Philipp: Welcome everyone to another episode of In Your Best Interest, your personal finance podcast. I’m your host, Philipp Muedder, and today we will be chatting about how you should manage your personal finances with your partner. Personal disagreements over financial decision-making are among the main reasons that married couples often end up in divorce court.
Unfortunately, even when couples have resources and financial advice readily available to them, they still end up a lot of times fighting over money. There was a survey conducted by Fidelity Investments that found couples carrying debt argued significantly more, 67%, about money than those couples who were not burdened with debt, 41%. So in order to learn more about the topic and get some valuable information as well as advice, I have a great guest join me today; her name is Jennifer Petriglieri.
Jennifer is an associate professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD. She directs the executive education management acceleration program, the women leaders program, and the INSEAD gender diversity program. An award-winning researcher and teacher, she was shortlisted for the Talent Award in 2017 and shortlisted for the Radar New Thinker award in 2015 by Thinkers50. [02:00] The ranking of the most influential management authors in the world. She was also included among the world's best 40 business school professors under 40 by Poets&Quants.
On top of all of the above, she's also the author of a book entitled “Couples That Work”, which explores how working couples can thrive both in love as well as in work. Jennifer is a British citizen, and she earned her PhD in organisational behaviour from INSEAD. She also holds an MBA from IMD in Switzerland and a BSc in Genetics from Nottingham University in the UK. Thank you so much for joining us today, Jennifer.
Jennifer: Thanks, it's great to be with you.
Philipp: Yes, it's great to be with you as well. I think for the audience, we've spoken before a little bit. I think I’m very happy to have you join us today to talk about this topic. I know from your book as well, both you and your husband are working. You have two children, I heard, right?
Philipp: So, I think this is the perfect person to speak about how you manage finances with your partner. I think like I said in my intro, it's a very hotly debated topic. It always comes up when I used to do it for 10 years, personal financial planning. So, directly working with families together. It's very contentious; I always try to get everyone in those meetings, even though sometimes the wife or the husband, either way, can actually go and says “Hey, no, I want you to do it, I don't really care about finances.”
But I always try to make sure everyone joins in because I think that's one of the most important pieces to the puzzle. However, before we get into this, we always ask our guests a few personal questions. So if you don't mind, how about you share with us a little bit about you know how was life for Jennifer growing up. Or maybe, I already mentioned where you went to university, but how did it come about where you ended up now? [04:00]
Jennifer: Yes. So it's interesting, so when I was little, I grew up in the middle of England, nowhere near anywhere anyone would ever have heard of. And every summer holiday, I went camping in France with my parents. And now I live in France because INSEAD is a business school based in France. So my parents are like, “That's because we came on holiday every year to France.”
So we're very European culture. And I’d always wanted to leave the UK, and so I did my master’s in Switzerland and then came to France and I’ve lived in the US and also spent some time in Africa. So very international, and my husband is from Sicily. So married internationally, as well. So that sense of kind of travel and wanderlust is a big part of who I am.
Philipp: Oh, that's awesome. Because I’m kind of the same way, coming from Germany. I lived in a bunch of countries, ended up in Singapore at the moment. I do share a lot of that wanderlust with you there. How do you go about studying a bachelor in genetics and then going into organisational behaviour as a topic? Now how did you make that change?
Jennifer: Honestly, my bachelor was a bit of a mistake. I think, like many 18-year-olds, I had no clue what I wanted to do. I just knew I wanted to go to university, not really for the studying but for the partying.
So I actually took the same degree as my mother; my mother is a professor in biology. And I had a great time at university; I didn't particularly enjoy my degree. So very quickly after that, transitioned, I actually worked in the business world for six, seven years before doing my MBA and then transitioning into academia in this space.
Philipp: Oh, interesting. Yes, I know, and it shows every time. I think we have guests on; it's the third in a row, I think, where people did exactly like you. They studied something then completely went the other way later on. And I think it's always a good reminder for listeners, especially the younger audience, that you don't have to have everything perfect the first time around, right? [06:00]
Jennifer: Not even the second or third.
Philipp: Exactly. But you did say you worked in between doing your bachelor’s and your master’s, and since this is a personal finance podcast, I always like to ask what was your first experience with money? Is there any particular memory or story that you remember, perhaps? Maybe your grandparents gave you an allowance, or maybe it was like someone bought you a stock certificate? Something like this happened to you at all?
Jennifer: Yes. So I was not brought up in a wealthy family, so stock certificates would certainly never have happened in my childhood. I mean, I remember getting five, I remember actually when I was very young getting 10 pence pocket money every week.
And on a Friday afternoon, we'd stop at the sweet shop in my village and then look at what 10 pence could buy me. And my favourite was to get a 10 penny bag of sweets, which in those days you could get 20 sweets for 10 pence for. So that was my earliest budgeting experience.
Philipp: It's a good one; that's how you start to learn, right?
Philipp: So that's good, and then what about your first paycheck? Do you remember, was there anything like your first proper paycheck? Was there anything you specifically bought with that at all?
Jennifer: So I’ve always been a bit of a saver rather than a spender. I tend to save for experiences rather. I don't collect anything; my brother always bought loads of CDs. That was never me. I was always saving up to go on the next trip. So I think I probably saved most of it with an eye on some trip or other in the summer that was coming up.
Philipp: Yes, the wanderlust again, right?
Philipp: Great. No, that's good. And then the last question before we go into the topic, I’d like to always ask is there a particular investment where you say hey, this is the best one I’ve made? It doesn't have to be in proper financial investment. But any kind of investment where you look back, and you think hey, this really was [08:00] the best one I’ve made.
Jennifer: Okay. So this is unusual, so we invested in a pizza oven in our garden. My husband's Italian, and it's the best investment we ever made. Because now we have, every Saturday evening, we have loads of friends over for a pizza party every Saturday. And it's the way we put money to work for our kind of social life and our health and well-being. Best investment.
Philipp: That's awesome, especially also during corona, right?
Philipp: Spending so much time at home cooking, that's awesome, yes. And that's a great investment, and it's a very different answer that we've gotten so far, so very good. So let's go into the topic, and I think I explained, in the beginning, a little bit that managing finances is a very contested topic, right? Especially between partners. I know that you also wrote a book on how people manage dual careers, their lives like that with kids, crossing oceans for jobs, moving for your spouse.
They all come also with money decisions, right? So I’m sure you've studied this as well. And you are, I think, a great example of this as well because you and your husband both work. You have children; how about we go back in life a little bit because I think there are different stages to managing finances with partners coming from when you first get to know each other to when you start dating to becoming in a relationship. And then getting married, and then having children, all of these are different life events that people go through, and they all come with different financial aspects. So, what was it for you? When was the first time that you brought it up with your husband?
Jennifer: It's a good question. I guess when we bought our first house; we had our first money conversation. But I think in my research, what I find is [10:00] that money's a little bit of a red herring. Very often, when couples are fighting about money, which they do a lot as you said, as your statistics showed. They're not really fighting about money; it is the symptom rather than the cause.
What they tend to be fighting about is power, right? Who has the power to decide what our priorities are? And I think it's really the conversations about priorities that make the difference in couples. As opposed to the conversation of budgeting or how expensive a house we can buy. It's more on, what are our priorities for this house, for this holiday, for this savings? And I think if couples get that right, no matter what stage of life they're at, the money issues are a lot less for them.
Philipp: No, that makes sense, and I think that's a good way to think about it. So you said it's not so much about the budget, or like how big the house is, and you should have an open discussion about expectations, right?
Philipp: So when it comes to budgeting decisions though still, right? You become, you’re single, you get to know each other, you now start dating. At some point, you have that decision, like both of you are working or not; one person is not working. How do you see, or how did you go through the budgeting decision? Like when did you the first time you said hey, do we have to have a joint account versus an individual account, right? Do we pool our money to pay rent together, or who makes those decisions for you guys or when you went through this?
Jennifer: Yes. So we, right from day one, had a joint account, like money has never been a particular bone of contention for us. And I think it's because firstly both of us are huge savers rather than spenders, so as your survey shows, we've never really been in debt apart from obviously the mortgage for the house. [12:00] So, in fact, we've never ever been in debt apart from the mortgage for the house.
And so I think what we have is some alignment, which is just so important across all couples. It's alignment that really saves you, I think. I mean, I don't think every couple needs to be savers; there are certainly loads of spenders out there who are happy. But it's about, are you aligned with your partner? And I think we just were quite naturally aligned from the get-go. We were both savers; we weren't particularly kind of proprietary around our money; we were happy to chuck it all in one bank account and just manage it how we did.
Philipp: So then basically, when couples are not aligned, right? Like people are not on the same page, for example. And one person splurges on something that the other one doesn't agree with.
So how should couples deal with this? Because that's when contentious things happen, right? Is there anything from your background that you can maybe give some advice or like from the research that you've done where people can make changes to their habits or those kinds of things?
Jennifer: Yes. I mean, when I think about finances in couples, I really think of finances on two levels. There are the big decisions, the “what house to buy?”, “what car?”, the investments, the pensions... These decisions that make a big difference in your life, right? In the long term. And then there are the little things, right? Does your partner go out and spend double on a bottle of wine than you would spend on, which is a slightly different category. So let me start with the big-ticket items first. What I find is the conflict around that in couples really comes from two things.
The first is not agreeing on what your priorities are. So let's take the house decision, right? Is your priority to have the absolute dream house at any cost, [14:00] because that's really important to you. Or is your priority having a good enough place that's not going to stretch your budget too much, so you can still kind of go on holidays and save, very different priorities.
Completely acceptable priorities, but if you have different priorities to start off, you're going to have a lot of arguments around what house to buy and how much budget to stretch. Same with, “let's take risk on investments.” Some people are just a lot more cautious than others, and you'll know this from being a financial advisor. Some people are very happy to play the market, and other people want to be in bonds and things like this.
Again, that can cause a lot of tension if one person in a couple has a much higher risk profile than another. And so what I found in my research is couples who just naturally are a little bit different, maybe they have different risk profiles or different priorities. What's really important for them is to kind of find some middle ground before they get to the decision.
So before they're at the estate agent looking at properties or before they're sat down with the financial advisor, they just sit down and think, okay, what is our combined strategy or our combined goal? And oftentimes, when couples are a little bit far apart, they just need to find some middle ground, right? So I mean, let's think about the risk profile. If one of you sort of put it all under the mattress and the other is investing in penny shares, there's somewhere in the middle around where both of you feel a bit stretched, but neither of you is too stretched.
The same with the house, etc. And what I find is that when couples can set those priorities in advance, the investment decisions go a lot better. But then there are these little things, right how much did you spend on a bottle of wine, or you just went on a shopping trip and blew X hundred dollars on a dress or whatever it is. I think part of it in couples, assuming people are not spending beyond their means, is us letting go. So I think very often in a couple, we would want our partner to make exactly the [16:00] same decisions we would make.
But that's not real, right? That's not real life. The reason we fall in love with our partners is that they're a bit different from us and that attracts us to them. And so I think for these little things, it's really important that to a certain extent couples just let it go unless, of course, it's materially affecting their family.
Obviously, if we're going into debt or it's stopping the family doing other things. But if it's a case of spending a bit more on a holiday or a piece of clothing or something than you would have done, I think we all need to learn to just let those little things go for greater harmony in the relationship.
Philipp: Yes. Those little things can really ruin a lot right if you keep always coming back to those little things and say, hey, I don't want you to spend this. Or you get upset about it; don't say anything to your partner as well, right? So that they don't even know. So how would you then say if one person is more keen on doing your finances?
Like, for example, I said before, hey, I actually enjoy doing it right, and your partner doesn't enjoy doing it. But problems can still arise in that situation, right? So one person takes charge, then the other person is not much involved, and then over time, they feel kind of left out, right? Is that something that you've seen as well, or is there any way to overcome that?
Jennifer: Yes. So it's interesting. So what the research will tell us is like the division of household tasks because managing finance is essentially a household task. What the research tells us is the best strategy for couples, and this really counts across the board, is a divide and conquer strategy. So one of you takes care of financing, one of you takes care of the kid's school stuff, one of you takes care of this one, so you each have your domains.
And the reason that works so well in couples is essentially we all live really busy lives, and if we have to think constantly about all these different domains, [18:00] it's just too much for us. So, in general, that divide and conquer where one of you takes the lead, research shows us the best strategy you can have. However, that does not mean that you take the lead and do everything and never communicate and never share. I think the issue comes when the communication breaks down. So suddenly, after two years, your partner looks at the investment portfolio and is like, ah, how did this happen? How did we get in this situation?
So I think there's a difference between being in charge and taking the lead and not communicating much. And you can relate it to a different area of life. I mean, let's imagine you have kids, and one of you takes the lead on organising the school stuff. It would be pretty weird for you never ever to discuss your children's schooling, right? You kind of can't really imagine that happening.
And it's the same thing with finances, it's great if one of you takes the lead, but you should still keep that an ongoing conversation. Just so you know, I’m going to invest in this, or I’m thinking about doing that. So it's about your partner feeling included, I think, as it goes along.
Philipp: Yes. Even if they're not necessarily 100% interested in the topic, I think overall it also gives them the feeling of safety, right? “Hey, this is how much we have; this is what we have to work with”, right? So there’s also, it's also expectation-setting then on what you can afford going forward as well, right?
And quite frankly I think this is a topic where it has also long-term effects, what if the person who's managed the finances for such a long time also something happens to them they pass away or something, and now you have to just do it, right? Or you have to deal with it. So from your background, have you thought about this? Have you talked to people through your research on when they haven't necessarily been in charge, and something happened to the other person managing that specific task and how they dealt with it?
Jennifer: Yes. I mean, I think as anyone knows who's [20:00] lost someone close to them, whether that's their partner or a parent or something. The admin, like the financial admin, can be the biggest headache. And just unravelling it all, and trying to work out what's going on. And also discovering what you actually have. And in fact, I was talking to a woman whose husband had very sadly passed away very suddenly. And he'd always managed all the finances. And of course, first of all, she's dealing with grief, so the last thing she wants to do is get into excel spreadsheets.
But she has to close accounts. And she realised that they actually had a lot more money than she realised, and her husband had been a real saver. And they've not lived a poor life, they lived a good middle-class life, but they'd not really gone out. And she'd always had these dreams of going places with him, visiting places. But they'd never gone because they were budgeting and stuff. And she felt an incredible amount of regret when she saw this money and thinking, “My good, the experiences we could have had together, that now we can't because he's passed away, but I just never knew.”
And so I think it's not just the practical kind of what are the account numbers and how do I access the accounts and all that. I think it's the feeling of I never realised. I never quite understood where we were and what we could have done, or what our constraints were. That's in some ways more distressing than the practical, getting in touch with the banks and informing people and changing cards and that level.
Philipp: No, I think you're right. And I think the two things that I wanted to get back to on that was, first one it's definitely how to manage through if you're already grieving, right? You don't want to deal with the different things in life. And we do weekly, almost weekly financial planning webinars now or seminars we used to do, [22:00] so with hundreds and hundreds of people, thousands of people over the last three years.
And every time I ask the question, I go through the financial planning tools, and we walk them through talking about life goals and things like that. But then I also talk about financial plan B. “Do you have one?”, right? What happens if the unexpected happens? And the first thing I ask is, “How many people in the room have a will?” And I’m telling you, it is a maximum 10%. There is probably another 70% that have thought about it, but they never actually do it. Or they have it on their list of things to do, but it's something that you just put off, right? “Oh, I’m young.
I have this going on in life,” and this is what you said before, right? Life is busy, especially also when you have a household, and you have children. The last thing on your mind is personal finances and also doing a will. But a will is really an important piece of a financial plan, and I think it helps exactly in this situation because you actually talk to each other. You talk about, “Hey, what is important to us?” “What should go to what person?” “Who should take care of our children if something happens to us?”
Where are the accounts, are they listed all together somewhere? So I think that's a very important thing. First of all, I know this is more personal, but have you done a will, or is this something you've thought about before? Because I get this, literally like I said 10% of the people have done it, I think coming to your grieving thing and that's quite important.
Jennifer: We're unusual because, in France, you actually don't have a choice where your money goes; it's an automatic division of money in France.
Jennifer: You only write a will if you disagree with that division. But the division, I think most people would pick in their will, which is if your partner survives, they get it, and if neither of you survives, your children split it exactly between the number of children. So in France, everything's regulated in France, including what happens when you die [24:00].
And in fact, you only need to make a will if you are, for some reason, contesting that division, which we would never do. But we did check it out when we first got to France when we first had children. One of the first things we thought about was writing a will, but we went to see our lawyer, and they were like, there's no need to write one in France because you don't have a choice.
Philipp: Yes, that's good; that's good to know. I didn't even know that in France it's not possible. We actually have one in Singapore, Germany, England, and the US because they have different different rules, because we have assets in different places because we lived in these different places for quite some time. So it becomes quite difficult, right? But it makes life a lot easier.
I tell people, “Hey, you've written it down; there is also no fighting in the family afterwards.” I always say this example: you probably know someone, or someone's remote family, that now the kids are not speaking to each other anymore, because there was no will or there was a will, but it was never explained to them why the parents thought this is the way it should be split up, right?
It's quite an interesting topic. But the other one you mentioned was the regret, and they didn't talk about goals; maybe she didn't express the goals that she had to her husband, and she was obviously then surprised. So how would you say people could deal with this better, like managing goals and expectations in that relationship then?
Jennifer: Yes. I mean, and I think this conversation is not just about finances, although finance is part of it. I mean, I always suggest to couples at least once a year, they should be sitting down and thinking about, and different people call this different things goals, ambitions, values. It doesn't matter what you call it. But if you think of a five-year time span. And the reason I say five years is it's long enough that the decisions we make now quite consequential in five years.
But it's very hard to project ourselves 15 years forward, like who knows what's going to happen in 15 years? But I always suggest we [26:00] sit down once a year and think, okay, in the next five years, what are the things we're aiming for? And that might be financially. Do we really want to try hard to pay off our mortgage, or are we trying to save a certain amount of money or whatever?
Also, professionally, because of course, our professional goals have a huge impact on our financial goals; depending on, let's say one of us wants to make a big career transition. Then maybe the next two or three years we need to save like crazy to pay for that transition, or if one of us wants to go into entrepreneurship. So I always suggest discussing these things holistically like our financial goals, our career goals, and also maybe our personal goals. Because when you have this full picture, then you can really make mindful decisions going forward.
And I think one of the huge benefits for people being in a working couple, where both people earn money, even if they don't have exactly the same amount of money, is you can buy yourself a little bit of freedom, right? If one of you is the breadwinner and one of you is really taking care of the home, I mean, that's a great arrangement. But you're a little bit locked in those roles; it's very difficult for the breadwinning winner to say “Okay, I’m going to take a sabbatical and reorient my career”, because who's going to earn the money?
But the great thing about being a working couple is you have some wiggle room. And so really thinking of these things holistically, not just the finances, but “What are we saving for? What is this money going to give us the option to do?” is really good, because it also helps our motivations. Because there are always times of year, like Christmas, that aren’t that far away. And then it's always easy to blow our budget at times like that.
And yet, if we have this goal in mind, okay, the reason we're saving this much a month is because we really want to have a go at entrepreneurship in two years' time. Or we want to take a three-month sabbatical in two years' time, just to travel a bit while the kids are still young; it makes it a lot easier to stick to our financial goals.
Philipp: [28:00] And I think those are good points I always preach to people. And something I do myself with my wife is we also set these goals, right? We have three, five, ten, and fifteen; I know fifteen is hard, and it changes all the time. But it's a good idea to like once a year to think about those things. So we actually just once a year we look back, “Hey, how's our plan going? Are we tracking? Are we not tracking? Do we need to make some changes?”
Also, like you said, the breadwinner may get burned out from working so much, too, and they want to make a change, but they cannot, right? But you can plan for these things a lot better if you talk openly about them and manage them, and then it gives you also like you said you have these shorter-term goals as well, because these long goals, like retirement or kids college or maybe buying a vacation home somewhere, they're very big goals, right? They take a lot of effort and a lot of perseverance to get to. So having some things along the way to cross off helps a lot to actually get to the longer-term goals as well.
Jennifer: Exactly. And I think what this period with COVID has taught us is you can plan all you like, and you never quite know what's going to happen. And I think many people now are facing job uncertainty, or maybe they've already been laid off, and they're looking for the next thing. And so having had a set of really robust financial goals beforehand has hopefully given people a buffer to work through this period.
Philipp: Oh, absolutely. I think COVID also changed the priorities of people when it comes to jobs, work, earning money, and things quite a bit, right? Because when your freedom is not taken away, but compromised. And you can't do the things that you are used to; it makes people really question life.
I think this year was a really big year to reflect on. I actually have a friend of mine in the US: he just told me two days ago that both he and his [30:00] wife are actually going to quit their job now, and they're going to take, they bought an RV, and they're going to go on a road trip through the United States for the next 12 months. Because they said, hey look, life is short.
I think it has something to do with that someone in his family passed away also this summer, but I think it made you realise “Hey look, this is precious, right?” And he's in finance as well; I know he's saved a lot. So he's the last one that would probably splurge on or say hey, like uproot their life like this. Both really good jobs, no kids yet. But like it's a big step still for someone, especially if they're in their mind, they're more savers, right? Because now you're drawing down savings.
Jennifer: Yes, absolutely.
Philipp: That's definitely one of those things. So we talked about quite a lot of things. But one thing you mentioned also when you talked about the lady losing her husband, and he was managing the finances.
How do you think about using estate planning lawyers or maybe a financial advisor to work, especially for dual couples, right? When both really work hard. And I mentioned this earlier; financial planning does take some effort. I try to tell people, “Hey, you can get an easy financial plan done, and then you can automate as much as possible.” But how do you see bringing in help for that relationship?
Jennifer: So I think it's a very individual thing. Some people have a lot more financial literacy than others. I certainly think it's worth seeking advice, now whether that's kind of paying privately or whether that's getting some good books or magazines to teach yourself a little bit. I certainly think it's worth doing that at the beginning, and perhaps every few years to almost do a financial health check with somebody.
But I think many people now are pretty financially literate and can do a fairly decent job [32:00] on their own. But I think it's a real personal preference thing. I know my husband and I are much more obsessed about managing it ourselves, and other people want to outsource it. I think that's quite a personal choice. But I think certainly everyone should take some advice at the beginning of the journey to really understand what are the various instruments, for example, they can invest in, etc. so they're going in with open eyes.
Philipp: Yes. And you mentioned that there are so many resources available with the internet nowadays. There are podcasts, there are videos, blogs where people can learn so much about it. So if you really want to learn, you can, and I think that's very important. Because I think one of my big things that I always tell clients is, “You’re the biggest advocate.”
No matter what the advisor says, it's your money. The person who is going to be the most fierce of protecting that is yourself. So I think you should think about yourself as your own personal CFO, and that makes them think about you would do at work, right? Get people to think about a little bit more.
So Jennifer, to close it up, I think we talked a lot about great things of managing finance with your partner. Are there any tools or research that people can find online that you can use to get better at managing finance together, or talk to their spouse better about these things?
Jennifer: Yes. I mean, it's interesting what you say. For me, it's not about tools per se as in spreadsheets, etc. It's really around learning how to talk better about these things and how to have those conversations, which can sometimes feel a bit awkward for people to talk about money and especially when it comes to the will [34:00] and death and what do we want to happen afterwards, etc.
So I think it's really important that people focus on increasing their ability to have these conversations, and then it'll be much easier for them to do the financial planning. And you know, in my book, a lot of what I focus on is the conversations we need to have, and things from The Gottman Institute. There are lots of resources out there to help us think through how we have these conversations.
So it's more advice on how to do this stuff, as opposed to what exactly to do. Because I think that varies so much by people's personal situations, and that it's very much a personal decision.
Philipp: No, absolutely. I think those are all good resources to look up to. I think we can put them also in the show notes of the episode, so then people can find that. From your site, before we close it up, is there a way to find out more about your book or where can, is it available already? Can you get it anywhere in the world?
Jennifer: Yes. You can get it anywhere in the world, and the best place to look is on my website, which I guess she might pop on the show notes.
Philipp: Yes. We can definitely do that, so we will have that as a link available to everyone that's interested to learn more about Jennifer’s book. And also more of those researches on this topic. As always, thank you all for listening so much, and we'll be back with you with another episode soon. Thank you again, Jennifer, for taking the time to be with us today as well.
Jennifer: Thanks so much. Bye.
[End of Recorded Material]
In this episode, Philipp and Jennifer Petriglieri discuss the importance of having open dialogue with your partner about money, and how to manage it together. Managing finances as a couple is not always easy but this episode explores how to navigate it. Find out more about Jennifer here.
For resources on how to talk to your partner, Jennifer suggests checking out The Gottman Institute.
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