Men, women...and money
Think you know what your spouse wants when it comes to money? Better read this.
By Pat Regnier and Amanda Gengler

NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) - When it comes to getting through to each other about money, spouses have some work to do.

That's the finding of MONEY Magazine's nationwide survey of 1,000 spouses -- 500 husbands and 500 wives -- conducted for MONEY by Mathew Greenwald & Associates.

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The survey results show that men and women may not exactly be from different planets, but many still operate in distinct financial orbits. For all our supposed financial sophistication and equality, the vast majority of married couples still divide the family's financial labors along traditional lines, with women handling everyday spending and budgeting decisions while men plan and invest for long-term security.

Almost all of our respondents admitted that money is a cause of tension in their marriage. Seven in 10 actually owned up to arguing about it -- in fact, money causes more fights than sex or even in-laws. In the poll's most eye-opening findings, men and women had dramatically different ideas about who does what with the family finances, and what their partners care about.

Husbands were especially clueless, tending to underestimate how much women care about almost every financial issue, from investing and saving for retirement to paying off debt. A hundred years after Freud, and men still don't know what women want.

What spouses think their partners think about money is not what they really think

The gap between the financial issues that people care about most and what their spouses think they hold important may not be the Grand Canyon. But some couples will need an awfully big bridge to get across it.

For instance, our survey found that only 27% of men believe their wives think having the right investments is very important. Yet nearly half of women say they do care (approximately the same proportion as men).

Likewise, only 45% of men say that having cash stashed for emergencies is very important to their spouse vs. 67% of women who believe it's crucial.

Women come much closer in gauging what matters to men. If anything, they tend to give guys too much credit, believing their husbands care more about paying off debt and saving for big purchases than men actually do.

When asked about their family's income, both men and women say they earn more than their spouses believe they make, according to a study by Jay Zagorsky, a research scientist at Ohio State University. Overall, Zagorsky found, the typical husband says his household earns 5% more and is 10% wealthier than the wife says, while the wife reports that the family owes about $500 more than her husband says.

When women step-up...and when they don't

Working wives now contribute more than a third of the typical family's income; in a third of married households, they're the bigger breadwinner. As a woman's contribution to her family's income grows, so does her financial involvement, studies suggest.

In our survey, nearly four in 10 women in households where the wife is the primary earner say they take the lead in investing. That's twice as many as in families where wives earn less.

Numerous surveys support the notion that women don't feel as confident about their financial abilities as men do. For example, a survey by Merrill Lynch found that 47% of women (vs. 30% of men) feel they are not knowledgeable about investing. Women also say they are far less comfortable taking financial risks than men: Only 31% of the wives in our survey label themselves the couple's bigger risk-taker with money vs. 66% of men.

What's going on here? It's not that women are just risk-averse wimps. They face some serious financial challenges that men typically don't.

One's pretty obvious: They still tend to make less money than men (about 77 on the dollar). What's more, University of Washington economist Shelly Lundberg notes that women have to contend with other economic risks, like possibly having to care for their kids without a spouse's help. That's a bigger threat to women than to men since they typically live longer and fare worse financially in a divorce.

But women don't just yield the reins of financial power to their husbands; sometimes men reach out and grab them. Being a breadwinner -- even if you're not the only one -- is an important part of male identity.

Managing money to provide for your family's future feels like a natural extension of that role. But the male urge to display competence with money may run deeper than that. It may actually be a good way to get a mate. University of Texas psychologist David Buss has found that, across cultures worldwide, women value "good financial prospects" more highly in a potential partner than men do.

Despite all these differences, there is some good news: The problem appears to be one of perception, rather than a difference of opinion about goals.

In the end, our survey found, what husbands wanted and what wives wanted was pretty much the same; they just didn't realize it. Whatever they say in Hollywood, most great romances aren't a case of opposites attracting. In real life, we get married to people who share our goals: a family, a home, a secure future enjoying each other's company.

And those are the things any good money conversation should really be about.

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