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Open Up Your Marriage (the Money Part, That Is)

What to do when only one spouse handles the finances


spinner image Illustration of man ironing money on ironing board and woman holding basket of money
One in seven married Americans don’t know how much debt their spouse has.
Liam Eisenberg

It’s almost a cliché among older married couples: After the death of the spouse who was managing the household finances, the survivor — often the wife — is left completely lost when it comes to money. What bills must be paid and when? Where are our investments? How do I access the accounts? In worst-case scenarios there can be nasty surprises, like missing cash and hidden debts.

But a knowledge gap can create problems well before then. Lack of joint input into financial matters can lead to poorly thought-out choices, along with stress and conflict once the consequences of those decisions become clear. Ignorance of marital assets can leave a spouse financially vulnerable in a divorce.

Unfortunately, these imbalances are all too common. Nearly a quarter of married Americans say one person manages all financial decisions and transactions in their household, reports financial services company Empower; one in seven married Americans don’t know how much debt their spouse has. Even among women who outearn their spouse, only half said they were very engaged in household financial decisions, according to a 2023 UBS study. There are a number of reasons why couples may grow apart when it comes to managing the household finances. Here are some of the most common and how couples can bridge the divide.

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How to address the division of labor

“You wash the clothes, and I’ll do the ironing.”

You know how in marriages one spouse tends to make dinner and the other washes the dishes? Over time, one becomes a skilled cook while the other can barely remember how to boil water. The same phenomenon occurs with money management. When couples divide up household duties, the one who handles the money gets more knowledgeable over time, while the one who doesn’t knows less and less, according to a study out of the University of Texas and the University of Colorado.

“If you’re driving down the street with your partner and you’re the one who’s in charge of retirement, you’re way more likely to notice the financial planning billboard,” says study coauthor Adrian F. Ward. “Your partner doesn’t have to worry about any of this stuff, which is awesome as long as you both stay alive the exact amount of time and you stay in love forever.”

Bridge the gap: Just as the family cook might assemble a notebook of recipes, the money manager could create a binder listing accounts, bills and advisers so that the less-involved partner can step in if necessary, Ward suggests. Another tactic is to have the less-involved partner manage the finances for a month or two, says Danielle Davis, founder of Money in Matrimony, an online community intended to help couples build financial intimacy. “By switching roles,” she says, they get “an opportunity to do a dry run understanding the system.”

 

How to handle a lack of confidence

“I’m no good at this money stuff!”

If one spouse believes they don’t know as much about money as their partner, they may think they’re unable to deal with household money matters. Nearly one-fourth of women surveyed by Bank of America in 2022 said they regretted not educating themselves more about money, and a third said a lack of knowledge held them back from investing. A lack of confidence can be exacerbated if a person has run up credit card debt or made financial mistakes in the past, says Michele Paiva, a finance therapist based in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.

Bridge the gap: In an ideal situation, the partner who has been in charge would be open to teaching the less-knowledgeable spouse about finances, says Lindsey Hoskins, a Bethesda, Maryland-based therapist who does couples financial counseling. “As a first step, have the uninvolved person just sit with the person who’s managing the money and watch them pay the bills, watch them balance the checking account, watch them put the money in the retirement account,” Hoskins says. “‘Every time I sit down and do anything with the money, I’m going to invite you to come and sit with me so you can start to understand how it works.’”

 

How to fix a lack of interest

“Boring!”

Some people have never managed money and have no interest in doing so. “I’ve had women tell me that their eyes kind of glaze over when their husband gets out the spreadsheet,” says Molly Ward, a financial planner at financial services company Equitable Advisors. Some women may have grown up with cultural norms such as their father being the one to manage the money; as a result, they never wanted to be involved with the finances, says Paiva.

Bridge the gap: Talking about money in the context of goal setting can make money management more engaging to the uninterested partner, says Ward. Find something money related the uninvolved spouse wants to do, whether it’s travel during retirement or move to a bigger house, and talk about the steps you two must take to get there. Maybe the uninvolved spouse can take charge of saving for that particular goal. Also, look for cautionary tales to encourage them to get more involved. For example, a parent or family member struggling with finances after divorce or the death of a partner could spark people into paying attention, Ward says: “They often think, I don’t want to be so clueless that I don’t even know how to get money out of the bank.

 

Need to Know

To avoid nasty surprises and other problems, both spouses should be familiar with all these elements of their financial life:

  • Bank accounts
  • Retirement accounts
  • Investments
  • Mortgages
  • Credit card balances
  • Other loans
  • Car titles, real estate and other assets
  • Wills and other estate planning documents
  • Insurance policies
  • Tax returns
  • Online account user names and passwords
  • Financial advisers

What to do with a desire for sole control

“Don’t worry, I got this.”

It isn’t always the less-knowledgeable spouse who’s the obstacle. Sometimes one person in the relationship doesn’t want the other to have any control or knowledge about the finances. This might stem from a desire to keep certain spending or destructive habits a secret. The motivation isn’t always that sinister, though. Maybe the spouse in charge of finances was lied to about money by an ex-partner, and the resulting distrust has spilled over into the current marriage. Or maybe that spouse just feels they’re the better person for the job. “I’ve had a lot of couples where one person is controlling the money and they will say to me, ‘But I’m keeping it safe,’ ” Paiva says. “You might be keeping things safe for the money, but you’re not keeping things safe for the relationship.”

Bridge the gap: If your spouse is hesitant to give up control of the finances, go slowly. Ask for a portion of the responsibilities to handle each month, suggests Hoskins, like paying some of the bills and keeping an eye on your bank account balances. Set a time limit for the experiment, such as three months, to give the controlling partner time to get comfortable with the idea that you can contribute. If your partner doesn’t want to share anything about the finances, that could be a red flag. “If your partner is trustworthy, they’re going to be transparent,” Paiva says.

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