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Why Couples Have Money Fights

You want to be a team when it comes to your money...but you're not. Here, a smart way to make some real progress.

Articles by MP Dunleavey
By MP Dunleavey Published Oct. 11, 2013
Published Oct. 11, 2013
3 min read
  • Most couples think they're in sync about money, but a new study shows they're not.

  • The fact that women lag behind men when it comes to money management is often mistakenly cited as a reason for this gap.

  • Couples need to recognize the massive shift in gender roles that's underway, and build on each person's strengths—instead of falling into default financial roles.

Yet another study about couples and their money has found (drrrrrum roll) that many people aren’t feelin’ the love when it comes to their finances.

Worse, couples seem deeply confused (or in denial) about their financial connection: A 2013 study from Fidelity Investments found that 81% of couples describe themselves as “one financial entity,” 92% as good financial communicators.

Yet 55% say they don’t make day-to-day decisions jointly, and only 28% are completely confident that either partner is ready to assume responsibility for their joint retirement finances, if necessary (i.e. 72% are not).

What’s responsible for such a strong perceptual gap, and how can we close it?

After all, this isn’t some trivial lack of compatibility, like disagreeing about who leaves the top off the toothpaste. Financial teamwork is crucial in order to minimize mistakes and maximize your assets (and end money fights).

Lives in transition

Like many previous studies, this one points to the fact that many women aren’t as involved in the family finances as they could be. Some 24% of women say they have the primary responsibility for the day-to-day finances, but only 19% say that about retirement planning. This is an increase over years past, but it’s still low.

So is the answer for couples to increase their communication around money and build up their confidence together so that both people feel included, empowered and on the same page?

Nah. That feel-good stuff…feels good, but it doesn’t get to the source of the disconnect, which is that we’re in a period of transition that may require a more pragmatic division of labor in order for couples to co-exist happily and succeed financially.

Divide and conquer

Long-term relationships are built on the strengths and weaknesses that each partner brings to the table (the bed, the grocery store, the laundry room). You’ve probably seen your share of imbalances, and you probably do make trade-offs that (one hopes) add to the smooth functioning of the family.

The trouble is, you and your mate may not always know how to conduct similar negotiations regarding money—because in most cultures (for centuries) money has been a male domain. Case in point: You know that women weren’t allowed to vote until about 100 years ago, but they didn’t get the right to have a credit card in their own names until 1974.

Now, suddenly (or at least in the last decade), women are making advances in education and earning power that have given them greater financial clout. According to the Census Bureau, more women are earning college and graduate degrees, compared to men, putting themselves on a higher-earning trajectory. But many women still don’t have commensurate financial management skills or confidence (this survey isn’t the only one to show that women’s confidence lags men’s).

Does this put women behind—or men in a stronger financial position? Not necessarily, as men’s responses to questions like the ones in this survey likely reflect the male tendency to express overconfidence in their abilities (a common flaw, especially in the financial realm).

Wearing new hats (or pants)

The truth is that many couples today are dealing with an uneven distribution of skills, some outdated perceptions, and gender role hangovers. In most surveys, like this recent one from Fidelity, women tend to identify as the chief household budgeters; men tend to identify as the long-term planners and investors—but those are also the default roles in many relationships.

But as men’s and women’s capabilities and interests shift, it’s essential for individual couples to identify which partner, really, is the best equipped to rein in the grocery budget or manage the 401k, rather than default to pre-existing conditions or belief systems.

Studies like this one imply that women are somehow not involved or are unwilling to be involved in money management—as if that’s the main hurdle preventing couples from making fully formed financial plans.

But the street goes both ways. These days it’s essential for both partners to expand their view of who can or should do what in order to enjoy the financial success you’ve always dreamed of—together.

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