March 18, 2019
Earlier this month, the New York Times highlighted a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research that shines further light on a problem many couples face: how to distribute responsibility for finances. The study’s author discovered that when couples divide money management unequally, the person taking a less active role is putting themselves in a financial literacy disadvantage over time. And because numerous surveys have found that most couples fall into this habit, I thought it was worth talking about this morning.
While such a division of labor may seem convenient, it comes at a cost. The authors of the study found that “people generally develop expertise on a 'need to know' basis—they pay attention to what they think they need to know, when they think they need to know it—and that the need to know is at least partly determined by one’s social relationships.” Simply put, when one partner is the money person, that person continues to grow and hone their financial literacy. At the same time, the other person doesn’t develop and maintain the same degree of knowledge about their household financial management. This results in a financial literacy – and financial confidence – gap that grows over time.
A Fidelity survey supports this finding. Among respondents who were married or in a long-term committed relationship, 93% of those who said they had primary financial responsibility in their household said they were confident managing money, while just 52% of the less involved partners said they would be confident doing so.
They do, Tom. As I mentioned, over half of respondents in numerous surveys reported deferring to their better half when it comes to money. And women are more likely to step back from managing long-term household financial decisions – retirement accounts, mortgages, and insurance – even as we tend to be responsible for day-to-day purchases. A UBS survey last year found that 56% of married women leave key financial decisions to their husband. Given that women have a longer life expectancy than men, this is especially problematic. And among younger generations, the trend is actually getting worse! The same UBS survey found that 61% of Millennial women reported leaving financial decisions to their partner compared with just over half (54%) of women from older generations.
One of the best ways to ensure you are both engaged in your joint finances is to have a shared financial plan that outlines your long-term vision. Discussing what you want to prioritize – buying a house, your retirement, your children’s education – and putting it on paper incentivizes each of you to be invested in achieving these goals. You should also develop a joint budget each year that is benchmarked to this plan. Second, set aside time each month to review your shared financial accounts and assets, and make any necessary adjustments or decisions jointly. If you have shared goals and financial responsibilities, you will both have more peace of mind.
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