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Silent partners: the cost of financial apathy

In 67% of married couples, just one partner takes control of the finances, according to a poll by Money Saving Expert. 26% share the responsibility and 7% keep their finances mostly separate.

I’ve noticed this whenever I start working with a new couple. There’s usually one partner who takes the lead. 

They often dominate the conversation, even if both partners see themselves as equals in every other aspect of the relationship. They’ll set down their hopes and wishes for the future, while their partner often sits beside them nodding in agreement and occasionally gazing out of the window. 

Some people are happy letting their more organised or money-focused partner be the boss of the budget. They prefer to take a back seat and simply go with the flow. 

This may seem like a match made in heaven, but it can cause issues further down the line. 

“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

Over the years I’ve mastered the art of steering the conversation towards the more reticent partner. I need to know about their hopes and dreams too - even if the more talkative partner is convinced they want the same things. 

Sometimes their goals are genuinely aligned. Maybe they both want to sell their house on the edge of the city and move to the coast. 

Sometimes, though, it’s at this point that we realise they’re not quite on the same page.

“I do want to live by the beach,” the finance-phobic partner might say. “But I don’t want to sell the house and make such a huge commitment just yet.”

The more talkative partner might feel frustrated that they didn’t know this sooner, but if it’s discussed before I create their financial plan, we can often find a middle ground. 

Financial plans are flexible, of course, but it’s helpful to discuss all aspects of the plan and what it means to each person. 

Once the truth is out there, we can begin to work towards a future that both partners are happy with.

Managing other people’s money is a huge responsibility

I’ve had some clients whose partners won’t even talk about money, full stop. They certainly won’t meet with me. They might say to their partner: “That’s your thing!” Preferring to bury their head firmly in the sand. 

I think this places a tremendous burden on the shoulders of the ‘finance person’ in the relationship. 

Paying bills, managing the household budget, keeping track of subscriptions, comparing bank accounts online, and rebalancing portfolios can be demanding and draining. 

It takes time, research and large amounts of emotional energy to keep on top of these things, especially if you’re doing them alone. 

Not only can this be a problem in the present, but it can also cause even bigger issues in future. 

Let’s imagine one partner builds up a £500,000 pension or a large Finanal Salary income over the course of their working life. 

Their partner with little or no savings might say things like: “I’ll just work forever”. The problem with this is that the person who did all the saving can end up financially caring for the other person in the future. 

Suddenly, that half a million has to fund two people’s retirements rather than one. 

While it’s okay for one person to take the lead, your relationship and bank balance is likely to be stronger if you both get involved.

Financial apathy is expensive

In some relationships, financial apathy puts the partner who doesn’t engage at risk. 

Do they know where their money is going? Would they be protected if the relationship was to break down? Would they know where the money is if their partner was to pass away?

Martin Lewis calls this issue The Three Ds. He warns: “While it's easy management for one person to take on the financial tasks, it can hurt more than help. Never mind the fact that two brains are better than one, the key question to ask is what if one of the three Ds occurred – death, divorce or dementia. The fact one partner can't deal with the finances could lead to financial misery for them on top of the grief.”

This is an issue we’re eager to help our clients tackle. As a client of Barnaby Cecil, you’ll get access to Barnaby Cecil The App which includes a document store. 

If one partner passes away, all the important documents will be saved in one place.  

So whether the surviving partner is financially engaged or not, they don’t need to waste time rifling through folders and drawers looking for the information they need. It’s all saved digitally for them. 

How to make money management equal

You can’t solve problems like the ones I’ve described overnight. But you can solve most problems with a plan and 10 years. Money problems never go away. They compound. 

You can do it together or you can get a financial planner to help.

The first step needs to be acknowledgement. The partner who doesn’t usually engage needs to understand why it’s a problem. Once you’ve done that, you can start asking questions about the future, such as:

  • How much do we need to retire?
  • How long will our funds last when we retire? 
  • Where do we want to retire? 

Next, you need to agree on a time and space where you’ll discuss finances in future. Do you want to arrange a fortnightly meeting at the kitchen table, or would you rather dream about your financial future on a weekend hike?

Once you’ve got a financial plan in place, you may be surprised at how much calmer you feel about money. A new client said recently at the end of our WealthMap programme: “This is nothing like I was expecting. I thought I wouldn’t understand any of it and I’d just switch off.” 

Money is intricately linked to our lives and apathy towards something so important simply isn’t fair. It takes teamwork to get to the right decisions around money. 

So keep things simple and work together. Each of us has an amount of money and an amount of time left in this world. How are you both going to spend yours?

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