Responsibility distribution between romantic couples shapes financial literacy

Couples often grow farther apart in household finance skills and interest in learning those skills over time.


Many consumers suffer from low levels of financial literacy, and attempts to increase this dimension of consumer expertise via educational interventions are typically unsuccessful.

In a recent study, scientists from CU Boulder and The University of Texas at Austin argue that the partners are not merely individuals, but are also part of something larger: a cognitively interdependent system in which each partner can rely on the expertise of the other.

When relationship partners rely on each other for information and decision-making, they no longer need to know everything; they simply need to know who knows it. They adopt specialized domains of responsibility that subsequently guide attention, information search, and learning.

Each partner may selectively seek out and process information related to his or her domains of responsibility while letting other information pass by unnoticed.

From this perspective, differences in the individual cognitive tendencies of husbands and wives are not merely reflections of each partner’s idiosyncratic preferences but are in fact created by the existence of the other person and the division of cognitive labor between them.

Over time, this cognitively efficient specialization may affect each partner’s ability to both meet the demands of day-to-day life and make potentially life-altering decisions.

This generates a gap between them that may later become a big problem as one partner takes over as household chief financial officer (CFO).

Author John Lynch, founder of the Center for Research on Consumer Financial Decision Making at the Leeds School of Business at CU Boulder said, “A lot of financial illiteracy comes from the fact that one member of a couple relies on his or her partner to handle the household finances.”

Kynch further explained, “If the household CFO dies or the couple divorces after a lengthy period of time, the non-CFO partner could be left trying to quickly make up those years of financial experience. But the good news: You can try to assess if this phenomenon is true for your relationship, and if it is, start to bridge the financial literacy gap.”

He recommends gauging the partner who makes the household’s financial decisions on a scale of zero to 100.

He said, “If you are completely responsible, mark yourself at 100. If it’s your partner who holds the power of the purse, mark yourself at zero. If you share equally, it’s 50. After that answer a few financial literacy questions such as these:

  1. Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account was 1% per year and inflation was 2% per year. After one year, would you be able to buy:
  • More than today with the money in this account
  • Exactly the same as today with the money in this account
  • Less than today with the money in this account
  • Don’t know

2. Do you think that the following statement is true or false? “A 15-year mortgage typically requires higher monthly payments than a 30-year mortgage, but the total interest paid over the life of the loan will be less.”

  • True
  • False
  • Don’t know

3. Suppose you have $100 in a savings account, the interest rate is 20% per year, and you never withdraw money or interest payments. After 5 years, how much money would you have in this account?

  • More than $200
  • Exactly $200
  • Less than $200
  • Don’t know

4. Suppose you owe $3,000 on your credit card. You pay a minimum payment of $30 each month. At an annual percentage rate of 12% (or 1% per month), how many years would it take to eliminate your credit card debt if you made no additional new charges?

  • Less than five years
  • Between five and 10 years
  • Between 10 and 15 years
  • Never
  • Don’t know

He said, “If your knowledge-level is much higher than your partner’s. Then it’s time to start bringing him or her into the conversation.”

The study is published in the Journal of Consumer Research.


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