It would seem that there’d be little difference between advising married couples and individuals. After all, husbands and wives come together out of a shared prospective on life. They think as one. Well, that may be true, unless the subject is money. That’s where men see themselves doing a lot more of the thinking.
That is, at least, one of the key conclusions of a recent study by the PNC Financial Services Group, which surveyed about 1,500 individuals nationwide. Fifty percent of the men surveyed said they were in charge of financial decisions, compared to only 12 percent of women who felt the same way. Not surprisingly, fewer men saw themselves as sharing the financial power at home. While 68 percent of the women said they were doing it, only 48 percent of the men said they were.
Men were also not as willing to give up the breadwinner role, according to the survey. While 83 percent of women surveyed thought both partners should contribute to the family’s well being, only 65 percent of men wanted both husband and wife working.
“There’s quite a gap between men and women’s perception about who controls the finances, who ought to contribute financially and the degree to which they share financial decision-making responsibilities,” says Bruce Bickel, managing director of PNC’s wealth-management division. “While the thought of discussing money may seem unromantic to most, the sooner a couple becomes responsible partners in their financial management, the sooner they will become more responsible providers.”
The consequences for not getting along on financial matters can be serious. Nearly a quarter of the respondents in the PNC survey said money was a very important factor in their divorce.
John Bodnar, president of Bodnar Financial Advisors in Florham Park, N.J., sees a role for financial advisors in helping couples work as equals on financial matters. He teaches financial planning as part of a local church’s Pre-Cana course (a course required of couples getting married within a Catholic Church).
“We decided to incorporate the financial planning of marriage to the Pre-Cana classes,” he says. “We teach couples how to go from independent to interdependent. That’s quite a trick for some folks, and the older you get married, the more difficult it becomes because you’re used to many years of independence.”
The challenge of sharing becomes more difficult later in a marriage when the issues become more complex, like buying a home, saving for college and planning for retirement.
“Couples bring in a lot of baggage when seeking financial advice,” says Marilyn Steinmetz, an advisor with Mutual Service Associates in Avon, Conn. “One is a spender, the other is a saver and you have to find a middle ground for them.”
Steinmetz points to a couple she was working with who wanted to buy a home. The husband came from a financially conservative family, she says, while the wife was indulged by her family while growing up and had a more difficult time with savings. Says Steinmetz: “If [the wife] wanted something, she bought it. And that wasn’t the right way to go if they wanted to buy a home. I used a visualization technique with her, and each time she took the credit card out, I told her to ask herself if the purchase was more important than the home. The answer was always ‘No, nothing is more important.’”
Steinmetz’s technique apparently helped because the couple was able to buy a home they could afford.
Louis Schwarz, president of Schwarz Financial Services in Bethesda, Md., says one of the challenges in advising couples is getting them together. “Today’s couples have too much time for work but not enough time for digesting what to do with their money,” he says. “Those with children have even less time to focus on financial planning.” But all couples need to work together, advisors agree, because the risk to the relationship is significant, and Bodnar, for one, thinks there is a role for advisors in helping couples stay together.
“The best talent to have is to be an aggressive listener,” he says. “Draw out comments from conversations in a nonconfrontational atmosphere and with a healthy dose of humor. Planning for someone’s financial future is very serious, but if you can’t laugh you’ll cry.” He stresses the importance of continuous communication with couples that need extra help. “A great financial planner is not just about the math and numbers. He’s part social worker, part marriage counselor and part psychologist.”