Most Women Hand Financial Reins to Men

Women are making progress when it comes to greater engagement in the family finances beyond simply budgeting for daily household expenses, according to Fidelity Investments’ fourth “Couples Retirement Study.”

The number of women claiming primary responsibility for day-to-day financial decisions jumped to 24% in this year’s study (up from 15% in 2011), and those claiming primary status for long-term retirement decisions more than doubled to 19% from 9% in 2011.

However, the findings also reveal many women are still less confident when it comes to investing, and routinely defer to their partners on important financial decisions. While couples overwhelmingly believe they are in agreement about finances—nine in 10 couples (92%) agree they communicate well, and eight in 10 (81%) describe themselves as “one financial entity”—when asked to assess their confidence level in taking full financial responsibility of retirement decisions from a spouse if necessary, many women are more confident in their partners’ ability than their own.

In addition, men are more likely than women to be very confident in their own ability (53% vs. 45% of women). Women, in turn, are more likely to be confident their “other half” could assume this role (52% vs. 43% of men). Surprisingly, younger women tend to be the most deferential of all.

“While a lot of progress has been made, it’s critical for women to empower themselves by becoming equal partners managing the family finances and in long-term financial planning conversations,” said Kathleen Murphy, president of Personal Investing at Fidelity.

According to the study, working women reported earning average salaries of $77,000 a year. Despite their advancements in the workplace and increasing income levels, it’s not always translating into greater engagement, and lack of confidence may be a contributing factor. For example, the study showed that among couples who work with an adviser, when asked why their partner is the primary contact, women are likely to say because they trusted their partner and perceived him as being “better with numbers.” Other factors might include that couples are dividing household tasks based upon perceived strengths or interests, or perhaps repeating behaviors and habits they observed in their own parents.

Ironically, research shows that women are often more disciplined investors and tend to stay the course once a financial plan is crafted. They also tend to be more consistent, conservative, and risk-averse investors. For example, the women in this year’s survey are much less likely than the men to be willing to invest a substantial portion of money to achieve potentially higher returns, even if it means possibly losing some or all of initial investment (4% vs. 15% of men).

The 2013 "Couples Retirement Study" also examines the behaviors of Gen X (born 1967 to 1978) and Gen Y (born 1979 to 1988) couples. Surprisingly, even though more than three-quarters of these younger women are working, they appear to be playing a more passive role than older women. While one in four Boomer (born 1946 to 1966) women (24%) identify themselves as the primary decision maker for day-to-day financial decisions, only 12% of Gen Y women feel the same way. Only 45% of Gen Y women say they are a joint decisionmaker when it comes to retirement savings decisions, compared with 58% of Boomer and Gen X women.

The 2013 Fidelity Investments “Couples Retirement Study” analyzed retirement and financial expectations, and preparedness among 808 couples (1,616 individuals). More information about the study is here.