- By Kerry Hannon
Couples and money is a subject near and dear to my heart.
I’ve interviewed hundreds of women about everything from their investing habits to their fears of being penniless.
And, frankly, I’ve lived it. In my 22-year marriage with my husband, Cliff, we’ve had tearful squabbles over finances and happily spent money together for priceless, shared experiences such as walking along the heavy stones of The Great Wall of China.
So when I saw the new Money magazine blockbuster survey of more than 1,000 married adults about marriage and money, it grabbed my attention. I found the responses compelling, a little disturbing, but mostly hopeful. To hear Money’s take, I spoke with Diane Harris, its executive editor. (In full disclosure, I’m a contributing writer for Money, have known Harris for more than two decades and some Next Avenue content appears on Money.com.)
Money Fights Lessen With Age
One finding that came as no surprise to me: No matter how much a husband or wife earns, money remains the top cause of conflict for couples, with spending an acutely combative issue. In fact, 70 percent of married couples “argue about money — ahead of fights about household chores, togetherness, sex, snoring, and what’s for dinner,” according to the survey.
Now let me get to the hopeful news about boomer couples.
Overall, the survey said, boomer couples generally argue much less about money than couples in their 30s and 40s.
Specifically, while 80 percent of couples age 35 to 44 argue about money, only about 70 percent of those age 55 to 64 do. And fewer than 60 percent of couples over 65 have money tussles.
“My theory on this is that if money is going to be a problem, you work it out, or you split up,” Harris told me. “More boomer couples have been married for a longer time and have somehow managed to work it out.”
Another reason money battles may be less common with age: having kids in the house causes a lot of financial friction. “More boomer couples now no longer have children at home, so one of the big sources of tension goes — or it’s only on the occasional weekend,” Harris said, with a laugh.
(Incidentally, the Women and Financial Power survey by Ameriprise Financial released this week shows that boomer women have more confidence about financial matters than younger ones. An impressive 91 percent of boomer women surveyed said they feel it’s their responsibility to understand their financial situation, compared to 82 percent of Gen X and Gen Y Women.)
A Surprising Finding About Earnings
Harris and I were also encouraged to see the Money survey refute the conventional wisdom that money fights increase when women are significant contributors to the household income.
“We found quite the opposite,” said Harris. Spouses in households where women earn as much as, or more than, men were just as much in love as others. On a 1 to 5 scale, six in 10 of these couples gave their relationship a 5 (“very much in love”).
“You hear all of this stuff about when women earn as much or more it’s problematic. It hurts the fragile male ego. He feels emasculated,” said Harris. But, in reality, the men found it “liberating not to have all the financial pressure on their shoulders,” she noted.
But there's a hitch. Just because the high-earning women are in love with their husbands, that doesn’t mean they’re blissfully happy. In fact, they worry significantly more about money than their husbands do and pinpoint money as an area of tension in their relationship, according to the survey.
“Women are feeling a tremendous strain,” said Harris. Tackling the finances is “one more thing on working women’s to-do list when they already feel totally flat out.”
(MORE: The Retirement Talk Couples Need to Have — Now!)
A Profound Finding About Money Decisions
One finding that I felt was profound, if not astonishing: As women’s contribution to the household income grows, they take a much bigger role in financial management and decision-making. They become more involved, more confident and more knowledgeable about managing money, Harris noted. Arguments about frivolous spending lessen, because husbands don’t feel they have the right to question what their wives are paying for.
About 80 percent of the wives in Money’s survey who earn more than their husbands say they’re “very or extremely” knowledgeable about financial matters, compared with just over half of those who earn less. (The lower-earning women are three times as likely to say they know “very little” about money.)
The survey found that when a husband earns substantially more than a wife, he tends to make the big long-term financial decisions, including investing and retirement planning. But when women earn as much or more, those decisions are collaborative.
“Breadwinner women don't suddenly start making all of those decisions, and men take a back seat,” said Harris. “It’s that women drive a collaborative style. For us, it's ‘we do’ vs. ‘I do.’”
(MORE: Couples Disagree on Money and Retirement Plans)
I applaud that collaboration, because women and men tend to have different approaches to investing. Studies have shown that women are more apt to take their time and do a lot of research before making an investment decision, while men tend to trade more frequently and be more willing to swing for the fences. So a blend of the two styles can be a genuine checks-and-balances win for couples.
4 Tips to Avoid Money Fights
All that said, money fights are part of nearly any marriage. So here are my four top tips for wives to help prevent them:
1. Have your own bank account. I suggest keeping both a separate checking and savings account, but that’s not always right for every couple. You and your husband might agree on a monthly amount that you’ll each put into your separate accounts to be used at your discretion.
In our marriage, I manage my own retirement accounts and Cliff manages his. We also have investment accounts outside of our retirement funds that we jointly manage. It works for us.
2. Seek professional help. Meet with a fee-only financial planner to deal with any conflicting money goals once or twice a year. It’s good to have an objective, detached, knowledgeable third party to help keep your household’s finances on track.
Your adviser can help the two of you plan for the long-term and hold you both accountable for setting, and reaching, goals.
3. Talk to each other about money stresses. Set aside time each week for a freewheeling chat about how things are going for your jobs and your finances. Listen. Listen. Listen. Stay united. Emotional support is indispensable.
4. Finally, don’t be afraid to spend money on things you love to do together. Give yourselves permission to shell out for fun joint outings, whether it’s a weekly date night or a periodic trip — even a weekend getaway — for the two of you.
Oh, and leave the laptop at home.