Amid this festive holiday season, we all know that the routine of day-to-day life persists and that not everything is worry-free. Now that we’re planning the annual purchase of holiday gifts — often expensive ones — and approaching the end of another year, this may be just the time for retired couples to review the status of their financial relationship.
This is important to all married couples, of course, but often more so for seniors because most lived on fixed income sources such as annuities and Social Security. Older couples must have a good sense of the spending and investment habits of their spouse and, most important, how this fits into their overall personal finance picture.
This sounds reasonable but is often not the case and, frequently, leads to a troubling climax. The key personal finance manager and most monetarily astute spouse may die, for example, leaving the survivor in a challenging situation, especially if he or she has long left almost all financial chores to the former spouse.
If he or she isn’t good at numbers, will the surviving spouse be able to piece together a prudent and comprehensive budget – and also one not unreasonably stingy because of misplaced concern about the earning power of financial assets? How should he or she continue to invest non-annuity funds? What if he or she doesn’t like the financial advisor chosen by the other spouse?
Leaving Your Personal Finances to Others Can Mean Big Trouble
Forfeiting the duty of managing your finances because of lack of interest could be one of the biggest mistakes of your life. Your partner may not be as good at it as you think, and it’s always wiser to have a second set of eyes. The best way to know your spouse is good about money matters is to be relatively knowledgeable about the subject matter yourself and at least somewhat involved in household financial matters.
The fact is that despite women’s gains in education and pay, many wives are still abdicating financial decisions to their husbands. According to a recent UBS report, 56% of married women still leave investment decisions to their husbands. The figure among millennial women is even higher. This lack of investment know-how is particularly problematic because women tend to outlive men.
Older women (as well as younger women) should be aware of advice from Sheryl Sandberg, a prominent Facebook executive, billionaire, best-selling author and strong proponent of the belief that women should more aggressively pursue a financially successful life… Whether you like Sandberg or not, she has wisely said flat out that women should be extremely choosy in selecting a spouse and that desirable traits are not merely warm and fuzzy.
“I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is”, she has asserted.
Your Choice of Spouse – a Crucial Financial Decision
Sidestepping criticism that Sandberg is overly business oriented, the heart of her message is worthwhile for men, as well as women – your spouse has to be deeply supportive of your thoughts and decisions regarding finances and willing to meet you halfway. Your choice of a significant other, in short, is probably the most important money decision you will ever make — and all important financial decisions should be made mutually.
Many retired women, of course, have long taken a back seat to their husbands on financial matters and may not be in a position to act on this advice. But they can still be more assertive and take the trouble to learn whether their best financial interests are truly being served.
In a surprising number of cases, following this course of action can be critically important. A 2011 poll of more than 2,000 U.S. adults by Harris Interactive found that one in three married Americans who have combined their finances admitted lying to their spouses about money and another third said they had been deceived.
Schedule an Annual Financial Meeting with Your Spouse
Most often, financial conflicts between spouses are less severe and frequently can be resolved with open and loving communication. One good idea is to schedule at least an annual meeting at a nice restaurant over dinner for a yearly financial check-up, regardless of whether one spouse isn’t inclined to be overly engaged.
Another suggestion is to make a point of astutely handling a sticky financial situation that may arise. Bring up a touchy subject with care and love, not with an accusation. If, for instance, a husband spends too much on a sporty car to relive his youth and said nothing beforehand, gently underscore that you’re jointly out of budget for the year and the need for both of you to look at ways to get back on track. View yourself as a member of a financial team that needs to improve.
In addition, both spouses need to make a point of knowing some key personal finance data – again, even if one isn’t interested in the subject. Here is what each should know:
- The total net worth of husband and wife
- Each person’s credit score
- The number of months an emergency situation will carry you and your spouse
- How much debt you have compared to income
- How long it will take to pay off any debt you have
- Your risk tolerance for investing and the asset allocation of investments, and your comfort level with the current household investment strategy
Compiling this list entails some effort and may expose some information you wish was otherwise. If warts turn up, however, it is immeasurably better to know about them than to stay in the dark.
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