Couples and Money: Who Decides?

Stereotypical gender roles continue to influence today’s households

by Richard M. Ina, AAMS

Mr. Ina is Senior Vice President – Wealth Management, for UBS Financial Services Inc. He has been appointed to the UBS FA Advisory Council, a select group of 14 advisors chosen to represent all of the 7,000 UBS Advisors in the United States. The council focuses on helping to shape the firm’s wealth management strategies to the Executive Committee. Accredited Asset Management Specialist™ and AAMS® are registered service marks of the College for Financial Planning®. Connect with him by e-mail: Visit

When it comes to money, the choices couples have to make are not as simple as deciding what they should spend it on – in fact, choices regarding money are many times as complex as the decision-making process itself.

Typically, there are two types of wealth management decisions couples regularly make: financial decisions and investment decisions. Financial decisions comprise such tasks as managing daily expenses and paying bills, whereas portfolio management and long-term planning fall under investment decisions. While investing is inherently risker and financial planning “safer,” they are ultimately both strategic decisions with their own set of consequences.

UBS Wealth Management America found that in our latest quarterly Investor Watch report  these responsibilities are often divided down stereotypical gender lines, with men primarily handling investments (50%) and long-term planning (41%), and women handling day-to-day expenses (31%) and charitable donations (25%). However, couples frequently share responsibility for family funds when the decision is more significant, such as with real estate (74%), large purchases (73%), estate planning (63%) and college funding (51%).

This same principle applies to betting on the market: no matter what type of relationship, men and women have very different views on investing. Women tend to be more conservative and hold more cash than men and often invest to achieve specific financial goals (29%). More than half of men on the other hand, endeavor to track or beat the market when investing and typically have higher risk tolerances. As a result, men more often want their cash invested immediately (51%), whereas women would rather save for the future or pay down debt (44%). This disparity in responsibilities is alarming because investing is paramount to future financial security, and with women on the sidelines, they are less likely to fare as well if they were involved in investment process.

Investor Watch report also found that wealth decision-making affects investors’ confidence, their level of satisfaction [in life] and the health of their relationship. There are many ways to do it, but finding a balance between money and marriage is without question one of the most important decisions couples can make.

Not All Couples are Created Equal

There are four general ways that couples make decisions about money:

  • The man decides
  • The woman decides
  • Man and woman are equal partners
  •  Man and woman have separate accounts

No particular dynamic is “right,” per se, but knowing which category a couple falls into may help advisors better understand their priorities and how to engage them.

Male-dominated relationships represent the most common type between couples (40%), with men controlling a vast majority of money-related decisions. In this dynamic, men are the primary breadwinners, are both happy and satisfied with their roles in the couple, and meet with their financial advisor much more frequently (79%) than compared to other couple dynamics.  Given this situation, women in these relationships are content with men controlling family finances; at least until retirement rolls along. Because they are not involved in the decision-making process and because women are more likely to outlive their spouses, they become considerably more concerned about their financial security.

Typically, there are two types of wealth management decisions couples regularly make: financial decisions and investment decisions

Approximately one quarter of couples share all financial decisions equally. These couples – most often Baby Boomers – are more open to compromise, and tend to rely on their financial advisors for advice (as opposed to using them as a sounding board). When investing, responsibility-sharing couples are more likely to seek out guaranteed returns or track progress towards goals than other couples. As a result of these dynamics, they are the happiest and most satisfied type of couple.  In fact, Investor Watch found that equal-partnership couples tend to have the fewest financial concerns and argue significantly less regarding financial matters.

Women being the primary decision-makers make up only a small portion of couples (16%), but with this dynamic, these women often carry a heavier burden than in other relationships. These women must take on a flurry of financial decisions – from day-to-day expenses to insurance and investments – in addition to their daily jobs and household responsibilities. As such, they are generally less satisfied with their roles.  Their risk tolerances are more aggressive and their investment approach is akin to men in primary decision-making roles.

A similarly small group of couples (16%) keep their finances separate, maintaining individual bank accounts and/or investment portfolios, and frequently make many, but not all, financial decisions independent of one another. Oftentimes couples do not marry their finances when they marry each other because they have different risk tolerances or ideas concerning how their money should be spent.  However, doing so does not mean that they fight less – on the contrary, of all couples, those that separate finances fight most often about money. Separate decision-makers – typically younger couples, same-sex couples or those on their second or third marriages – are also many times the most dissatisfied with their financial roles.

LGBT couples also fall most often in the category of couples maintaining separate finances, but they are more aggressive, optimistic and active investors. The maintaining of separate accounts [even after marriage] is in part due to habit, but it is also because each half of an LGBT couple often wants to use their own risk tolerance. They are involved investors, making decisions about buying or selling investments more frequently (62%) than other couples (39%), and are also more likely to want to beat the market (33%) than other investors (15%). While it is true that LGBT couples typically hold more cash than heterosexual couples (28% vs. 25%), they are more likely to be doing so while seeking out investment opportunities.

Regarding saving for the future, one key sticking point among couples is deciding what to do about retirement. As a result of their differing risk tolerances and priorities, spouses tend to disagree on what to do or how much to spend. Retired women in male-led couples most frequently fight with their spouses on this front; due in part to the changing perceptions of retirement.  As we found in a previous Investor Watch, investors don’t feel “old” until their 80s – almost 20 years longer than previous generations thought; a significant notion considering retirement can last as long as 30 years.

Given all this information, what this tells advisors is that each half of a couple has different priorities and perspectives when it comes to wealth management, and that each should be considered when advising couples on their financial goals.

What to Do

The most important thing for advisors to remember when advising couples is that each relationship is unique, and within that, each person is different. As a result, it is critical that advisors dive deeper into couples’ wants and needs – focusing on the terms of planning and investing for the future. The best way to accomplish this is to engage both husband and wife, appreciating their individuality and helping them map out a plan for a long future together.