Purse strings alone can't guarantee what's inside


They may still hold the purse strings -- but millions of women still don't know what's inside the family purse.

"You'd be surprised how many of my clients, no matter how sophisticated they are, discover the family's real financial picture only when they're going through a divorce," says Sharon Rich, a certified financial planner who heads Womany, a Cambridge, Mass.-based company specializing in women's issues.

Ms. Rich and other financial advisers believe it is crucial for married women to be aware of every aspect of their family finances -- and to have some money of their own even if they are not working outside the home.

Of course, many women now in their late 20s and early 30s have had their own checking and saving accounts since they started working -- and a good number retain an independent reservoir of money after they marry. But others are concerned that wanting their own money will damage their relationships. "When a women seemingly wants to pull money away from the joint finances," Ms. Rich says, "it might feel somewhat threatening to the family."

And with good reason, says Duffy Spencer, a sociologist and consultant on family and workplace issues. "Money is a symbol of power in our culture, and women's demands for financial control are frightening to many men." In the past, "men were money objects to women. But when women gain control over their own money, they make real choices. They no longer have to remain with a man because he's a meal ticket." Once such issues are resolved, Ms. Rich says, couples need to talk. "People need to work at feeling comfortable when they discuss what their assets are, what their money is going toward. They need to talk about goals and to understand they're separate people, with separate styles perhaps and separate needs."

Georgette Mosbacher echoes the sentiment in her "make-over" memoir, "Feminine Force," now a best seller. Married to former Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher Sr., she advises: "In any marriage . . . love and romance are one thing, and money and security are another. They mix about as well as oil and water, but in a lifetime partnership called matrimony you need both. You deserve both."

After two failed marriages, Ms. Mosbacher decided that a woman had better know the family's financial score from the start. And she'd better be on guard if her husband offers a reassuring "Don't worry . . . I've taken care of it." Not good enough, Ms. Mosbacher says. A woman should ask for the specifics and the details. She adds, "Make sure you have money of your own that he doesn't know about. It doesn't matter where it comes from. It does matter that it stays your secret."

Many women might prefer a less clandestine strategy. One answer to this is setting up three checking accounts -- his, hers and theirs, says Sally Spooner, a financial writer who puts out the Spooner Financial Education Quarterly with her husband, Bruce, a certified financial planner. To avoid friction, Ms. Spooner advises first examining the budget. How do you determine what money goes into which account? There are several approaches. "Everyone needs to have some leeway," says Ms. Spooner. "The allocations should be based proportionately, if one partner is making less than the other."

Ms. Rich suggests putting everything into a joint account and then pulling out specific amounts for the separate accounts. "I like this idea, because if the income of the man and woman differ, it de-emphasizes the inequality of their contributions to joint funds. In fact, it works well when one person is out of work or takes time off for child-raising."

Many couples simply deposit paychecks into their own accounts and make contributions into the pooled resources. But this approach needs to be re-examined if either partner takes a leave to stay home with the children and has no money to contribute to the joint account. While they are both working, their private accounts need not be equal, Ms. Rich says.

To maintain private accounts, the partners need to agree on how their joint funds are set up. In some cases, contributions might be 50-50 for food and clothing, for example, while money for items such as mortgage or vacations might be made on a percentage, based on respective incomes. If either party is uncomfortable about the amount of money going into joint or individual accounts, Ms. Rich says, "that's when negotiating begins, talking about family goals." When partners can't agree, financial planners suggest, it's usually not a money problem but something to do with their relationship. So sometimes there's a need for a financial planner, a therapist or even a mediator, says Ms. Rich. Both parties, she says, should agree that money in the private accounts is private. "They need to agree: They can't control each other completely."

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