Is Your Partner Wrecking Your Financial Literacy?

How relationship roles shape a lifetime of money know-how for better — or for worse.

Based on the research of Adrian Ward

When two people start a household together, there may not be a lot of deliberation the day one of them takes the initiative to pay that first utility bill, hunt for a lower-interest credit card, or study up on investment options.

But maybe there should be, say researchers at The University of Texas at Austin and the University of Colorado-Boulder. A paper recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research showed that, by quietly shouldering financial responsibility — or by quietly delegating it — partners unwittingly set themselves on divergent paths: one partner embracing and growing in financial knowledge over time, while the other partner’s financial ability and interest stagnates.

On a Need-to-Know Basis

“We argue that people pay attention to what they think they need to know, when they think they need to know it,” said lead researcher Adrian F. Ward of UT Austin’s McCombs School of Business, who launched the study to help explain why so many adults lack money know-how.

Indeed, people are often ignorant about the most basic money facts, such as the effects of compound interest and inflation, or how long it will take to pay off a debt. Worse, studies show that financial education interventions do not work. Ward and his colleague wanted to know why.

“We were thinking about this problem, and it just dawned on us that no one wants to know about money,” Ward says. “It’s difficult, there’s a high learning curve, there’s high stakes when you’re making these decisions. So we thought, people aren’t going to learn about money unless they think they need to know about money.”

For couples, this critical “need to know” hinges on how partners lean on each other, Ward said. “One of the things that shapes our need to know is whether or not we can rely on other people around us to make those decisions for us.”

But surely, that partner who started paying the bills was the one most capable or qualified to bear the financial load, right? Think again.

Financial Aptitude Does Not Predict Who Takes on the Job

When the researchers surveyed dating and married couples who had been together between one month and 49 years, they learned that couples often start the relationship path on equal footing, and that differences in experience, expertise, or aptitude for the task do not predict who takes on financial responsibility and becomes the “household CFO.”

Said Ward: “We find that relationship partners start in the same space, but over time their trajectories diverge.”

If prior knowledge didn’t predict who got the job of household CFO, Ward and his colleague wanted to know what did. So in a survey focused on new-relationship couples, they learned that the role is bestowed upon the one “who hated it the least, and who was doing less other stuff for the relationship,” Ward said. “So if one partner is already spending more time on laundry or yardwork or other shared tasks, the other is more likely to get responsibility for money.”

To delve deeper, the researchers presented new couples with false feedback about their partner’s knowledge in two domains: finance and health. Those who believed their partner was savvy on health but bad with money were much more likely to learn and retain new information about money — even if they felt insecure about it themselves.

“No one person can know everything — and no one person needs to, if they can rely on a relationship partner to fill in the gaps in their knowledge,” Ward said. “We see people relying on each other because that’s the really efficient, smart way to get through life.”

He illustrates the point with the hypothetical couple, several years into the relationship: reading the morning paper together, one flips to the sports page, the other to the business section. Shopping for a new car together, one haggles for a better interest rate, while the other drills the salesperson about safety ratings.

As this tendency to take up each other’s slack persists over time, it causes changes in the individuals in a relationship:

“When relationship partners come to rely on each other in this way, they adopt specialized areas of responsibility that shape what each person knows, learns, and even notices.”

The impact of such specialization increases the longer a couple stays together, the study found. A partner who completes financial tasks gets better and better at handling money over time, while partners with very low financial responsibility do not — and some may actually decline in financial literacy over the years.

Not a problem, as long as the relationship stays intact. But Ward and his colleague wondered what would happen in the event of a break-up or widowhood. What if the partner who had ridden shotgun for years suddenly had to take the driver’s seat?

The Partner Who Doesn’t Do the Finances Can End Up Vulnerable

In their final study, the researchers asked partners individually to complete financial decision-making tasks like choosing an auto loan or a medium-term investment fund. Not surprisingly, the more financially responsible partner won out. However, there was a startling nuance: The less responsible partner fared poorly even when given the chance to read expert information before making the decisions.

“In fact, we found that those who had offloaded more responsibility for more time — those who likely needed additional information the most — were the least likely to read it.” The findings suggest that even if these partners hire expert help after a split, they may lack the know-how to discern good financial advice from bad.

So what does this research mean for that partner who has been delegating financial responsibility for years? “One of the hard things here is getting people to acknowledge that maybe they won’t be able to rely on someone forever,” Ward said. “But forcing people to come to grips with that reality may change the way they interact with financial information.”

As for the new couple starting out, Ward advises against the default route of quietly assigning financial responsibility. “I think it’s important just to sit down and actually think about who should get the job and, for the person who doesn’t get the job, how involved they should be,” Ward said.

“Based on this research, it’s important to consider how what we do for our partner shapes who our partner becomes.”

“On a Need-to-Know Basis: How the Distribution of Responsibility Between Couples Shapes Financial Literacy and Financial Outcomes” was published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Story by Judie Kinonen