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How COVID has altered the conversation about money

Many women, who have often let their husbands deal with fiscal matters, recognize that they can no longer bury their heads in the sand. In an era when everything feels uncertain, they crave transparency, especially when it comes to money

By Abby Ellin
Published: Sep 19, 2020

How COVID has altered the conversation about moneySome women who have let their husbands deal with fiscal matters now recognize that they can no longer bury their heads in the sand. (Rachel Levit Ruiz/The New York Times)

Before the coronavirus, Tara Beier and her husband, Dennis, rarely discussed money. They kept separate bank accounts and divided their household responsibilities. Her husband, 42, covered the mortgage on the two properties they own, while Beier, 38, managed and took care of a rental home. It worked fine for their 12 years of marriage.

And then the world shut down, and his job as a producer in the film industry evaporated. Suddenly, the mortgage fell on Beier’s shoulders. A singer-songwriter, she is now responsible for covering mortgage, food, everyday expenses and rent. She doesn’t mind: “I felt like he’s relying on me more as a woman,” said Beier, who lives in Santa Monica, California.

But it has also been a challenge. Beier didn’t really know much about their financial situation, and she had always been reluctant to ask. “I grew up in a family where if you talked about money, it ended up heated or a dangerous situation, or uncomfortable,” she said. “My dad had the financial control.”

Once the coronavirus pandemic hit, she wanted to know specifics. Because what if her husband got sick? Where were their important documents, or passwords for bank accounts? Did he have any debt? Together in isolation for three months, the couple had lots of time to talk. And talk they did, about their dreams, their goals, and their finances.

It’s a conversation that’s echoing in households across the country, as many women, who have often let their husbands deal with fiscal matters, recognize that they can no longer bury their heads in the sand. In an era when everything feels uncertain, they crave transparency, especially when it comes to money.

“COVID has provided an opportunity for people to turn more inward — inside their house, inside their finances,” said Erika Wasserman, a financial therapist in Miami, who has noticed this trend in her own practice. “Women are planners by nature, so for us this is an opportunity to ask the husband or whoever’s managing the finances, what’s our plan? Not just what’s our budget or mortgage, but what’s our plan for life insurance? Where do you want to be buried? That might be the first time they’re asking the questions in a long time.”

Beyond health concerns, there is the very real fact that more women than men have lost jobs during the pandemic. Between February and May alone, women lost 11.5 million jobs, compared with 9 million for men, according to the Pew Research Center. Only one-third of those jobs returned in May and June, reports the National Women’s Law Center. At the same time, many women are bearing the brunt of child care responsibilities during the pandemic, while caring for parents at the same time. No wonder they are worrying about money.

“Financial planning is all about taking care of your dependents, and women feel like they have more dependents right now,” said Megan McCoy, a financial therapist and professor of financial planning at Kansas State University.

With that in mind, women are having to educate themselves. In the March 2020 U.S. Bank Women and Wealth Insights Study, a survey of 3,000 men and women investors with minimum investable assets of $25,000 found that 47% associated negative words like “fear, “anxiety,” “inadequacy” and “dread” with financial planning, compared with 31% of men.

Michelle Smith, the chief executive of Source Financial Advisors in New York, says it’s time women take a more active role in the household finances. “In my experience, it’s still male dominated within a marriage,” said Smith, who runs Wife2CFO, an eight-week online financial education course for women.

“I hate to paint that, but it’s true,” she said. “A lot of women are scared to sit down and say — What’s in my name? What do we have? Do we have any trusts? What’s this thing I signed?’ So many women don’t know what to do.”

Alison and Sal Strazzullo of Manhattan have always had a more traditional division of labor. Alison Strazzullo is a fit model and a stay-at-home parent who takes care of their three young children, while Sal Strazzullo, 48, a lawyer in New York, is in charge of their money.

“Sal has always made all the decisions for our family,” Alison Strazzullo, 32, said in an email. “Because of the uncertainty of COVID-19 and what it can do to people, we both knew we needed to know everything about each others’ finances. I needed access to all the family’s information in case anything happens to him. I wanted to make sure he and I were clear on our wishes and finances should anything happen to either of us during the pandemic and beyond.”

Amy Richardson, a certified financial planner with Schwab Financial Planning in Denver, said she has been having more conversations about finances with both spouses in attendance. Pre-pandemic, usually only one partner — and usually just the man — would show up. “Knowledge is power right now,” she said. “People have realized how important it is to be engaged and have some level of involvement in the conversation.”

Vanessa Gordon, 31, was always happy to let her husband, Dr. Kris Gordon, 44, a family physician, handle the family money.

“It never needed to come up,” said Vanessa Gordon of Sag Harbor, New York, who is the publisher of East End Taste, an online magazine. She knew her husband’s salary and that he had investments with Morgan Stanley and TD Ameritrade, but “I don’t know the extent of what he has saved,” she said. “He handles the taxes. I have my accounts. I always told him I wanted my own financial stream of income, and I built my business.”

Her company was doing fine until the pandemic. Then in March all of her in-person events got canceled. Soon after, advertisers fled and revenue dropped 95%. In mid-April, her husband stepped in to help finance her company.

Toward the end of May, she and her husband went through their accounts together. “He said, ‘I’m literally paying for you to work,” she said. “ ‘We’re paying to keep your business afloat.’ That hurt a lot, because it was true. I broke down. It got scary when I had nothing coming in.”

What panicked her most was when he showed her how their credit score was being affected, dropping from 800 to 650. “I never saw what our credit ratings were,” she said.

To bring in extra money, she began tutoring students six days a week, sometimes as much as eight hours a day. Her magazine is “very slowly” picking up financially, and she feels more comfortable knowing the true scope of her family’s finances. “Now I have a bit of a window open into what we have.”

As for Beier, the uncomfortable conversations with her husband brought “a really good clarity to our relationship,” she said. Granted, she wasn’t thrilled with all of the news — like discovering that he had a few credit cards and was about $30,000 in debt. This was especially alarming; she only uses a debit card.

But all of their talks, she said, “brought us to a new level. We didn’t realize how much pressure money has put on us. COVID gave us the ability to say, what do we really need and not need? It has been a blessing for us in disguise.”

Smith, the financial planner, takes it a step further. “This conversation isn’t a luxury,” she said. “It’s a necessity.”

Five Important Questions

Financial planner Michelle Smith of Source Financial Advisors says that women should know the answers to these financial questions.

1. How are assets titled and what is, and isn’t, in joint accounts? This is especially important for access in case of prolonged illness or death.

2. Where are all the important documents? Do I have access and login information for all accounts, such as savings, investments, retirement, marital assets and trusts?

3. Do I have enough funds in my own name to get through six months of my family’s total overhead expenses, like housing, taxes and personal expenses?

4. Am I the owner or beneficiary of my husband’s life insurance policy? If the policy is owned by a trust, do I know who the trustees are or if I am a beneficiary of the trust?

5. What is my legal or emotional recourse if my husband refuses to share information? (The quick answer: no recourse, unless you file for divorce, which compels financial discovery.)

©2019 New York Times News Service

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