income disqualifies you from the tax credits you usually get. It’s not fair to be penalized by the government for working harder! Luckily, a lot of that extra pay was in cash, so you can “forget” about that, and maybe designate some of your expenses as business-related. The IRS will never know the difference… will they?
Most people find plenty of reasons not to lie on their taxes, other than the obvious stringent punishment and hassle, but 13.4% of Americans fudge their tax numbers, anyway. Sure, it’s your civic duty, and your taxes contribute to societal structures you use, like working roads, public schools, and public safety.
But there are selfish reasons to toe the line, too: You may be audited, and if the IRS finds you’ve fibbed, you could face fines and penalties that’ll cost you way more than you would have shelled out in the first place. You may even be criminally liable, which would put you out of luck when applying for a mortgage or car loan.
Still, a lot of people think it’s fine to lie to the IRS, and men are more likely to do so than women (15.1% to 11.7%).
Parents of young children are much more likely to fib on taxes than people without kids, 25.6% to 5.8%. That’s a big difference, but it shouldn’t be a surprise. Many parents see the responsibility to their children as their most important duty, more so than their obligation to pay taxes. The figures also reflect how expensive it is to raise a child. According to the USDA, a parent will spend $233,610 to raise just one child — and that’s not including five figures for the cost of college.
Older people are slightly more likely to lie on their taxes than their younger counterparts, with 13.9% of Baby Boomers admitting it, compared with 12.8% of Gen X, 9.9% of millennials, and 7.2% of Gen Z. With older generations more likely to live on fixed incomes, they may feel justified in meeting what they consider their basic needs before paying what they owe to the government.
One other interesting finding: People who lie to the IRS tend to feel more confident than average about their spending habits and charitable giving. Among those who admitted misrepresenting their income or expenses on a tax return, 73.2% said they were proud of their spending habits, and 60.4% said they felt good about their charitable giving. (By contrast, among those who haven’t lied, only 63.2% were proud of their spending habits and 40.7% felt good about their charitable giving.)
You’ve played the lottery for years without really expecting to win — but today, your numbers hit! Or perhaps your brother unexpectedly paid you back for all those loans you’ve given him over the years. Now it’s time to share the good news with your partner! … or is it? They’ll likely just criticize your gambling or gullible lending habits again, and you don’t want them to bring you down right now. So instead of telling them about the money, you keep it to yourself.
Lowest in the ranking of Top 10 money lies — but still not uncommon — is hiding a financial windfall (such as a financial gift, a refund, bonus, winnings, etc.) from a partner, which 11% of Americans say they've done.
Men and women are equally likely to conceal a surprise windfall, with 11% of both genders saying they’ve done so. If they’re in a rocky marriage, spouses may worry about losing “what’s rightfully theirs” in a divorce. If any assets — lottery winnings, jackpot proceeds, etc. — were acquired while the couple was together, courts can rule that they be divided equally at divorce.
Older people are more likely to hide a bonus than younger ones. 11.6% of Baby Boomers and 11.4% of Gen Xers admitted keeping bonus money secret, compared with 8.7% of millennials and 6.8% of Gen Z.
Regardless of their age, people who lie about a windfall are more likely than average to feel bad about their savings and gambling habits. There are a couple of possible reasons for this: Maybe they’ve been criticized by their spouses for gambling, or maybe they’re ashamed that they’re depending on luck, rather than hard work, to stay comfortable in life.
Among those who admitted concealing a windfall from a partner, 33.2% felt embarrassed or hopeless about their savings, compared with 26.6% of the group that didn’t lie. And 15.3% of those who have hidden a windfall said they feel guilty or ashamed about their gambling habits, vs. 5.3% who haven’t.
You’ve seen how honest or dishonest Americans are in general about their finances. But how about in your particular city? We conducted our research in 25 major U.S. cities, surveying at least 100 people in each, which enabled us to compare money-related behaviors across different metropolitan areas. Here’s how the money lies vary by location:
Most honest cities overall (percentage who didn’t tell any of the lies):
Least honest cities overall (percentage who didn’t tell any of the lies):
Atlanta came in tops as the most financially honest city in the country, with 37.5% of its inhabitants reporting “No lies told.” Pittsburgh and Detroit followed closely. At the other end of the spectrum, only 6% of San Franciscans told no money lies — roughly half as many as in the next two cities in the dishonest line, New York and Austin.
As yet another gauge of honesty, we asked people how they’d feel if they found out that someone lied to the IRS to get out of paying taxes. The city most likely to say “I admire their ability to beat the system” was New York, with 48.8% feeling that way, followed by San Francisco (46.4%) and Washington, D.C. (45.1%). The city most likely to say “I’m upset because they cheated” was Portland (37.6%), followed by Atlanta (37.5%) and Denver (34.8%).
Of course, people draw different lines when it comes to honesty. Some people don’t mind deceiving the government but hold themselves to a high standard of truthfulness with their partners. Others, vice versa. Here’s how the cities ranked for the 10 most common money lies.
Cities most likely to downplay how much something cost:
Cities least likely to downplay how much something cost:
Cities most likely to hide a purchase:
Cities least likely to hide a purchase:
Cities most likely to lie about income on a health insurance application
Cities least likely to lie about income on a health insurance application:
Cities most likely to hide a bank account or credit card from a partner:
Cities least likely to hide a bank account or credit card from a partner:
Cities most likely to lie about income on a financial aid application:
Cities least likely to lie about income on a financial aid application:
Cities most likely to exaggerate how much something cost:
Cities least likely to exaggerate how much something cost:
Cities most likely to lie about previous salary in a job interview:
Cities least likely to lie about previous salary in a job interview:
Cities most likely to lie to a partner about how much debt they have:
Cities least likely to lie to a partner about how much debt they have:
Cities most likely to lie on a tax return:
Cities least likely to lie on a tax return:
Cities most likely to conceal a windfall from a partner:
Cities least likely to conceal a windfall from a partner:
We’re all in pretty much the same boat when it comes to financial honesty and dishonesty, although the details can differ between lies and across groups. For example, men are more likely to exaggerate the cost of something while women are more likely to downplay cost. And there are similarities, as well: Across every demographic group, we’re all more likely to fib on a health insurance application and least likely to falsify our tax returns.
But how do these lies about money make us feel? Reactions largely depend on two factors: a person’s habits and their demographics. For instance, women are more likely to be upset by someone cheating financially (30.4% to men’s 25.9%), whereas men are more likely to admire the cheater’s ability to beat the system (30.6% to women’s 21.5%). This makes sense when you consider the fact that women are less likely than men to be dishonest on financial aid applications and other official documents.
Education level plays a factor in our reactions to money lies, too. People with more education are more likely to be offended by the dishonesty of others, with an average 30.2% of college graduates who report being upset by others’ financial misbehavior, compared to only 20.2% of those with no college degree.
Conversely, people with less education seem to be both the most honest and the most forgiving: Groups with the least education are the least likely to have lied on an application or official document. Less educated people are also the most likely to say others’ financial lies are none of their business (48.6% on average for those who have a high school diploma or some hours in college, compared with only an average 20.9% of laissez-faire college grads and advanced degree holders).
No matter your background, money is one of the most difficult issues to talk about, especially between partners and among family members. We find ourselves in financial trouble, then lie about it to stave off the shame and guilt. But all money lies have one theme in common: We all wish for a healthier relationship with money. We would all like to understand, control, and even enjoy money’s place in our lives, and to use it wisely for the benefit of ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities.
Our survey was conducted online. It encompassed 2,603 U.S. residents, with at least 100 residents in each of 25 major cities across the United States. The cities were chosen based on population, media market size, and geographic location. They were:
Albuquerque-Santa Fe, NM
Las Vegas, NV
New Orleans, LA
New York, NY
San Francisco, CA
St. Louis, MO
The survey was conducted online. Participants were 55.1% men and 44.4% women (.5% identified as non-binary). Their ages ranged from 18 to 83, with a median age of 31. In terms of education, 77.8% were college graduates. The sample included 264 Baby Boomers, 690 Generation Xers, 1,444 millennials, and 194 members of Generation Z. (There were 11 members of the Greatest Generation — age 75+ —but the sample was too small to include in generation-based analysis.)
In terms of income, 508 participants (19.9%) reported household incomes of $30,000 or less; 610 (23.9%) were in the $30,001–$50,000 range; 635 (24.9%) were in the $50,001–$75,000 range; 436 (17.1%) were in the $75,001–$100,000 range; and 364 (14.3%) reported household income of $100,000 or more. The remaining respondents preferred not to say.
The survey was based on self-reporting, which can have limitations. Respondents were encouraged to be completely honest and assured that their answers were anonymous. Those who missed an “attention check” question were disqualified. The margin of error was ±1.92% with a confidence interval of 95% based on a population of 30,637,690 adults in the target cities.
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