Women: Stay Involved in Family Finances

Don't rely on your spouse alone to manage family finances, even if your marriage is rock solid.

Middle aged couple reading paper bills calculating pension using laptop at home.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Married women need to stay on top of family finances, even if a divorce is not in the cards.

After I wrote about gray divorce, I received a thought-provoking response and query from reader Gail Jarvis that I thought deserved a follow-up. Gail, 58, lives in a suburb of Atlanta, where, she says, “so many women my age are like me — college-educated stay-at-home moms with traveling husbands who volunteered at our children’s schools.”

Gail returned to the workforce eight years ago as a substitute teacher, and she earns $175 a day. She is funneling her earnings into her own Roth IRA, but most of the couple’s retirement assets are in her husband’s name with her as the beneficiary. Married for 31 years, she has no plans to divorce and admits that “when I was younger, I was so busy raising children that I never thought about our finances. But I do now. How can I make my future financially more secure?”

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Women and family finances

Gail and other women in her situation should start with rule number one: Know where your money is. Discuss your finances with your spouse on a regular basis, or at least “schedule a ‘money date’ a couple of times a year so that you know your income and expenses, where your accounts are and how much you have,” advises Leslie Thompson, a chartered financial analyst and cofounder of Spectrum Wealth Management in Indianapolis.

One alternative to a discussion is to go through your tax return to see a rundown of all your accounts. “I’m surprised by how many women only see the signature page on their tax returns,” says Thompson. 

If you have a financial adviser, “ask for a one-on-one conference,” says Kimberly Foss, a certified financial planner and partner with Mercer Global Advisors in Roseville, Calif. “Ask him or her to run a ‘Monte Carlo’ simulation to see the probability of running out of money.” 

It’s also important to control money in your own name outside of a retirement account so that you can get access to it if you need it. “All women should have their own emergency fund, whether it’s to buy a nice gift for your spouse or to run the household for a few months,” says Foss.

A high price

Gail feels “very blessed to have had the opportunity to be able to be at home with my children as they were growing up. If I had a redo, I would still have done the same thing.” But many women in that situation “are paying a very big price financially,” says Lisa Zeiderman, managing partner at the Miller Zeiderman law firm in New York City. 

In Gail’s case, one option might be to boost her earnings by tutoring, for example, or finding a job that pays more — and using the extra money to set up an emergency fund as well as funding her retirement savings. 

Gail and her husband still have a mortgage on their house, so a life insurance policy on his life could still make sense. Even better, says Zeiderman, Gail could own the policy as well as being the beneficiary, which would give her more control. And she and her husband should consider long-term-care insurance. 

For women who plan to stay out of the workforce for long periods to raise children, Zeiderman is a strong advocate for a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement. “If a woman knew in advance that she would have sufficient funds in case of divorce or widowhood, she could have the luxury of being the non-breadwinner,” says Zeiderman. 

Absent that, keep your foot in the door, whether by working on a part-time basis, volunteering in your community or continuing to maintain your network. Says Zeiderman, “That’s an absolute necessity.”

Note: This item first appeared in Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine, a monthly, trustworthy source of advice and guidance. Subscribe to help you make more money and keep more of the money you make here.

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Janet Bodnar

Janet Bodnar is editor-at-large of Kiplinger's Personal Finance, a position she assumed after retiring as editor of the magazine after eight years at the helm. She is a nationally recognized expert on the subjects of women and money, children's and family finances, and financial literacy. She is the author of two books, Money Smart Women and Raising Money Smart Kids. As editor-at-large, she writes two popular columns for Kiplinger, "Money Smart Women" and "Living in Retirement." Bodnar is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University and is a member of its Board of Trustees. She received her master's degree from Columbia University, where she was also a Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Business and Economics Journalism.