When Adrian Ward and his fiancée, Maren McLaughlin-Klotz, started house-hunting in Austin, Tex., they decided to overhaul how they talked about, and handled, money.
They shared their credit histories. They read and discussed the book “1,001 Questions to Ask Before You Get Married.” They began weekly budget chats and established a joint wedding fund. They even started meeting with Dr. Ward’s adviser to review their retirement accounts and made plans to return every year.
Dr. Ward, 32 and a marketing professor, had recently collaborated on research that showed what could happen when one partner in a couple is “pegged as the money person,” as he was. He was shocked to realize that his own research showed he and Ms. McLaughlin-Klotz, 31, were going about it all wrong.
Ms. McLaughlin-Klotz shared his concerns. “I know a lot of marriages have problems because of finances, and I would not want to set us up for failure,” she said.
The findings showed that what can begin as a practical solution — to have one person handle everything — can come at a cost to the uninvolved partner’s skills. The cost is especially steep when couples figure in the need for retirement planning, or even when one partner finds themselves alone, after a death or divorce.
The research, by Dr. Ward, of the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, and John G. Lynch, of the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado in Boulder, have found that people who took on more of the financial tasks acquired greater knowledge over time than their uninvolved partner, as measured by a 13-question financial literacy quiz.
“If you’re paying attention, you get better over time,” Dr. Lynch said.
One part of the research included a study of 86 participants, in which the researchers first assessed each person’s individual aptitude for financial and health care topics, then assigned partners and asked participants to read and remember as much information as they could during a five-minute period spent on the topics of finance (stocks, vehicle financing, life insurance and credit cards) and health care (heart health, the endocrine system, cancer and mental illness), according to the study.
After giving participants a three-minute break, the researchers measured each partner’s ability to remember details they had learned from their reading by completing as many partial statements as possible in five minutes. The results showed a tendency for partners to divide tasks according to who they believed had greater skills, and even those who started out with less knowledge acquired more when assigned the role of the “money person.”
“They’re totally missing that really they started in the same place, but by accepting these roles, you’re determining who has financial literacy,” Dr. Ward said.
A study sponsored by Fidelity Investments conducted in April tracked partners’ confidence in handling financial tasks when they were more involved and less involved — finding that couples who worked together had greater confidence about their financial future.
The company surveyed 1,662 couples across the country, with an average age of 52, who were either married or in a long-term committed relationship and living together. The respondents had either an annual household income of $75,000 or a minimum of $100,000 in assets to invest. When they were asked about their ability to assume full responsibility for their retirement finances and strategy, almost all — 93 percent of those who said they had primary responsibility and 87 percent with joint responsibility, said they felt confident in doing so.
By contrast, only 52 percent of the less involved partners expressed confidence in taking over the financial role. Notably, those who were not participating showed more unease when asked about “not being prepared financially if my significant other passes away first,” with 41 percent of the less involved respondents saying they were concerned, versus only 10 percent of those who said they had primary financial responsibility and 18 percent who said they handled tasks jointly.
Even a well-intentioned spouse can leave a partner feeling uncertain about her ability to make good choices alone — but worried and fearful at worst, especially if one is left in potential financial jeopardy.
Kathleen M. Rehl is a financial adviser and researcher in St. Petersburg, Fla., and the author of “Moving Forward on Your Own: A Financial Guidebook for Widows.” She recalled a newly widowed client who had gladly ceded the financial decision-making to her husband for years. The client was following a gut instinct in hiring her, Ms. Rehl said, and expressed it this way: “I never really understood that stuff that Jim did, but my tummy tells me it might be wrong.”
When Ms. Rehl looked at her client’s portfolio, she found 90 percent of the holdings were in international stocks — an aggressive risk profile for any investor, let alone a retiree in her 70s. Together, they developed a more balanced portfolio, composed of a blend of stock and bond index funds designed to weather market volatility. Even when they agreed to rejigger the investments, it proved hard for Ms. Rehl’s client to make such a big decision alone, even though she eventually followed through. “She said, ‘Stop, I can’t do it,’” Ms. Rehl said. “She said, ‘It’s like I’m slapping Jim in the face.’”
Facing major choices alone can be disorienting — even when a couple have prepared for it together.
When Liz Hobert, of Mount Dora, Fla., 68, and her husband, Bruce, were in their 50s, they wanted to make sure they both had a clear view of their finances — so they enrolled in a financial course held at a local community college.
“We came out not any better than we had been before,” Ms. Hobert said, describing a “mess” of six insurance policies and a collection of pensions and stock and bond accounts handled by different advisers. “We had all these pieces but we really didn’t know what we would have in retirement and wondered, ‘Are we ever going to be able to retire?’”
Working with Ms. Rehl, they consolidated accounts, started saving more aggressively, and set a goal of retiring in their 60s. When Mr. Hobert died five years ago, Ms. Hobert said she felt reassured when Ms. Rehl urged her not to worry about money or making any big decisions for six months based on the planning they had completed.
Even though Ms. McLaughlin-Klotz and Dr. Ward are years away from retirement, they have already started talking about the long term.
Now, he said, “There’s complete transparency” about their finances. “It would be easier for me to do everything, but the easiest thing isn’t necessarily the best thing.”
Ms. McLaughlin-Klotz said she was glad they are working on it, though she has also found it challenging. “It’s a really uncomfortable topic, but we talk about it all the time. I want to make sure I’m contributing so it was important for me that we had those conversations so I don’t feel left out.”
Sheryl Garrett, a certified financial planner in Eureka Springs, Ark., has tips for couples:
How can couples talk about money without fighting about it?
To begin, don’t start by talking dollars and cents. Instead, try to create a clear picture of long-term wishes. Each person can start by making a list of 30 goals, dividing them into three categories, called “I would love to,” “like to” and “it’s not that important.” They could range from the practical, such as saving for retirement or starting a family, to desires such as living overseas or studying a new language. (One of Ms. Garrett’s personal goals is to master conversational Mandarin — a skill she is still working on.) Next, swap lists and begin talking about how to create a plan together to make those ideas happen.
What concrete steps should we take every year?
Take stock of your financial situation annually by looking at each person’s net worth separately and the couple’s net worth together, Ms. Garrett said. Compare where you were a year ago and start thinking about what changes you want to make in the year ahead.
What ground rules should couples follow to help stay on track?
Set aside time — no more than 30 minutes — to talk about money at least once a month. Try to find a low-stress time, perhaps a weekend night, and involve everyone in the household — including children. Consider modeling how to work through the kinds of financial trade-offs you need to make as a family. For instance, would you rather have a lavish trip or go camping, allowing a lasting purchase like a trampoline, which everyone could enjoy on a regular basis? Commit to talking together with “no blame and no shame,” Ms. Garrett said.
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