Is It True That We Don’t Talk Honestly About Money With Our Partners?

A new study seems to indicate that we’re less than forthcoming, even within our relationships

“Do *you* guys talk about your 401(K)s?”

According to NerdWallet, a new survey purports to show that “Americans in a relationship seem to struggle with communication issues.”

A survey of more than 1,800 Americans in a relationship, defined as those who are married or living with a partner, found that savings inaction, failure to share financial specifics with their significant other, and reliance on overly conservative investments may be jeopardizing their chances of achieving a happily-ever-after retirement. …
Among the 36% of Americans in a relationship who report that their partner is saving for retirement, roughly one in five say they do not know how much their partner contributes to long-term retirement accounts (23%) or have even a general sense of the total value of their partner’s retirement account (21%).

In reporting on this story, Bloomberg goes with the ominous title of “Spouses Are Hiding Their Retirement Savings From Each Other,” and suggests that individuals in couples are not acting out of malice, only fear.

Couples are more likely to talk about the lifestyle side of retirement, and less likely to run calculations about what it might cost, said NerdWallet investment specialist Dayana Yochim. “They’re fearful of what the numbers will show them,” she said.

Let’s take a closer look at those numbers, though, shall we? Roughly one-third of Americans in a relationship say their partner is saving for retirement. Of those, one-fifth don’t know how much their partner is socking away. So, we’re concerned about the communication habits of 7.2% of the surveyed population?

The bigger problem is probably that only 1 in 3 coupled people think their partner is saving for retirement at all.

I’ve said this before: for many people, money, as a topic, is an almost magically toxic combination of boring and stressful. It’s no wonder folks shy away from it, even people in long-term relationships. Indeed, maybe people in a relationship have more of an incentive to clam up. If you’re an Ernie and your partner is a Bert, it’s natural not to want to feel judged on a matter that’s so sensitive and, at the same time, so important.

A lot of Ernies probably also want an opportunity to discuss finances, including retirement, without being shamed about their disorganization or their disinclination to think about this stuff. They just don’t know how to make that happen. That’s one of the reasons I think going to a financial advisor, or even a knowledgeable tax preparer, as a couple can be so useful. Take all your paperwork to a neutral third-party and have them help guide you: through what you are saving, individually and together; through what you could be doing to save more; through thinking about both the present and the future. Make sure your assets are properly titled in case of emergency, too.

But yeah, based on these survey results alone, I’m not ready to condemn American couples for bad communication when it comes to money. I do think that a lot of us — Ernies especially — could use a gentle prod in the direction of transparency, though, and even an Internet survey can serve that purpose.