Shopping on the sly

Dorothy waited until her husband wasn’t around.

She’d tiptoe into her Buford house and hide the latest object of her affection in a closet or under the bed. She’d toss the paper trail in the trash.

A poll released last month by Harris Interactive found that about one in every three Americans in a committed relationship is guilty of this growing breed of infidelity — not the kind that occurs under sheets, but in shopping carts.

Stealth spending is becoming so common, it’s almost a given.

Couples hiding ka-ching rings from each other

Whether financial fibbing raises a red flag depends on a couple’s income and the depth of the deception. But a pattern of lying about spending can damage long-term planning, as well as lead to credit problems, and can eventually hurt the bond of trust and the overall relationship.

Cunniff’s secret love affair was with ka-ching at a Kohl’s cash register. “I just couldn’t resist buying clothes for my grandkids,” said Cunniff, who has since changed her ways and become super-thrifty.

“You kind of wing it,” Gregory Hartley of Atlanta, co-author of “How to Spot a Liar” (Career Press, $14.99), said about people who hide spending. “And it’s a dance. The first time you do it and no one notices it, that’s reinforcement. If someone yells, that teaches you to hide it.”

The lack of candor comes at a time when personal savings — funds left over after expenses, excluding stocks, home equity and other holdings less accessible than cash — are at lows not seen since the Depression, according to figures released recently by the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

And here we go again — the peak shopping allure of the holiday season.

Are you tempted to throw in a velvet party dress with those socks for your father-in-law? Bob Gard, an Alpharetta certified public accountant, suggests couples limit their “play money” to 5 percent of their income (assuming they have enough wiggle room to do so).

Alan Kopit, a bankruptcy lawyer and legal editor for Lawyers.com, prefers sticking to a dollar amount. After setting spending limits, Kopit believes couples shouldn’t bicker on how the money is spent. You want a Starbucks cappuccino every day? OK, he says, but that’s $30 less a week you can spend on other luxuries.

So what are men and women lying about?

Sometimes it’s a pair of black slingbacks because pumps just won’t do, or a hefty tab at lunch with co-workers. Other times, it’s a $795 Louis Vuitton Alma bag you try to pass off as a knockoff, or a pair of pricey golf clubs you hope will blend in with the oldies.

Jennifer Jeanne Patterson, author of “52 Fights: A Newlywed’s Confession” (Penguin, $14), sees no harm in hiding a shopping trip now and then. Stretching the truth, she says, is sometimes a source of playful banter; other times it’s irksome.

Patterson, who lives in Minneapolis, recently deleted key information about two new pairs of designer slipper shoes for 9-month-old son Max.

“I told my husband there was a sale at Nordstrom — and there was a sale at Nordstrom, but the shoes were not on sale,” the 32-year-old stay-at-home mom said. The shoes — one pair with blue trucks, the other with olive-green bears — each had a price tag of $26.

Her husband, Matt Samuel, is also guilty of trying to hide his weakness — CDs. He often can’t resist the music featured at Starbucks when he strolls in for a grande coffee of the day.

In the car, he tries to pass the music off as a song on the radio. “They market those CDs so well, and it’s just so easy to grab that CD and add it to your coffee and muffin,” said Samuel, a 36-year-old lawyer who recently picked up a Sheryl Crow CD.

Financial experts recommend that couples establish a financial plan and set ground rules — about how much is discretionary and what requires negotiating an agreement.

“Let’s say we have $1,500 we spend every month. How much is budgeted, and how much can I spend on junk?” said Hartley. Hartley, whose hobby is medieval re-enactments, said he discusses all major-ticket items with his live-in girlfriend, Dina Gohlke. Before buying a pricey power tool or a new saddle for one of his 10 horses, he asks, “Can we afford this?”

And Gohlke discusses buying flats of flowers or a new piece of crystal before making the purchase. To make room for fun bucks, they sometimes drink a table wine over a high-end Italian chianti, or they scale back their travel budget. And other times, they simply have to wait.

Hartley has been pining for a piece of $900 armor for more than a year, and he hopes it’s under the Christmas tree this year. Gard, however, said he often prefers being in the dark about the expenses incurred by his wife of 24 years, Susan.

“I know there are things she buys that are ridiculous, and I know there are things I buy she thinks are ridiculous,” said Gard. “I don’t understand how you can spend $100 on getting your hair colored, and she doesn’t understand why I must have the newest cellphone.”

Patterson also challenges the idea of spouses sharing every receipt with their spouse. “If you are being reasonable, why does your husband need to know?” she asks. Currently, she is keeping quiet about a $110 ticket for failing to display an updated car tag. “My mother says it is sometimes easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, and I think that applies to spending,” Patterson said.

Back in Buford, Cunniff got a wake-up call about poor money management a few years ago after losing her job as a retail manager. She wanted to go back to school to become a certified medical assistant. And the only way was to take out student loans and go into debt.

Now married 20 years, Cunniff has made dramatic changes in her handling of finances. She now sews flannel pajamas for her granddaughter instead of buying them off the rack. She and husband Andy jot down every single expense — even $20 worth of gas or a quick stop for milk at the store.

It’s evolved into a contest to see who can spend the least amount of money. “We have always had a good relationship, but it is even better because we are so much on the same page,” she said. “We even bring our own lunch to work, and we know why we are doing it.” She even makes her own nursing scrubs. And she’s made a set for her 5-year-old granddaughter, too.