NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) -
Be honest, now: Have you ever told your spouse you paid less for something than you really did -- say, a great pair of shoes, or maybe that very cool 52-inch TV now gracing the family room?
Have you ever bragged about the killing you made on a stock but failed to mention the other 10 that went sour? Ever overstated a charitable tax deduction? Padded your expenses? Pulled the wool over your own eyes about your finances by shoving bills or bank statements into a drawer (out of sight, out of mind)?
No need to answer. The response to at least some of these questions is: Of course you have. And it's highly likely that almost everyone you know has too.
That is the striking conclusion of a nationwide survey conducted for MONEY by Mathew Greenwald & Associates. We asked 1,001 adults (half men, half women) with household incomes of $50,000 or more about their money deceptions -- the everyday secrets, little white lies and occasional whoppers we almost all tell.
And we do mean almost all: 71 percent of those polled owned up to one kind of money secret or another. Perusing the survey results, you quickly see that these household secrets have less to do with greed than with simple insecurity. We want people to see us as we wish we were rather than as we fear we are.
"People lie because they need to present themselves as competent and worthy," says Robert Feldman of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, a psychologist and the author of several landmark studies on deception. "Money is one key way people feel they are valued."
But even if our motivation isn't financial, the consequences of lying often are. Our efforts to control our image can spur us to spend too much, save too little, invest recklessly, and generally not plan for our future as well as we otherwise could.
Nobody's wagging any fingers here. But chances are, in some of these survey results or in the real-life stories that accompany them, you'll recognize yourself or someone you love -- and you'll end up making a better money decision because of it.
That would be good. In fact, that would be the whole point.
Meet the fakers: Secrets we keep from others
Outside of marriage, most of us claim we don't lie about our money as much as we just keep quiet about it. In fact, these days people are just as uncomfortable talking about money as they are about sex: Half of the survey takers said they consider money a sensitive topic. Far fewer said the same about politics or religion.
While we may be shy about disclosing our financial situation, however, we're still intensely concerned about what others may think of it. About three out of every 10 people surveyed admit that they have misrepresented their professional or financial success to family or friends.
Consider Shayna, a young professional working in corporate communications in Los Angeles. "I work hard to present a certain image," says Shayna, who is paying off $12,000 in student loans and $30,000 in medical bills incurred when she was without health insurance three years ago.
"I pretend that I have less debt than I do, and I definitely spend more on clothes and entertainment than I can afford." She often picks up rounds of drinks for friends, making sure to specify, say, Grey Goose rather than the house vodka.
"My fear is that someone will find out my real financial position and think, 'She doesn't belong,'" says Shayna, who believes that most of her co-workers are better off than she is. "I worry they'll think, 'If she can't manage her finances, how can she manage her position?'"
There's a strong possibility, though, that many of Shayna's seemingly prosperous friends share her fears. Americans "often think their neighbors and friends have much more than they do and they're the ones living a sham," says Kathleen Gurney, CEO of Financial Psychology in Sarasota. "But there's a very good chance that their friends and neighbors are in the same situation."
Gurney advises Shayna to consider singling out a trusted member of her circle and confessing that she's having a hard time keeping up. She might be pleasantly surprised to find that her confidante shares the same feeling. Together they might be able to persuade at least some in their circle of friends to settle for a less high-priced lifestyle.
A quarter of those polled also admitted to lying to others for personal gain. Misleading the government was most common: Almost one out of 10 owned up to understating their income to the IRS, while 12 percent admitted that they'd inflated charitable contributions for a bigger tax deduction. Fewer people, though, fessed up to padding an expense report or to telling a prospective boss they earn more at their current job than they actually do.
Next: Secrets between spouses