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The Nonfinancial Spouse: Financial Planning for Couples Who Delegate
• Joe Buhrmann • January 18, 2024
The “divide and conquer” strategy for household tasks is a popular one among couples. But when it comes to money, it has serious downsides. Research shows that the uninvolved partner’s financial literacy suffers, and after a divorce or death of their spouse, the surviving spouse is more likely to encounter negative surprises about their financial situation.1
A recent study shows only 38 percent of couples interact with their advisor together.2 Nearly 22 percent of women, in particular, say they have little to no involvement in retirement or long-term financial planning.2 And though new research shows surviving spouses are less likely to change financial advisors than previously thought, with 85 percent choosing to stay, your chances of retaining that spouse over the long term increase when you have built a relationship with them.3
Another reason to prioritize communicating with the nonfinancial spouse? A primary concern of older financial decision-makers is that their surviving spouses will struggle with financial management tasks. For a financial planner, assuring clients there will be support in these situations can be a differentiator, especially in winning over prospective clients.
Here, we explore some practical ways to engage a spouse who, due to financial illiteracy, a money-avoidant personality, or some other reason, regularly skips out on financial planning.
Simplify the Financial Landscape
When clients have one partner who is “hands off” when it comes to finances, sometimes the best thing to do is to simplify and streamline their financial situation.
I encountered this situation with one of my clients. He was extremely financially savvy and had a wife who was a delegator when it came to finances. The way they were set up, they were in for a hodgepodge of required minimum distributions to juggle with a confusing tangle of accounts. I brought up the topic of consolidating accounts like this: “Is this a decision you want to make now, or a decision you want Brenda to have to make later?”
“You’re saying that because she’s likely to outlive me,” the client said.
“You said that, not me. But how do you feel about simplifying things and streamlining the decisions you’ll need to make over the coming years?”
Once you have consolidation tackled, consider simplifying other aspects of advice delivery. Shorter, more frequent meetings might be in order, with one or two recommendations at a time (not 22). Avoid using complex financial jargon and focus on explaining the concepts in clear, simple language. Providing a client service calendar can also help the “hands off” spouse pick the meetings they’re more interested in attending, and showcase the value you’re providing throughout the year—not just when you’re sitting down with the client.
Making engagement simpler is just the first step in helping the uninvolved spouse over the long term, but one of the most important.
Empower Them with a Client Portal
Easy access to your full financial picture online has tangible benefits for clients, including increasing financial confidence. Our 2023 research shows that highly engaged client portal users showed elevated levels of trust, loyalty, and satisfaction.4
Be sure to invite both spouses to use the client portal, not just the financially savvy spouse. When the delegator can actually “see” what’s going on with their finances, you’ve set them up for success.
Convincing the uninvolved spouse to make a habit of checking in on their finances is a big milestone. Now, they can start to appreciate the ups and downs of the market, their cash flow, and how the pieces of their financial life fit together.
Customizing the portal to reflect the clients’ goals, such as adding a photo of their favored university to symbolize a 529 account, can also make financial goals more tangible. Another couple I worked with used a photo of the Eiffel Tower in the portal to connect with their goal of saving for a big vacation celebrating an anniversary. This type of personalization in a client portal can make an impact.
Have Them Take on a Financial Decision or Task
There’s truth in the phrase “use it or lose it.” With a 13-question financial literacy quiz as a yardstick, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Colorado found that people who took on more of the household’s financial tasks built more knowledge over time than the nonfinancial partner.5
When there is a financial decision to be discussed at a review meeting, make sure to emphasize that both partners are invited and encouraged to participate. Prepare questions for each of them to answer. Explain how you want them both to be active participants in their financial future.
You might even try a “rediscovery meeting” with current clients, asking them to list short-term goals that feel more tangible and achievable, and therefore more interesting to track the progress of than retirement savings.
Make It Fun with a Monthly “Money Date”
Sometimes you need a carrot to push through the obstacles blocking the nonfinancial spouse’s way. That’s where the money date comes in. This is a form of “temptation bundling,” a term minted in this 2014 behavioral study.6 You pair something you want to do, like eating at your favorite restaurant, with a utilitarian activity, like going over your financial situation and goals.
By making it an event to look forward to, the “money person” in the family can help the less involved spouse change their habits. People use this time to go over what types of travel and big-ticket purchases they anticipate, check their net worth, or discuss progress toward financial goals.
Building Bridges to Financial Security
Engaging the nonfinancial spouse in financial planning isn’t just nice to do, it is a necessity. Research shows that it protects from future hardship, strengthens client relationships, and ultimately creates a more secure financial future for both partners.
Remember, financial literacy is a skill, and like any skill, it develops with practice. Find those “teachable moments” when you can connect with both spouses to educate and inform. By providing the tools and encouragement, we can empower clients to be engaged in their financial journey, strengthening both their individual confidence and their collective security.
Sometimes money fights are the reason couples use the “divide and conquer” strategy for financial planning. If that’s the case for your clients, pick up our eBook, Candid Conversations: Couples, Money, and Conflict. Learn methods financial therapists use to help couples overcome friction and achieve financial harmony.
1. UBS Investor Watch. “Women Put Financial Security at Risk by Deferring Long-Term Financial Decisions to Spouses,” March, 2019.
2. Fidelity Investments. “2021 Couples & Money Study,” July 2021.
3. The Cerulli Edge. “U.S. Retail Investor Edition,” November, 2023.
4. eMoney Beyond the Plan Research Study, June 2023, n=1,507.
5. Ward, Adrian, and John Lynch. “On a Need-to-Know Basis: How the Distribution of Responsibility Between Couples Shapes Financial Literacy and Financial Outcomes.” Journal of Consumer Research 45 (5), 2019.
6. K.L. Milkman, J.A. Minson, K.G.M. Volpp. “Holding the Hunger Games hostage at the gym: An evaluation of temptation bundling.” Management Science 60 (2), 2014.
DISCLAIMER: The eMoney Advisor Blog is meant as an educational and informative resource for financial professionals and individuals alike. It is not meant to be, and should not be taken as financial, legal, tax or other professional advice. Those seeking professional advice may do so by consulting with a professional advisor. eMoney Advisor will not be liable for any actions you may take based on the content of this blog.
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