International Women’s Day: Your Financial Future Matters – Resolve to Be 10% More Engaged

It’s International Women’s Day, and I have been thinking about how financial advisors interact with women, especially when those women are one half of a couple, and how I wished both advisors and women would behave differently.

I’ve been to several conferences in recent years, where I find myself in hotel ballroom, listening to a speaker (usually female) patiently explaining to hundreds of (mostly male) financial advisors that they ­should pay attention to their “clients’ wives.” (Let that sink in for a minute . . . . as though the female half of a couple isn’t a client. But I digress.)

Advisors should pay attention to women for several reasons, the conference attendees are told: women outlive men; women are frequently the ultimate decision-makers; women have their own income and own assets; women think differently than men do; not paying attention to women is bad for business. I see the male advisors shifting uncomfortably in their chairs, knowing that courting “the wives” is probably a good idea for a variety of reasons, but stumped about how to actually do it.

Inevitably, during Q&A some brave soul goes to up to the microphone: “Hi, I know I should get to know my client’s wife, but it’s been 12 years and I’ve only met her once. How do I do that?” Once, I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I sprang up to the mic after him and said, “Um . . . . you should call her.” Uncomfortable silence all around. I ventured further, “Call her, and say, ‘Hi, Jane, it’s Bob. I know we haven’t really ever spoken, but I’d like to connect with you – can I take you out for coffee sometime?’” I look at the presenter. She’s nodding and beaming; we are having a mind meld. There are noises around us – a sort of rumbling, whispering among the masses, as though I’ve suggested something radical.

I’m fortunate to have been part of advisory firms which embrace the idea of working with the whole family, rather than with just the spouse that takes the lead on investments and other related matters. We set an expectation that we build a relationship with both spouses, by meeting with them both. (Eventually, when children grow to be teenagers or young adults, we meet with them as well.)

Unsurprisingly, there is typically one spouse who is more engaged, or knowledgeable, or interested in everything related to household financial matters than the other. Despite an increasingly egalitarian approach to marriage and work in recent decades, this spouse is most often the husband.

Often, the less-engaged, less-knowledgeable, less-interested spouse (usually the wife) will say, “I’m so lucky – Kevin is really so attentive to all of this, and I don’t pay that much attention because I don’t have to.” Indeed, husbands like Kevin are often fantastic, responsible stewards of their family’s wealth. Ironically, this exacerbates the dynamic: the list of things to do to manage a household these days is long, and in an attempt to divide and conquer, this item simply falls to only one spouse, over and over and over again. It’s not seen as a shared responsibility. Over the years, women fall farther and farther behind in knowledge and familiarity with all things financial.

When it comes to other household tasks, dividing and conquering works: it probably doesn’t much matter, over the course of years, who gets the oil changed in the cars, or who picks up the prescriptions from the drugstore, or who takes the dog to the vet. But I posit that your family’s wealth, and the stewardship of it, and the use and distribution of it, is vitally important to both of you, and to your heirs. This doesn’t fall into the category of “it doesn’t matter, as long as it gets done.” It matters: each spouse’s long-term, cumulative knowledge on this subject matters.

I’m speaking to you, 50-something woman with the awesome husband who manages the family’s finances single-handedly, allowing you to focus on your own stuff. I’ve seen your 75-year-old future self, in my conference room, after your husband’s death or your divorce. You don’t really know what resources you have, or how much, or in whose name. You don’t know how much you can spend, or what the rest of retirement will look like for you. Perhaps you wish that you knew that your recently-deceased husband left funds to his children from his first marriage, or that you hadn’t been named trustee of your own trust. You have a lot of catching up to do – a lot of learning, in a short amount of time – and surprises in your estate plan or the handling of your investments are the last thing that make the process more pleasant. We both wish you had known more, and had a plan, and a voice, much, much sooner.

Fortunately, this problem can be addressed, with only a few adjustments. Quite simply, just resolve to be 10% more involved. Being engaged just a little bit more, even by only 10%, will be very helpful for you, your husband, and your advisor over the long term.

Here are some things that you can do differently, now, to avoid having to play catch-up later in life. Pick your favorite(s) – anything will help.

  • Decide that both of you attending meetings with your advisor is the way it has to be. Find dates on the calendar that work for both of you, even if that means scheduling far in advance, or not as frequently as you’d like.
  • Tell your advisor that both of you should be copied on all e-mails. We send e-mails to both spouses as a matter of course, with very few exceptions. (Caveat: commit to actually reading the e-mails that your advisor sends!)
  • Open your account statements or performance reports when they come in the mail, or when the link to the electronic version comes via e-mail. Actually read those documents. Make sure you understand what they say. Ask, if you don’t.
  • Read your tax return before submitting it. Remember what your mother always told you? To never sign something that you didn’t understand? All those numbers on the first two pages came from somewhere. It’s usually not that complicated. Ask, if you don’t know. You deserve to know. Perhaps you didn’t earn all the money, but everything on that tax return affects you.
  • Review your estate plan, and by this I mean actually read your estate planning documents (or at the very least, the summary). Understand how much flows from where to where, when, and why. I’m acutely aware that estate documents are not fun to read. Read yours anyway. They affect your life, especially your life after your spouse dies, and sometimes significantly so.
  • Seek out an advisor who supports helping families, as a core philosophy. Listen to the answer, when you ask an advisor who their typical client is. The response should include the word “families” or “couples.”
  • Knowledge is power. In a meeting, ask questions, if you don’t understand. I welcome questions, before, during, and after meetings, especially, and perhaps most critically, from the quieter spouse. Quiet Spouse: I want you to know, and understand, and learn. It takes work, but learning should be satisfying and rewarding for both you and your advisor. An advisor who doesn’t support your learning or growth is not the advisor for you.
  • Avoid advisors who make you feel like things are so complicated that you have to keep working with him (ok, I concede, or her) forever, because that person has led you to believe that he/she is the only one who understands everything. You can understand this. It’s not rocket science. Refer back to the previous point about feeling welcome to ask questions and learn more.
  • Pay attention to how the advisor communicates in meetings. If the advisor always directs the conversation to your husband, and doesn’t engage with you, look at you, or address you, you’re being treated as an accessory, not as an integral part of your family’s finances. Think twice about working with this person long-term.

Here are the things that I believe:

  • Knowledge is power. It’s also cumulative.
  • All adults in a family should have basic knowledge and understanding about their financial situation, including day-to-day finances, investments, estate plans, and taxes.
  • All advisors need to support, address, and engage with both members of a couple, rather than just husbands.

There are advisors out there who believe these things, who support you in all you want, and need, and should, know. Resolve to be 10% more engaged – it will make a big difference in the long run.

Go get ‘em, ladies. Happy International Women’s Day.