lack of communication, or stupidity?


I was listening to Dave Ramsey’s podcast and a woman called in. She wanted to ask a routine question about life insurance, but when quizzed by Dave she made a startling admission:

Dave: “So what does your husband make per year?”
Woman: “I’m not quite sure.”

He quizzed her a bit more. He thought at first she didn’t know exactly, and just wanted to get a general range – but it soon became clear through her pauses and stuttering that she really HAD NO IDEA. She had no idea, even within a very broad range, what her husband made. She just giggled and told Dave that her husband had told her not to worry about such things. And the worst thing? When he berated her about it, she seemed to think he was making a big deal about nothing, because money was just something men were supposed to take care of…

If you are married and read this blog and don’t know your spouse’s income within a few tens of thousands per year, please stop reading and get your life in order. Now. I was appalled. Can there really be married people like this left in the western world? Really?

Apparently there can be. This woman knew almost nothing about their financial situation. I was left wondering how many men – even if they were not the primary breadwinner – know nothing about the family finances. I don’t mean that from a sexist perspective, simply from a statistical perspective. Not knowing the family finances seems to me to be the equivalent of addiction to crack cocaine – you simply don’t give a crap about anything while you’re having fun, or you’re simply so far gone that you are oblivious. How can you be so blithely ignorant of something so important?

Every married couple should have a clear picture of their finances. I don’t know every single last detail about Bubelah’s spending, and she doesn’t know about mine. At the same time, neither of us is in the dark about the ‘big picture’ – we both know where the money’s coming from, where it goes, who our insurers are, and so on. I couldn’t imagine someone asking Bubelah where my IRA was held, for example, and having her struggle to answer. She may not know what the balance is there, but she knows who holds it and what the password is to access the website. I don’t know exactly what’s in her brokerage account, but I know which company and the password to access their website.

We have truths in our lives we assume to be the most basic, common and universally held truths – and other people don’t know crap about the same things. You assume everyone understands these things: you don’t smoke while reading in bed. You don’t take the toaster in the bathtub. You don’t launch a bug bomb in a closed room and then take a nap there. You don’t keep your money in your mattress. The list could go on a long time, and get up to slightly more debatable subjects: you should never go into debt, you should save for the future, you should understand the basic principles of finance. Yet listening to shows like Dave’s I realize that many people have a filter, or a blinder, or simply aren’t willing to see many of the things I think they should be ABLE to see. Really, I’m at a loss. People amaze me… and not in a good way.

photo by 1Happysnapper

18 Replies to “lack of communication, or stupidity?”

  1. Weird story. I would think you'd have to be on cloud nine to not even to know the ballpark figure but, like you say, people amaze. Wonder why she was listening to Ramsey to start with? Mind you, I've read a couple of blog posts along the lines of “I'm putting together a folder of account numbers in case I die because spouse doesn't know any of them” and wonder why those are necessary too.

  2. It depends, if she was over 60, that the generation that grew up like that. However, the caller had to be embarrassed. That's why she had a nervous giggle. Her husband picked a good submission wife

  3. There is an older generation that was VERY PRIVATE about salary info, this seems strange to me today. My Dad never shared his salary info with his kids, ever. But I would assume my Mom knew at least 🙂

    But some spouses just have no interest in the family finances and they trust their spouse 100%, this is probably not as uncommon as you'd think. My wife is in this boat. She absolutely abhors managing and paying bills, and has no interest in investing. She has no idea what our net worth is and never bothers to ask. At certain milestones I have told her in the past, but she quickly forgets. She could not tell you where our money is invested or even all of the institutions we have money with. So I'm one of those guys that has an “if I die” set of instructions & information…

  4. I've heard similar callers a few times on his show – it always amazes me. I agree with the other comments that she was probably (hopefully) older when things like this were much more common. (Similar but different field: my grandpa didn't know how to use the washer and dryer until he was 85 and my grandma broker her arm so couldn't do the laundry. He learned quickly, but it was never something he concerned himself with – this lady sounds like she was in the same boat but about finances)

    I do know several friends who are 20somethings with very traditional ideas of gender roles though. There are some guys I know who would never set foot in a kitchen, and some women who would never pay a bill.

  5. I think this is way more common than you realize, I would bet there are people who don't know what they themselves make in a year. A lot of people are completely clueless about money, and proud of it. My dad is one of those guys, he finds his financial ignorance funny. It irritates me to no end cause some day he'll be old and broke and my problem. If more couples took the time to discuss their finances there would be a lot fewer fights about money. Instead most people wait until it becomes an out of control problem.

  6. It's a complete guess, by the way, but everyone seems to think she was older. I would guess – and it's 101% a guess – that she was in her 50s, maybe. She did not sound at all like an old woman, in any sense. Voices can be deceptive, so I wouldn't bet money on it, but I think she was a middle-aged woman in full possession of her faculties.

  7. I agree with other commenter that it would make a lot more sense if the woman was older. But there are still people out there with very outdated ideas on gender roles.

    Whatever the case, she really should find out what their financial state is.

  8. Hi! Long time reader, never a commenter 🙂

    You seem to be almost enraged in this post, which happens rarely on this blog 🙂

    In my marriage, I'm all about money, I'm responsible for it, I talk a lot about it, money management comes naturally to me – you get the point. My husband, on the other hand, just has no clue. And, honestly, neither he nor me would entrust him with managing our money. Although I do talk often about it and get him involved in our financial decisions, I'm pretty sure he wouldn't be able to answer certain questions about our mortgage/savings/IRAs/etc. And I think I should make an “in case I die” folder.

    I don't think it's such a bad thing. We are married, we are a team, and one of us is stronger in one area, the other one is another, so it makes sense to “specialize”.

    I'm not saying that being so clueless that you'd have no idea how much your spouse makes is OK. But some cluelessness, I suppose, is natural in a marriage since you rely on each other. Or, in other words, it's not stupidity.

  9. I agree with Ulyana.

    Sometimes in a marriage one person is the banker and in our marriage that's me. We are single income and I handle all of the finances. Fortunately, I make enough so we have a nice lifestyle, but it wasn't always that way. We used to have to scrape by and I am the saver and the frugal one. We tried a joint bank account, but that didn't work out too well.

    BTW, this isn't a sexist thing. I also cook, clean and used to change diapers and watch the kids. In my family, my Mom was the banker and she was an incredible money manager. I would love for my wife to pay all of the bills while I am at work. But, it's not her thing.

    The point I'm making is that every family is different, so please don't rush to judgement. We do what works the best for us.

    1. I think you are missing the point here. I agree that there should be some separation of duties. Whoever does it better should do it or whoever has time. I do a better job cleaning, so I do it. Steve's duty is to take out the garbage. But I still know where the trash can is and when are the garbage pick-up days. So when Steve's on a business trip we are not drowning in trash. The point is that both parties should be aware of how much money comes in and how much money comes out. Two people in the family do not need to be involved in bill payin but both should be aware of the expenses and how to do it, in case one of you falls ill, or dies, or hits the road.
      I am sure your wife knows how much you make and how to get cash from ATM, in case she needs it.

    2. Bubelah,

      Thanks for your message. I was expecting some grief from Steve over my comment, since he was pretty animated about this subject. I'm glad you replied instead. I definitely got the point. But, our situation is very different than yours.

      Next week, we will have been married for 19 years. And, I worry a lot about how my family would do if anything happened to me. Like Ulyana, I have thought about putting together a packet. If I got hit by a bus tomorrow, I would be leaving my family in very sound financial condition.

      As a PF blogger, I have tried very hard to educate her and my kids (ages 16 & 20) over many years. And, she has picked up some of it. But, in general, she doesn't have any interest it the finances and is happy to let me handle it. My previous comment that it “isn't her thing” was pretty accurate.

      For now, she leads a pretty charmed life. She doesn't have to work, she has an allowance and she definitely knows how to use the ATM. And, if anything happens to me, I'm pretty sure she could learn to pay the bills.

    3. @Bret: Unfortunately I composed a reply that got crushed in a system lock-up, but Bubelah did manage to sum up my thinking. I'd say that the main thing I'd worry about in your shoes would be two statements you made:

      1. “I have thought about putting together a packet.”
      2. “I'm pretty sure she could learn to pay the bills”

      Neither of those statements really sounds very confident. If you have a packet – or even if you have an accountant or trusted family member who has a good understanding of your finances – fine. But if you don't have a packet, your family's at risk. Don't assume charmed lives are guaranteed to continue to be charmed – that's why we all have insurance.

  10. Interesting. I have to add my own thoughts to this. How do married couples who do not know how much the other makes stay married, let alone be in harmony with each other? It's like along a cliff in a blindfold. My Well Of wealth

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  12. Yeah, my parents are the other way around — my mom's been a stay-at-home mom since I was born (despite them being empty-nesters now — hey, whatever works for them!), but my dad has *no idea* what his salary is. My mom quizzed him once and he wasn't even close (I don't know if he was high or low, though). He has direct deposit, and she does all the bills and facepalms a lot when he makes completely clueless observations. On the plus side, they do have files with this information for each other. On the minus side? The file are password-protected, and the passwords? In the files. Of course.

  13. Yeah, my parents are the other way around — my mom's been a stay-at-home mom since I was born (despite them being empty-nesters now — hey, whatever works for them!), but my dad has *no idea* what his salary is. My mom quizzed him once and he wasn't even close (I don't know if he was high or low, though). He has direct deposit, and she does all the bills and facepalms a lot when he makes completely clueless observations. On the plus side, they do have files with this information for each other. On the minus side? The file are password-protected, and the passwords? In the files. Of course.

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