I saw a cartoon some time back which showed a pie chart of a man’s brain. About 20% of the male brain is taken up with thoughts of work, another 20% goes to sports. There’s a small sliver for his car, and another for miscellaneous, leaving a full 60% that’s “preoccupied” (that’s the only word for it!) with sex.
It would be hard to render a similar cartoon for a woman. For one thing, we are notorious for multi-tasking, which is to say, we are able to think (and do) many things at once. Add up all the things we think about and tend to in a given day, and you get off-the-chart, superwoman numbers like 150% or 200%.
At the same time, we – like men – are often accused of having one-track minds. If they are guilty of thinking non-stop about sex, then our default setting would have to be on relationships, or if we are currently in one, THE Relationship.
Perhaps this is why love and money become so often a source of confusion and turmoil for us. When we’re quarreling about finances with our sweetie, there is often a subtext to our spats. He may be yelling about the overdrawn bank account – or perhaps you are doing the yelling – but in both cases, you are probably thinking he does not care about you or your feelings. In short, to a woman’s way of thinking, money troubles spell relationship troubles.
From here, it’s but a short step – which many women have taken – to identifying money with love. Having plenty of the first means having enough of the second. It is my firm conviction that “bag lady” fears, prevalent even among affluent women, are less about the possibility of running out of money than running out of love. What scares us most is that those shuffling, shapeless bag ladies are always alone.
Throughout most of history, women have had to rely on men for economic survival. We were responsible for making the meals and keeping the house, while men were responsible for providing them. Not all that long ago, women could not own assets in their own names: they were themselves the assets deeded to men via marriage, along with a few cows or linens thrown in for good measure.
Our economic environment has changed profoundly in the last forty years. Out of self-esteem as well as necessity, women have left the household cave in increasing numbers to club a few bison of their own. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, approximately 22% of women now outearn their spouses, up from 4% in 1970.
This economic upheaval – or progress, depending on your point of view – has further complicated the intersection between love and money for many of us. Now that we have jobs and minds of our own, should our money be separate, too? What happens if he’s good at managing the money, and we’d prefer to be doing something else? What about those lingering, comfy feelings we get when someone takes care of us?
Our responses to these questions can run the psychological gamut, indicating at one extreme that we are financially “codependent” on our partners, to being completely financially separate at the other. Here, from my perspective as a financial planner, is what these states often look like:
Sometimes my coupled women clients tell me that they work just fine with their significant others when it comes to money. A bit of probing often reveals, however, that this means that all financial control has been ceded to their partners. He not only handles the money, but does all the thinking about it, too. She calls this reliance “trust” which is fine, until it isn’t. A divorce, separation, or death can leave her financially, as well as emotionally, unmoored, not knowing where to turn or what to do.
Signs of unhealthy financial codependence can include:
- Not knowing how your assets are titled
- Having just a vague idea of what your net worth is, based primarily on what your partner tells you
- Spending just as long as it takes to sign your name on your joint tax return
- Asking your partner to find a financial advisor, and begging off some of the meetings with this advisor.
If a woman is working full-time, she likely has achieved some measure of financial independence, even if every bit of her salary is going into joint household accounts. This is because the benefits she acquires in the workplace – retirement plans, disability coverage, life insurance – will always be in her name only: they cannot, in other words, be titled with another individual. In the case of retirement plans, however, she may not have complete discretion about her choice of beneficiary; most non-IRA retirement plans require that a spouse be named as beneficiary, unless the spouse waives this right in writing.
Beyond this “automatic” separation of retirement assets and workplace benefits, a woman who has acquired assets before marriage may reasonably choose to keep these resources separate from her spouse, according her spouse the same independence with respect to his assets. For a woman who marries later in ife, or acquires stepchildren in the marriage, or has her own children from a previous union, this segregation of net worth is usually necessary to assure that her wealth is not transferred to the “wrong” beneficiaries, should she predecease her spouse.
It is possible, however, for a woman’s financial independence within a relationship to go too far. One instance is the private stash that a woman keeps hidden from her partner, when she is not actually planning to leave the relationship. There is, in fact, a new popular term for such secret stashes: “financial infidelity.”
Sometimes both partners take financial independence too far. I have worked with couples who attempt to maintain their financial autonomy by allocating every expense between them, usually based on a formula that reflects their unequal incomes. He makes twice as much as her, so he pays 2/3 of the mortgage from his checking account, while she writes a second check for 1/3 from hers. While logical and equitable, at least initially, this can result in tedious, not always friendly, end-of-month settlement sessions where money is being transferred between the spouses to settle the score. At tax time, they ask their accountant to prepare the tax returns as though they were filing singly and then use these calculations to determine what each is entitled to from the refund on their joint tax return. Perfectly fair, perhaps, but is the time and expense of keeping two books for the household really worth it?
Between codependence and complete independence lies a healthy balance, namely financial interdependence. This results when couples establish shared goals and priorities, before they think about dividing assets and expenses. Joint accounts are then established to fund these goals, and each partner contributes to these accounts, ideally in an equal amount, and not necessarily based on relative ability to pay.
The couple also acknowledges that an economic union does exist, and that there are material benefits to such a union, as opposed to a simple and easily dismantled “shared overhead” arrangement. Both partners financially rely on one another, while also recognizing that at any time, each must be prepared to be financially responsible for his or her own self.
There can also be room within this interdependence to allow differences in financial styles. She’s a saver, and he’s a spender? Once the joint goals and household expenses are paid, and there’s any money left over, then it may be time for the couple to divvy up the remains and go their separate ways. She gets to save, and he gets to spend, without having to check in with the other about the use of extra money.
As a relationship expert might say — and this financial advisor would concur — there is nothing like a measure of separateness to make hearts, as well as finances, grow stronger.
An earlier version of this article was posted on WomensMedia.com.