Not being knowledgeable about the family finances can have severe financial and emotional consequences, especially in the event of divorce, death or incapacitating illness, financial planners say.
At best, the financially clueless spouse will be forced to "learn the new language" of finance at a time when he or she is emotionally devastated, said Victoria F. Collins, a certified financial planner and author of several books, including "Couples & Money" and "Divorce & Money."
The problem is particularly severe for older women, who as a group tend to be among the least savvy consumers, said Lee Norgard, lead investigative specialist for the fraud prevention division at AARP (the organization formerly known as the American Assn. of Retired Persons) in Washington.
"What we have found is that this generation of older women has allowed the husband to be the chief financial officer of the family. But the demographics are that men tend to die around age 74 and women live beyond that," Norgard said. That creates "one of the most vulnerable consumer populations in terms of not knowing their rights and being susceptible to any friendly salesman that comes along."
That doesn't mean, of course, that financial vulnerability isn't an issue for men or for younger women.
Surveys of the general public by Oppenheimer Funds found that only about half of married couples said they made major financial decisions together, such as buying insurance and planning for retirement. For 1 out of 3 couples, it was the man who made most of the major financial decisions; in 1 out of 6, it was the woman who was in charge. The survey's margin of error was less than 3 percentage points.
Financial planner Esther Berger said she has noticed a sea change in her Beverly Hills practice in recent years. With older couples, it's still the man who tends to hold the financial reins, but younger couples tend to either share the responsibility or let whoever is more interested handle the money. Some men--those in the entertainment industry or other creative fields for example--seem to take pride in being clueless about finances, and are more than happy to let their wives take over, Berger said.
"It's a right-brain/left-brain thing," she said.
Jeff Ferentz of Irvine, said much of his securities litigation caseload involves people, often women, who were faced with handling money and were ill-prepared to do so.
"She gets a divorce or inherits money or her husband dies, and she doesn't have a clue," Ferentz said.
Barriers to learning more about the family finances can be significant. Lack of organization or overly complex finances can stymie a financial beginner, planners said.
Fear keeps many women, and also some men, from learning more about money, said Barbara Stanny, a Port Townsend, Wash., resident who was nearly wiped out financially before she learned about investing and then wrote "Prince Charming Isn't Coming: How Women Get Smart About Money' (Penguin, $12.95).
Stanny's father co-founded the H&R Block tax preparation chain, Stanny said, and he had promised her that she would never have to worry about money.
But her first husband lost much of their money, in risky stock market gambles; after their divorce, she faced huge tax bills from a disallowed tax shelter. Her father refused to bail her out.
Only then, Stanny said, did she begin trying in earnest to educate herself. Previously, she said, she had thought money was too mysterious, too complex for her to grasp. When she tried asking questions, what she calls a "brain fog" would descend, making it difficult to comprehend the answers.
Persistence, and being willing to take some risks, can help financially reluctant spouses get up to speed, financial planners say.