Why It’s Crucial Women Understand Their Family’s Finances

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Being in the know about your household spending, savings, and investments is key—even if you’re married.

As the pay gap narrows and women continue to make gains in higher education, there’s one substantial disparity that still remains: According to a recent survey, more than one-third of coupled women are, to some degree, financially dependent on their partners.

Though financial advisors warn against that uneven economic arrangement, this division of money in relationships stubbornly persists. That’s partly because our culture still tends to view men as the primary breadwinners, even as women contribute a growing share of the household income. Because of that, more men remain in the driver’s seat when it comes to steering a family’s finances, says Stacy Francis, the head of Francis Financial, a firm geared toward guiding women through divorce or losing a spouse. 

This economic inequity can put women in a dangerous position. Whether because of a separation, becoming widowed, or just deciding never to marry, 8 in 10 women will be solely responsible for their finances at some point in their lives, Barron’s reports. That’s why getting up to speed now on your household finances — even if that doesn’t mean bringing home a paycheck — is a “must for women,” Francis says. 

It’s not just older women: Millennials are more likely to leave investment decisions up to their husbands than older generations.

Many of Francis’ clients come to her with a limited understanding of their monetary situation, no clear sense of all their assets and liabilities, and oftentimes with little financial literacy. Some have nasty financial surprises in store, like investments their spouses may have made without their knowledge. Others feel just plain intimidated by the prospect of having to manage their money after sometimes decades of being left out of the loop. (And it’s not just older women: One study found that Millennials are more likely to leave investment decisions up to their husbands than older generations.) 

It’s crucial that there’s transparency about money in romantic relationships. In fact, Francis has found that when couples are open and work together on their finances, that effort goes a long way toward strengthening their overall connection.

“Whoever’s in charge of those finances is probably feeling more stress and strain now than they have since 2008. Being able to share that responsibility really brings couples even closer,” she says. 

It’s also important that women feel secure in their financial know-how, because chances are, they’re going to have to take the reins when it comes to household spending and saving sooner or later. The average age of a widow in the U.S. is 59 years old, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And with the average American woman living to approximately 79, that means a great deal of them will live decades without their partners, and will need to sort out retirement, medical insurance, and long-term care on their own.

How you can take a more active role in your finances

Francis suggests approaching financial literacy the same way you’d approach becoming stronger or more physically fit: “You’re not gonna go out and try to run a marathon on your first day,” she says. “You want to start slow and build up to it.” 

If you’re starting from zero, begin leafing through some educational resources. The SEC has a simple online guide to investing, the Financial Literacy and Education Commission offers a bunch of useful primers on a wide range of topics, and Francis has a podcast specifically for women going through divorce. Then start tracking your own spending with an easy-to-use app like mint, talk to your partner about all your assets and liabilities (from your mortgage to your brokerage accounts). Then, Francis says, it’s time to take a role in investing. 

If you have a financial advisor, make sure you’re sitting in on those meetings with your spouse. And Francis says that if you feel like “your voice isn’t being heard or feel uncomfortable asking questions, that’s a really good sign that maybe that advisor isn’t the right one for you.”

Lastly, she recommends putting a financial “date night” on the calendar once a month, in which you and your partner go over what you’re both spending, discuss planning for big purchases, and strategize about how to reach your savings goals. That’s something that Francis and her husband do, and she says it “helped save our marriage.” 

“I believe it helped us get on the same page,” she explains. “That didn’t mean we always agreed, but we were able to find compromises, which made me feel safe and secure  — and allowed him to have the freedom and flexibility that he needed around money, too.”