Personal finances and relationships can be a sticky issue to navigate. Whether you are married, dating, or considering moving in together, having “the money talk” is crucial to ensuring any long-term relationship’s future success. Yet many women tend to avoid the topic of money like the plague.
Studies have shown that women would rather talk about their weight, politics, and religion; or ask an adult child to move out rather than discuss finances with a significant other. A recent study by Merrill Lynch shows that 61% of women would rather talk about their death than have a conversation about money. So what is it that scares us so much about having these kinds of discussions with our loved ones?
For women, money tends to be an emotionally fraught topic. In many relationships, since women earn less than men (still!) and often take breaks from their careers to raise children, they don’t feel that they have the power in conversations about finances. Many may think that since they aren’t the ones bringing in the most cash, they don’t have a right to speak up about how it’s managed and spent. But that’s a fundamentally flawed approach.
Additionally, women are largely socialized to speak up less about things like money (and discouraged from pursuing careers in finance, science, and engineering) because it’s “impolite” or unfeminine, according to the Merrill Lynch report. A 2015 Fidelity report shows that while a majority (92%) of women want to learn more about finances, 80% say they avoid the topic because it is “too personal,” and they don’t feel confident discussing it.
Yet there’s no question that women will have to manage their finances on their own at some point in their lives. According to a 2018 MarketWatch story, 91% of women will be solely responsible for their money management, whether they choose to remain single, lose a spouse or loved one, or get divorced. It goes without saying that women must get a handle on both their own and their joint finances in order to be financially sound in the future.
Here are five crucial finance questions that every woman should know the answer to, whether she’s single, divorced, about to get married, or happily coupled.
What Feelings and Thoughts Are There About Money?
Managing money can be profoundly psychological. Money can represent power, stability (or instability), opportunity, status, and acceptance. Men and women approach finances from a different point of view, and many times the stereotypes we hear about those approaches largely hold true. Our psychological approach and feelings about money can significantly impact our behavior around finances.
Consider this: You may have been raised in a household where money was openly discussed and collaborated about. On the other hand, your spouse or partner may have come from a household where money was a source of arguments and fights. Their approach to the topic of finances will likely be colored by these experiences, potentially making them less open to discussing the topic and perhaps even a bit more secretive about how they manage their own accounts. It could also make them defensive about any questions you might have about finances because such questioning may be perceived as an attack on their money management skills or views. If you can recognize that you each have different approaches to financial questions, you can meet each other in the middle and manage your finances cooperatively, rather than making it a battle every time.
Being aware of your own feelings, biases, and issues around money and finances can be vital to unlocking discussions around money. Many of these issues can be profoundly psychological and take time to unwind and discuss. Have patience, both with yourself and with your loved ones, when it comes to identifying and discussing feelings around money.
If you live with or are in a relationship with someone who is more secretive and defensive about money than you are, you will need to broach the topic of finances in a compassionate and supportive way. We all have past traumas (and money can be triggering), so being kind to your loved one when discussing a difficult topic can make a world of difference in how you manage your money in the future.
What Our My Financial Goals?
Some people want to buy a house eventually. Some want to start a family. Some don’t mind carrying debt to make their dreams come true. Others actively shy away from taking on any debt and operate on a cash-only basis. It’s essential to get a grip on your goals and set up a plan to achieve those goals.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture regularly tracks the cost of having children, and it estimates that in 2020, the average middle-class family will spend approximately $12,980 per year, per child. That cost does not include the cost of college. By the time a child is age 17, the Department estimates that parents will spend roughly $233,610 per child.
Suppose you’re looking to buy a house currently (in the crazy new environment wrought by the pandemic). In that case, you’ll need to pony up around $300,000, according to recent numbers from the National Association of Realtors. And if you live in or near a major city like Los Angeles or New York, you should expect to spend $600,000 or more for an average home. Even though mortgage interest rates are low, you’re still going to have to find a way to save up 10 to 20% of the total cost of the house for a cash down payment.
It typically takes at least two earners to save that much money in this day and age, whether you are saving for kids or a home, and it takes a considerable amount of concerted effort and time. If one partner is spending while the other is saving, you’re running on a hamster wheel and will never get closer to your goal. That’s why it pays to identify each of your financial goals and start working on a plan of how to get there together. Then you need to agree that the plan works for both of you and start working toward those goals.
How Much Debt Is Okay?
Debt plays a significant role in finances, and it can do a lot of harm if it’s not managed well. As a woman, you must consider it vital to know how much debt you—and your partner, if you have one—are carrying and what you are doing to pay it off. Debt can significantly impact your ability to purchase various things like homes and cars and even get financing for your children’s schooling. If you are in a relationship, you should know how much debt your partner or spouse is carrying, as well as how much debt you are carrying and what the plan is for paying it off.
The general rule of thumb is to have as little debt as possible. According to Investopedia, you should spend no more than 36% of your income on servicing that debt. Of that, roughly 28% should be spent on housing.
If you or a spouse or partner is carrying student loan debt or business debt, be sure to include those in your debt calculations, too. These kinds of debt can be a bit more “sneaky” since they often predate or do not require your spouse or partner’s knowledge or cooperation to take on.
Debt matters a lot, and it’s something that women need to be aware of since it can impact them significantly if they go through a divorce or if their partner or spouse dies. Being surprised by additional hidden debt doesn’t make either of those taxing events any easier, so it’s best to be honest about the amount of debt both you and your spouse or partner are carrying.
How Much Money Is in Savings and Other Accounts?
If you’re talking about debt, it makes sense to also talk about cash on hand and holdings in other accounts. Do you know where your money is? What stocks and bonds do you and your partner hold? Where does your 401(k) or retirement fund stand? All of these are vital questions to consider when getting down to brass tacks about finances.
It’s essential to know which banks hold your savings and retirements accounts and know the account numbers so that should a crisis happen, you can access the cash you need to get through it. You should also be aware of how your money is allocated. Some avenues are riskier than others, and keeping an eye on how much risk you and your family are exposed to is crucial.
Learning about your partner’s retirement accounts and savings and sharing yours goes hand-in-hand with determining your financial goals as well. Perhaps you’re already at your goal of getting a down payment together for your first home. Maybe your partner has a bunch of cash stashed in a 401(k). The more you know about where your money is, what it is doing, and how you can access it, the better off you are.
How Do I Access the Accounts?
One of the main things that women, in particular, need to know when entering into any relationship is who to contact if something happens to their significant other. That means having account numbers, contact names, and access codes stored somewhere where both parties can access them.
This not only aids in transparency and trust, but it also helps should something go very wrong. If your partner or spouse passes away, and debts begin to pile up, you need to know how to pay them, who to pay them to, and where to get the cash from. Debt collectors don’t care what the circumstances are; they just want their money back—so protect yourself and your family by making sure you have a good understanding of where all the accounts live and who to contact if you need to get access to them.
Finally, it’s important to know that these aren’t questions that you ask once and set aside, as if you have checked that box. You must continue to have these conversations about finances with your partner or spouse on an ongoing basis (or consider them yourself if you are unattached). Goals, situations, and accounts can and do change with time, and they should evolve with your needs. Your kids grow up, and your priorities for saving change—or perhaps you decide you want to save for a big vacation or buy a vacation home elsewhere. If you can open the door with these five questions, you can begin to make headway toward your goals. with While finances can be a difficult topic to broach, having these discussions on an ongoing basis will ensure that you and your family are financially sound, safe, and healthy well into the future.