Living with credit, Protecting yourself

When one spouse handles the bills, it can spell trouble

Kelly Dilworth

My husband and I divide our financial chores at home, but new research from the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that’s not a good thing.

When one spouse doesn’t know what the other is doing with bank accounts, insurance and retirement plans, it can cause problems down the line, the researchers note.

“People pay attention to what they need to know, when they need to know it,” study co-author Adrian Ward said in a news release.

That approach can work for a little while – at least as long as both partners are around. But it can have devastating consequences if one partner is lost to death or divorce.

What we don’t know can hurt us

If something were to happen to my husband, I’d be lost without him – not just personally, but also financially.

For example, I know we have a life insurance policy, but I don’t know where it’s from, or even how much it’s worth.

With retirement documents, my eyes glaze over, so I often ignore them.

What is our investment strategy? I don’t know, and I am uncertain whether we’ve made the best choices with the few stocks we own.

If I had to meet with a financial adviser, my knowledge of investing is so embarrassingly low I’d have a hard time assessing whether any of her advice was sound.

How we divide our chores (household and financial)

For as long as we’ve been married, my husband and I have mostly split up our household chores based on who has more time for certain tasks, and who’s better at completing them.

Since I work from home and have a more flexible schedule, I do most of the cooking, while my husband – a neatnik who, unlike me, actually cares about dishes piling up in the sink – does much of the cleaning.

We follow the same approach for our financial responsibilities: I have a lot of experience researching financial products and topics, so I’m usually the one who takes the time to answer big financial questions that we’re pondering or scope out loans or other products we’re thinking about opening.

But since I’m terrible at keeping track of paperwork and tend to zone out when dealing with financial topics I find boring, I usually leave those details to my husband.

He doesn’t mind keeping track of the finer points of our financial life – such as what’s actually in our retirement portfolios and when our semi-annual insurance payments are due.

He’s also more organized and reliable with paperwork and so handles most of the financial mail we receive.

The pluses of divide and conquer

This sharing of responsibilities has worked well for us and has kept our financial life running relatively smoothly.

Before marrying my husband, I used to routinely lose bills and other financial paperwork. And in the rare instances where I do take the lead on handling an important financial task, I frequently botch it by procrastinating or forgetting about it completely.

But as my husband and I settle into our household roles and our routines turn into lifelong habits, I’ve started to wonder about whether I’m making a mistake delegating so much of my financial life to someone else.

Many couples split their chores in a similar way.  Some couples will even designate one partner as the financially responsible one and have him or her handle 100 percent of the family finances, without any input from the other partner.

Since it cuts down on the number of discussions that need to be had, such an arrangement can help busy couples save valuable time.

When my husband and I split responsibilities, for example, we tend to have more downtime overall.  It may even lead to fewer disagreements since partners have fewer opportunities to squabble over how to handle money.

The minuses of not sharing financial information

As researchers for the Journal of Consumer Research study point out, though, people whose partners handle all or most of the family’s financial affairs often wind up reaching old age with a limited grasp of their finances.

Spouses who take a financial backseat in the relationship have a hard time making financial decisions and identifying their best options, the study authors wrote. They also tend to backslide in financial knowledge as they get older, making it even harder for them to catch up once they’re on their own.

As for me, I’ve always been confident I’d be able to bounce back financially if I I was suddenly on my own. But by ignoring certain financial details now, I’m making things unnecessarily difficult for my future self.

Maybe instead of dividing and conquering our financial issues, my husband and I should collaborate a bit more. That way we’ll each know a bit more of what the other is doing. That could help us both out down the road.

See related: Couples sharing finances? There are apps for that, 3 ways couples who live together can protect their finances

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