Why couples fight about money

Why couples fight about money
Talking about money doesn’t have to be tense.
Credit: Getty Images

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.

That may not be surprising, given how often most couples squabble over money. But a new study from Fidelity Investments points to a more baffling gap between partners.

* On the one hand, 81% of couples describe themselves as “one financial entity” and 92% say they’re good financial communicators.

* Yet 55% of couples admit that 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 (that would be 72% who aren’t so sure).

But rather than read these survey results as more details on couple’s money fights, I think this survey reveals a deeper contradiction that many couples never address.

Divide and conquer

For years now, women have been making advances in education and earning power that are giving them greater economic clout. According to the Census Bureau, more women are earning college and graduate degrees, compared to men, putting themselves on a higher-earning trajectory. One recent study found that women were the primary earners in 40% of households.

Yet many women still don’t have money management skills or confidence, and they’re often not as financially involved at home: Some 24% of women in this survey say they have the primary responsibility for the day-to-day finances, but only 19% say that about retirement planning.

Does this make women a liability—or put men in a smarter, stronger financial position? Not all, as men’s responses likely reflect the male tendency to express overconfidence in their abilities (a common flaw, especially in the financial realm).

Wearing new hats (or pants)

Here’s the real problem: Although clearly most couples want to be united on the money front, the reality is that most of us are dealing with an uneven distribution of skills, outdated perceptions, and gender role hangovers. In most surveys, as in this one, women tend to identify themselves as the chief household budgeters; men tend to identify as the long-term planners and investors. (The Fidelity survey didn’t explore same-sex partnerships.)

But these are simply the default roles for many couples when it comes to money.

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. That’s a more open-minded, flexible starting point for making successful financial plans—together.

 


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