How money comes between couples: Q&A with Kathleen Burns Kingsbury

Kathleen Burns Kingsbury

Kathleen Burns Kingsbury

Money can be a very tough topic for couples. A recent Fidelity Investments survey found that 51% of working couples argue about money, and 38% never resolve their differences. More than one third don’t both know where their important household financial and legal papers are located; four in 10 working couples disagree about the lifestyle they expect to lead in retirement.

For Kathleen Burns Kingsbury, this is terra cognita. An expert on wealth and psychology, she’s the author of How to Give Financial Advice to Couples: Essential Skills for Balancing High-Net-Worth Clients’ Needs (McGraw-Hill, 2013). I spoke with her recently about the financial-planning challenges facing couples and some of the biggest myths about money and gender.

Question: When a financial advisor works on financial plans for married couples, how much of the focus is on money, and how much is on attitudes and values?

Kingsbury: There are a couple of different challenges. We live in a society where talking about money is taboo, even with your significant other. Couples will avoid having financial conversations because they bring on conflict. Many of us were raised to not talk about money, even with loved ones. That gets in the way of developing a plan, and it gets in the way of honest communication.

Half of first marriages end in divorce, and one of the key issues people always raise is financial conflict. I wrote my book because it’s time for us to do something different–and I think we’re ready to do that.

Q: Do women approach money and planning in a way that is fundamentally different than men?

How to Give Financial Advice to CouplesA: Four out of 10 women are the primary breadwinners in their households now, and we’re moving closer to 50-50. We assume that means women will act like men when it comes to planning, but women still tend to be more collaborative with money management. This speaks to the fact that women are socialized differently than men. It will be interesting to see if there’s a change in that approach as women shoulder even more of the income-generating burden in households.

Q: You have a fascinating chapter in your book on myths, money, and couples. Let’s talk about a few of them, starting with “love conquers all.”

A: We’re told that if you absolutely love someone, that conquers all. But you can love someone and be very different financially. That’s not necessarily bad, but if you can’t work it through, that causes conflict and split-ups. Moving to mature love is learning how to negotiate, talk, and manage together.

Q: Another myth: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

A: Saying “I’m sorry” when there’s a disagreement is really important as a way to forgive and move on. A great gift you can give your partner, if you get upset with something he or she has done with money, is to be able to look at why it was so upsetting for you, given your own history with money. Couples can talk this through themselves, or an advisor can help them to understand it. Why is it that a couple has the same fight over and over about what car to buy? Maybe it’s not the $30,000 price tag, but how each of them grew up–in one person’s family, a car was something important, and in the other it wasn’t.

Q: How about “Happily married couples are open and honest about money.”

A: A very high percentage of spouses actually lie about purchases they’ve made, or hide them. Forty-three percent of women hide accessory and clothing purchases; men tend to hide music and liquor.

Q: And: “Couples should always agree about money.”

A: First, that almost never happens. And there are some real benefits in having different perspectives about money. Perhaps one spouse is more of a saver and the other more a spender; if you respect the differences, you can learn from one another and draw on one another’s strengths. Over time, you can find some middle ground, where maybe one loosens up and the other learns to save more.

Q: “Women need to be rescued financially.”

A: Even some women buy in to the idea that we need to be rescued financially–we bide our time, have a career, do whatever we need to do to get by, and Prince Charming will save us. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t trust your partner, but you never know what will happen. Divorce or premature death can leave a woman in the driver’s seat unexpectedly. Women are more economically powerful than ever before. We’re creating businesses at twice the national rate, and we inherit 70% of the nation’s wealth. But many of us have ambivalence about financial power.

Q: “Men are savvy; women are naive.”

A: The common assumption is that guys have it together financially and women don’t. What ends up happening is men are socialized to not show weakness. They may not understand something, but they’re not socialized to ask questions because they think it will make them seem vulnerable.

Q: Are there particular inflection points in life where it’s critical for couples to communicate about money?

A: There are opportunities at every life stage. When couples get engaged and are living together, that’s a great starting point–an opportunity to talk not only about how you want to share your lives together, but how to live well financially. Estate planning is another important issue, and unfortunately most couples don’t do it soon enough. The great opportunity is to have the conversation well before you think you will need it. A crisis is not the best time for making financial decisions.