In a 1953 film, three young women in New York City come up with a business plan to insure their financial futures. They sublease a swanky apartment and begin hosting and attending glitzy parties as a way to move into wealthier circles than they’re used to. Their goal is to gain financial security, and their business plan is “How to Marry a Millionaire.”
This blatant approach to wealth-building seems as old-fashioned today as the evening gowns worn in the movie by Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable, and Marilyn Monroe. (The movie is vague on the subject of how three young women with so little money could afford such elegant clothes; but this was Hollywood, after all.)
Yet, despite all the changes our society has undergone in the 50 years since this film was made, the expectation that a husband should and will take care of his wife financially is still unexpectedly alive and well. A survey I cited in a recent column showed that 74% of women would forego marrying for love if the man was rich.
In my practice, I also encounter a surprising number of women who haven’t considered it necessary to plan for their own financial futures. They may have full-time jobs, earn professional salaries, and be fully capable of taking care of themselves. Yet, when it comes to saving for the future, they still rely on their husbands’ earnings, retirement plans, and investment decisions.
This is not a good idea. The financial security provided by a spouse’s income and savings can be an illusion. One of the most common threats to that security, unfortunately, is divorce. Even in the most solid and healthy relationships, though, it’s never wise for one spouse to rely solely on the other when it comes to providing for the financial future. Job layoffs, serious long-term illnesses, and premature death are all very real possibilities that can threaten a couple’s financial security.
I am not suggesting that wives should run out and open separate savings accounts that they keep secret from their husbands. Nor am I necessarily recommending that spouses should keep their finances separate or manage their money individually rather than jointly. That may be a workable option for some couples, but it certainly isn’t necessary or even desirable for many others.
Ideally, marriage is a partnership of equals. One important aspect of such a partnership is working together financially. This is true even if one spouse is not employed outside the home, or if one spouse earns significantly more than the other.
Paying bills and managing money on a day-to-day basis is only one small piece of a couple’s financial teamwork. It is also important that both partners take responsibility for the bigger picture when it comes to finances. This includes being informed about and involved in decisions such as investing for the future and estate planning.
I’ve encountered women who believed that insisting on knowing more about the family finances would imply that they didn’t trust their husbands or respect their judgment. But sharing the responsibility for taking care of oneself financially isn’t about trust, it’s about common sense.
In a perfect world, all couples would live happily ever after and grow old together—with, of course, plenty of financial resources. In the real world, there are many reasons why this doesn’t always happen. Ironically, couples who act as full partners financially not only provide more wisely for their individual futures. They also increase the chances of enjoying the future together.
Valentine’s Day is this week. If you want to do something romantic with your spouse to celebrate, you might consider getting a nice, matched set of his-and-her IRA’s.