In most relationships there is a partner who controls the financial matters. This person pays the bills, keeps the financial records, and may even oversee the family investments.
In many cases this situation is both natural and productive. The more analytical or detail-oriented person normally should be in charge of cash flow and record keeping. Some people have a knack for these things.
The less financially-oriented partner can certainly be a man, but more often than not it’s a woman. Some women have ideas with respect to money that are false and worth dispelling:
- I’ll marry Prince Charming and live happily ever after.
- Women are not capable of understanding financial issues.
- I’m not good at math, so finances are too complicated for me.
- He makes the most money, so it’s none of my business.
However, since 95% of women will at some point in their lives be responsible for their finances, either by divorce or death, they need to communicate with their partners.
Problems often arise when couples fail to communicate. The person who pays the bills and who is responsible for cash flow in the household may begin to feel like the yoke of financial responsibility is always on his shoulders. If a problem arises, if money gets short, or if some necessity can’t be afforded, then this partner feels he has to solve the problem alone. He doesn’t normally look to his spouse as someone who can help. He often sees his mate as inept when it comes to managing money, so he bears the burden all by himself.
The financially-oriented partner can also get hooked into a parent-child relationship with his spouse. The person who pays the bills all the time knows what the family can and cannot afford. The other partner doesn’t understand the financial situation and so continues to ask for things. Can we go on this vacation? Can we buy this new couch? Can we go out to dinner? The financially-oriented spouse is frequently cast in the role of having to say no. He can end up feeling like the “bad guy,” the parent. The other person may feel like a child being deprived.
Most often, these roles are not discussed openly. The respective partners just fall into their roles and life goes on. This may or may not work, given the particular relationship. However, the lack of open communication can have serious consequences for the financially-passive partner if she suddenly finds herself alone—as in the case of death or divorce. She is left with all the financial responsibilities, and not a clue as to how to handle them. This partner may not know what insurance policies are in effect, or how to provide direction to an investment advisor, or what bills need to be paid. It is difficult enough to deal with the loss of a loved one. The last thing a widowed or divorced person needs is to have to figure out all the finances, too.
One solution is to have an outside person ready to step in and help the financially naive partner. Some of my clients have arranged for me to step in and assist if such a situation occurs. Cheryl and Tim are one such couple. Tim knows everything about the finances and has kept all the records over the years. Financial decision making does not come naturally to Cheryl, and she knows nothing about their money situation. Tim provides all the family income, while Cheryl is the homemaker and has raised the children. The couple is in their fifties, and Tim has already had one heart attack. They have agreed that if he dies, they want me to step in and assist Cheryl in understanding what to do— and to set up financial structures she can operate within.
Even if you can’t see yourself in this position anytime soon, it is advisable to prepare ahead. Set up a third party to step in and help in case the less financially skilled partner finds himself or herself alone and in need of help.