The stakes are high; emotions run higher. How do today's couples deal with romance and finance? Our exclusive survey shows there's common ground, but also striking and surprising differences between husbands and wives.
WHEN KRISTEN GRICE married Mike Denzinger two years ago, she knew she had a risk-taker on her hands. Her 49-year-old husband loves racing Superkarts, small, go-cart-like vehicles that are capable of reaching 165 miles per hour-and terrifying a risk-averse spouse. "To call them carts is the height of ridiculousness," says Kristen, 43. "You can die racing them."
Kristen, an estate-planning attorney in Atlanta, spends most of her free time training dogs for the disabled through a nonprofit called Canine Assistants. She also leads her daughter's Girl Scout troop and has dabbled in horseback riding, but she's not sure it's safe enough. "I'm not absolutely, completely in control when I'm on the back of this 1,500-pound animal."
What neither of the Denzingers realized was how much their disparate hobbies and risk-tolerance levels would become an emotional divide they'd have to bridge in their married life. When it comes to investing, for example, Kristen favors low-risk mutual funds and cash, and she's insured to the hilt: She had a long-term care policy when she was just 38. Mike prefers to take what he calls "calculated risks." A financial planner at a major regional bank, and a former commodities trader, he favors owning individual, growth-oriented stocks.
They do have one financial fact in common: They're both big spenders. Mike lavishes much of his free cash on racing, while Kristen writes checks at the drop of a hat for a number of charities. "I stressed about her spending as much as she did about mine," Mike says of the early stages of their marriage. Kristen recalls: "I was always in a really crummy mood. . . . I felt we were financially adrift."
Finally, Kristen remembers, "I did something really silly and typically female. I had an emotional breakdown with tears and gnashing of teeth. I was saying, 'Please, please, can we do something?'" Mike, too, was concerned about their overspending, so the couple began seeing financial planner Robert Hockett, whom Kristen calls their "financial mediator." "It was obvious that we could not resolve this," Kristen says. "There was just too much emotion on both sides."
In early meetings they took on the issue of how they'd leave money to their kids Mike's sons are 18 and 22, while Kristen's daughter is 10. Since then they've worked toward a spending budget they can both live with, and they have agreed to keep risk-averse Kristen's portfolio weighted in bonds and cash while higher-flying Mike's is mostly in equities. "I'm just happy we were able to find Rob before financial differences made the marriage irretrievably broken," says Kristen. "When you're dealing with two Type A personalities who are used to being in charge of both kids and financial situations, it's a long row to hoe."
Love and money. It's quite a combo, fraught with emotion and charged with complications in any marriage. Though financial flare-ups aren't the top reason for divorce, as is commonly believed that dubious award goes to communication problems, says the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers it's still one of the leading factors that tear us apart. That's why we partnered with Redbook magazine, another Hearst publication (SmartMoney is jointly owned by that company and Dow Jones) to survey 1,016 married or cohabiting adults on money and marriage. Once we had our results, we reinterviewed couples from the survey in depth, along with more than a dozen other couples across the country. We also talked to psychologists, marriage and family therapists, financial planners and researchers who study money and behavior to put our results into context.
We wanted to find out just how today's couples are handling the loaded dynamic of romance and finance. We also wanted to see if men and women are really any different when it comes to money matters, as gender stereotypes would have us believe.
What did we find? To begin with, plenty of similarities and common ground. For example, not having enough money saved for retirement was the No. 1 financial fear that kept both men and women up at night. (Men, however, fear losing their jobs and making bad investments significantly more than women do.) While husbands and wives reported surprisingly little outright discord, there were still plenty of surprises and significant differences. For one, the risk-taking men were roughly 30% more likely to pay off their credit cards every month than were the supposedly prudent women. And of course, we had to find out just what role money plays in the bedroom. Think it doesn't? Read on.
FIRST, THE HAPPILY
ever after. When it comes to many of the important, big-picture financial issues in our marriages, Mars and Venus are meeting on planet Earth. Both men and women ranked their biggest financial goals in exactly the same order, with paying down debt and saving for retirement taking the top two spots. Both sexes were feeling pretty good about their progress toward meeting those goals: 73% of men and 69% of women felt they were on track. And more than 85% of both women and men agreed they wouldn't love their spouse any more, thank you very much, if he or she made more money.
We must have enough in common to enable us to manage our money together: The majority of both male and female respondents (64%) maintained joint bank accounts, with just 14% keeping everything in separate accounts and another 18% using both.
Communication about money seems downright rampant. More than 70% of both sexes reported talking about money with their spouse on at least a weekly basis. Of course, not all of that talking is necessarily of a factual nature. Thirty-six percent of men and 40% of women admitted that they had lied to their spouse about what something they bought had cost. (We thought $49 for Prada shoes sounded awfully cheap.)
In a shocking show of solidarity, 67% of men and 58% of women said money was rarely or never a source of fights in their relationship. Why so few fights, you may ask? After all, you know how it shakes down in your home office after the kids have gone to bed, with one partner shaking his or her fist at the Quicken screen on the computer while the other pores over the checkbook, head in hand. Victoria Collins, a financial planner in Irvine, Calif., who also has a doctorate in psychology, thinks the marital harmony shown by our study, which was done in May, could be the result of a recently improved economic outlook. "People might not want to admit it, but there were a lot of difficult financial discussions and people sleeping alone last year, no matter what they say," she says. In other words, they might not quite be telling the whole truth and nothing but. "You have to keep in mind selective memory."
When our respondents actually did fess up to fighting, what was the biggest cause? Spending and more spending. In order, our respondents admitted to fighting most about debt (37%), followed by spousal spending and then their own purchases. Some classic gender roles endure here: Men still overwhelmingly make the final spending decisions about cars and investments, while women have the last word on major appliances and buying things for the kids.
Spending on children was a common source of conflict; more so than investments or saving for retirement. Several experts we spoke with said that is especially true of blended families: While money can break the first marriage, kids are often the biggest problem in the second. "There's a whole tradition of parenting and spending from the first marriage you have to deal with," says Olivia Mellan, a Washington, D.C.-based psychotherapist and coach who counsels couples on money issues. "Unless you sit down and talk about these issues beforehand, it creates a lot of tension."
You don't have to tell that to Mike and Susan Finley. The suburban Minneapolis couple, married for three years, have four kids in their 20s, two each from previous marriages. One recent sore point involved Mike's son, who's 27, asking his dad for a third of the cost of a used car. "My irritant was, he's 27 and he hasn't saved enough money for a used car," recalls Susan, 54. "I said, 'When are you going to stop paying a third and a third and a third of everything?'"
Mike, who's also 54 and a manager at a private utility company, lent his son the $2,100 from his own savings account, without getting Susan's approval, confident his son would pay it back. "I think it's appropriate to help your children get established, because if you don't, in the long term, you'll be paying for them forever." Rebutting Susan's analysis, he says: "It's not about softness. It's about practicality."
The Finleys chalk up some of their differences to the fact that Susan's kids have an inheritance from her first husband and so have more of their own resources. But they've agreed to talk to each other first about big expenses on the kids, even if the money comes from their separate accounts. Now, says Susan, "We resolve it pretty quickly. Mike's calmer than I am he's the voice of reason. Somebody has to be."
IF SPENDING IS such a lightning rod for financial fights, who's throwing all that money around? Although you may have your own preconceived notion of which sex is the spender women with all those shoes, say, or men with their high-tech toys our survey didn't find much of a gender divide there. We asked our respondents to classify themselves as a "spender," a "saver" or a "worrier," and fairly similar numbers of men and women described themselves as "spenders" and "savers." Far more women than men, however, claimed to be "worriers" a full 45% of women, versus just 27% of men.
Annette Borsack counts herself among the worriers. The 38-year-old mom and part-time nutrition consultant in Carlsbad, Calif., handles all the finances in her family paying the bills, for example, and starting 529 plans for their two-year-old son and newborn daughter. Her husband, Bill, a personal trainer and co-owner of a health club, on the other hand, is an unrepentant spender, frequently buying expensive fitness equipment, including the $400 surfboard and $1,100 mountain bike he hardly uses.
"He says [he worries] every once in a while, like when we had the baby on the way, but he doesn't really look at the budget, he doesn't have a clue what's in the bank," says Annette. She wonders, despite his hesitancy to get involved in their fiscal fitness, if he worries more than he lets on. "Maybe he is more concerned and that's why he won't discuss it."
But Bill, 41, says no, he simply doesn't worry: "If we were going to go broke, obviously, I'd take it a lot more seriously."
Maybe it's semantics. Men do worry about money, says Collins, they just have a different name for it. "They might say they stress about money, or that it creates anxiety. But they wouldn't say they worry, because that's seen as a female phenomenon," she says. Still, it's understandable why women worry more, says Candace Bahr, a San Diego-based financial planner and cofounder of the nonprofit Women's Institute for Financial Education: "Men tend to earn more than women, and they tend to dominate in the financial decision making. What's left to do but worry when you don't have control?"
Control, after all, is the quiet culprit lurking behind many, if not most, marriage and money issues. "When a couple has any problem, it's because of a power imbalance," says Donna Laikind, a marriage and family therapist who counsels couples on money issues in New York and Connecticut. She asks each spouse how much they earn as one way to give her a quick study of the couple's larger marital power imbalances. "Money is not seen as the commodity that it should be," she says. "It's fraught with layers and layers of meaning."
That could explain why our survey showed that a number of power issues break down along gender lines. Two-thirds of male respondents earned more than their partners, so it's not surprising that 32% of men reported they have more say in financial situations, compared with just 22% of women. And men in almost every age and income group were more likely to say the higher earner should have more say when it comes to spending.
Money and power definitely play out in the Borsacks' relationship, says Annette. Bill came into the marriage with sizable assets from the sale of a family business. When she asks her husband to help around the house, "he says, 'You are so spoiled; you've never had it so good,'" according to Annette. "He's insinuating that because I married somebody that has some money, I have no right to complain any further or ask for any more." Bill also earns a lot more; after one particular argument when she was anxious about his spending, Annette says Bill retorted, "Well, then you go out and make the money!" Bill admits he has said that in the heat of an argument, but he firmly denies thinking his money gives him power over Annette. "What is mine is hers," he says.
Sound like something you've heard before? It may be a holdover from traditional marriages, sure, but it's one that probably remains, spoken or unspoken, in more relationships than their partners would be willing to admit. But that doesn't mean women are financial pushovers. In our survey, women were slightly more likely than men to say they "win" financial spats. And power is the very reason, Laikind says, that 14% of women, versus just 5% of men, admitted they've withheld sex after a financial fight. "If the guy has the power to withhold money," says Laikind, "well, she's got something else she can withhold."
CONFLICT ASIDE, men and women in our survey showed some markedly different views on finances and contrasting styles of money management. Forty-one percent of men paid off their credit card bill each month, while only 32% of women did the same. Men said they turned most to magazines, newspapers and Web sites for financial advice, while women named friends and relatives in addition to a mysterious "other" most often as their trusted source. One hypothetical transaction in our survey elicited responses from the two sexes that show very different values: Two-thirds of women said they'd rather their spouse or partner give them a gift certificate for $500 than a night of "hot sex." The men in our survey answered exactly the opposite.
But the most striking gender difference in our survey as Mike and Kristen Denzinger can attest had to do with risk tolerance. When we asked our survey respondents which spouse is more willing to take risks, 62% of men said they were more willing than their partners to take risks, while only 19% of women asserted the same thing. But does that really mean that women are fundamentally risk-averse or more fearful? Brooke Harrington, a sociologist at Brown University who studies risk behaviors of men and women in investment clubs, says that risk has to be understood in the differing contexts of men's and women's lives. "Women live longer, drop out of the job market more than men, get less Social Security and are often responsible for taking care of children. If you look at their stock investments out of context, it appears men are risk takers. . . . But you could argue women take more demographic risks than men do, so the total amount of risk is about equal."
And women's financial conservatism may be fading. In a study of recently released data from the Federal Reserve, researchers at Colorado State University found that women are actually slightly more likely to have their 401(k) plans invested mostly in stocks (as opposed to fixed-income investments, which are seen as lower-risk) than men. In 2001 the 401(k)s of 56% of women aged 55 to 62 were weighted mostly in stocks, while just 41% of men in that age group were mostly in equities.
In the end, though, marriages have their own unique DNA, financial and otherwise. Most don't fit neatly into the classic stereotypes or their opposites. Like the women in the Fed data, Nancy King of Anchorage holds most of her portfolio in equities. The University of Alaska education instructor, 65, does exhaustive analysis of each of the companies she buys, sticking mostly to blue-chip stocks such as Wal-Mart, General Electric and Microsoft. She's also an officer in a national association of investment clubs.
But despite her affinity for individual stocks, Nancy says she's actually the conservative spouse. Her husband, Lowell, a semiretired IT supervisor, likes trading options on volatile stocks. Mostly he sells covered calls, betting the price of a stock he owns won't rise above a set "strike" price. How do these two impossibly different investing styles meet? Easily. Sort of. Their second-marriage solution is that, except for a couple of small joint accounts to cover house expenses, everything is kept separate, especially investments. When they deplete their budget for the house accounts in any given month, Nancy puts a sign on the refrigerator last month's read, "He who buys, pays" to let Lowell know all spending going forward has to come from their individual accounts.
The separate-but-equal policy helps them avoid money fights. "For a long time we couldn't even discuss [investing] because the philosophies were so different," says Nancy. She didn't voice any objections to Lowell's sophisticated trading, she says, but "there were gasps or facial expressions that would be telling." Now they share a few tips here and there but, for the most part, invest totally ignorant of the other's holdings. "That's the only way it would work," says Lowell, 65. "We've been married now 26 years, and 90% of that is that we've separated finances entirely." When it comes to love and money, to each his own. Or, of course, her own.