It’s no surprise that many people feel uncomfortable talking about money, but new research shows that the way that many of us divvy up the financial responsibility in our relationships might be putting us at risk. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that many couples tend to handle money on a “need to know” basis. That is, one partner takes on all of the responsibility and then the other doesn’t need to worry about it, so they never really think about it again.
Now, this isn’t saying that one partner makes all of the money—although in some cases, that will be true. But here we're talking about handling the money and the bulk of the financial responsibilities—organizing bills, budgeting, and so on.
While it might seem like common sense to have one person take on the financial responsibility—and maybe it even seems efficient—this “need to know” method creates larger problems, both for your finances and for your future. Here’s what the research found.
How We Decide Who Handles The Money
In a relationship, you would imagine that both people naturally gravitate towards what they're good at—one person takes on more DIY, one might be better at cooking, and someone money savvy handles the finances. Well, that's not what the research found. In fact, expertise had nothing to do with it—to a worrying degree.
According to lead researcher Adrian F. Ward of UT Austin’s McCombs School of Business, the person who tended to take responsibility for finances was the person “who hated it the least, and who was doing less other stuff for the relationship.” That’s a pretty worrying quote. It turns out, most people don’t like budgeting—which might not be a surprise—but the idea that the finances are just left to whoever isn’t doing anything else seems not very thought through.
I’m all for equal division of labor in a relationship, but finances are too important to be assigned apathetically or by default. If one of you is more disciplined, more numerate, or just better at budgeting, that should be the person leading the financial planning—it’s better for both of you in the long run.
If You Don’t Use It, You Lose It
Even though the more financially literate partner might want to take the lead in financial planning and budgeting, it shouldn't be a one-person job. One of the most interesting and important parts of this study was that financial literacy is like a muscle—if you don’t use it, you lose it. Though it's natural for couples to find a distribution of chores, financial literacy is important for everyone. But, if you get into a cycle where only one of you handles the money, you might not realize how that is affecting the other person over the months and years that follow.
“When relationship partners come to rely on each other in this way, they adopt specialized areas of responsibility that shape what each person knows, learns, and even notices,” the authors explained. So, over the years, you can completely lose touch with basic financial and budgeting skills that are essential.
This issue was compounded by the fact that it was normally the partner who was the least financially literate who would avoid taking on financial responsibilities in the first place, “In fact, we found that those who had offloaded more responsibility for more time— those who likely needed additional information the most—were the least likely to read it,” the authors said. So someone who was already in a more vulnerable position financially was likely to end up becoming more vulnerable over time.
With new data showing that nearly one in three Americans take on their partner’s debt—and that they can continue to hold onto that debt after the relationship breaks down—it’s more important than ever to be financially savvy and independent. Americans take on over $11,000 of their partner’s debt on average (and most of that happening through marriage), so it’s time to start understanding how to take the reins of your own finances.
Unfortunately, that can entail admitting that not all relationships last forever. The truth is, no matter how strong a relationship seems, many, if not most, relationships end—and you need to be prepared and independent if that happens. “One of the hard things here is getting people to acknowledge that maybe they won’t be able to rely on someone forever,” Ward said. “But forcing people to come to grips with that reality may change the way they interact with financial information.”
Not all relationships last forever—and you don’t want to be in a vulnerable position if yours breaks down. Not only that, financial dependence can keep women in toxic and even abusive relationships, so having a degree of independence and financial skills is so crucial.
The way you split up the chores and responsibilities in the household probably feels completely natural, but financial literacy is different to taking out the trash or doing the dishes—it's a skill we need to learn and keep practicing. So make sure you're both playing a role in the financial health of your relationship, both for your finances and for your future.