Your love life might be hurting your wallet. Recent research found that if financial literacy levels are unequal between you and your partner, that disparity will only grow as you age, causing irreparable damage to your personal finances.
Recent research from the University of Texas at Austin found that two people involved in a relationship often display a big disparity in financial literacy levels, a difference which only grows as the couple matures.
How does it work in practice? Couples often divvy up joint responsibilities for managing their lives. For example, one partner might do more housework and the other might balance the checkbook and do the investing. That helps lower individual burdens, but you can quickly see how the partner not in charge of the money can quickly fall out of touch with their joint finances.
The study was launched to develop a better understanding of why Americans struggle with basic, yet essential, financial concepts and why financial education alone often isn’t enough to solve the problem.
“We argue that people pay attention to what they need to know, when they need to know it,” said lead researcher Adrian F. Ward of UT Austin’s McCombs School of Business.
The study contained other fascinating observations, including the dangers to those who take on low financial responsibility.
The disparity in financial know-how between partners can be miniscule or nonexistent at first, but the gap widens at the beginning of a relationship, when couples often assign one person the role of “household CFO.” Unwittingly, this decision sets the pair on diverging paths, as one person grows in financial knowledge over time and the other’s monetary ability and interest decays.
This can cause significant problems in the unfortunate event of a separation or widowhood, when the partner who previously abstained from financial responsibility is thrust into the driver’s seat. Frequently, that person struggles to make financial decisions or even to financially educate themselves independently.
(Even more frequently, it’s women who often outlive their spouses or partners and have no idea how to pick up the financial reins.)
“We interpret our findings to say that the assignment of financial responsibility causes the two members of the couple to go on different trajectories for a lifetime,” Ward said. “The longer the relationship, the greater the gap in financial literacy between the household CFO and the non-CFO.”
But an important takeaway from the study was that couples usually begin these paths with an equal level of knowledge, and the person who takes on financial responsibility has no greater expertise or aptitude than the one who doesn’t. The imbalance only grows with time and in households where one partner takes on a much larger share of the tasks.
So, when thinking about how to manage joint finances, make sure both partners have an equal stake in the decision-making process and focus on improving their financial knowledge together. Otherwise, one person could be left paying the price — and scratching their head while they do.