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Helping Wealthy Couples Agree On Their Financial Plans

One of the most challenging conversations for a financial advisor to have is getting a married couple to agree on a financial plan. Husband and wife may have very different views on risk, as well as spending and saving priorities.

As the French so memorably put it, the difference between the sexes is something to celebrate—Vive la difference!—but for wealth managers it can also be exasperating.

One of the most challenging conversations for a financial advisor to have, for example, is getting a married couple to agree on a financial plan. Husband and wife may have very different views on risk, as well as spending and saving priorities.

Guiding a couple through such a discussion “takes a great deal of effort,” said Bruce Bickel, senior vice president at PNC Wealth Management, the wealth management unit of PNC Financial Services Group in Pittsburgh. “We’re not marriage counselors, but we do help manage the relationship,” between husband and wife, and between the couple and their wealth as a whole.

Facilitating good communication is job number one, Bickel said. “What we have to do sometimes is to help the couple have open communication about their finances.” Judging from the results of a recent survey conducted for PNC Wealth Management, it’s a good time for couples to check in with each other about their financial plan and investments, because post-financial crisis, post-recession, more women than men say that they’re risk-averse.

Among over 1,000 respondents surveyed last fall, who have more than $500,000 in investable assets, 49 percent of women, say that post-recession, “We are planning our financial affairs more carefully than we used to,” PNC reported earlier this month. Only 39 percent of men said the same.

Husbands also report they are more comfortable with risk, with 41 percent saying they are high or moderate risk investors, compared with just 27 percent of women who say the same. Close to half (46 percent) of women respondents consider themselves balanced investors.

Talk To Me
The first challenge, keeping in mind these general trends and findings from the survey, said Bickel, is to make sure couples are heard by the advisors, and are hearing each other. “What I try to do is to listen to where the couple is, and find out what it is that we might do to facilitate their financial plan,” he said.

Bickel recommends that couples write a wealth mission statement together, to force them to put into words their priorities, and what they want to do with their wealth in their lifetimes. The mission statement can help them come to agreement about spending, saving, and budgeting, Bickel said, and even help them agree on how much risk should be taken in the portfolio.

Of course, sometimes, especially with older clients, even getting man and wife in the same room to discuss their financial plan and investments can be a challenge, said Jereme Brisco, an advisor with USAA Wealth Management. With his clients, who skew older, with an average age of about 70, sometimes the husband is accustomed to making all the decisions, but that cannot stand, Brisco said. He presses the issue, and insists on getting a husband and wife in the same meeting, in person or on the phone. In those conversations, often the wife expresses more caution than the husband does. When that happens, compromise is the goal, but Brisco can also take a divide and conquer approach.

“What I recommend is that as a couple they agree on the level of risk they’re comfortable with,” Jerome Brisco said. “If that’s impossible, if the husband wants to be more aggressive than the wife, I say, ‘Let’s put your assets into half aggressive, half conservative vehicles.’ Then, taken as a whole, the couple is moderate.”

Women ‘Risk-Astute’—Not Risk Averse
Advisors appreciate, too, that women bring a more “holistic” understanding of risk to the conversation. Women are often better than men at thinking about the unthinkable, such as a sudden job loss, and also “implicit and explicit” obligations to children, and perhaps aging parents, said Margaret Franklin, chair of the Board of Governors of CFA Institute and president and chief executive of Kinsale Private Wealth in Toronto.

“Women are quite sensitive about issues such as ‘What do we want to give our kids? Are we funding their education, are we helping with their first mortgages?” said Franklin. “In my experience women tend to think through those things far more clearly. They’ll bring them up, they are clear about them, and they want to talk about them.” She adds, “Women are not risk averse; they’re risk astute.”

In fact, starting with a discussion about children and legacy planning may be a good way for men and women to start a discussion and come closer together on risk and investment profiles, since men and women are naturally equally concerned about their children’s future. Since the crisis and recession, in fact, both mothers and fathers are concerned that their children will have many more financial challenges in their lives than they did, the PNC Wealth survey showed.

More than half (57 percent of mothers, and 55 percent of fathers) believe the recession has fundamentally changed the way their children will manage their finances in the future, PNC reported.

Sounds like a good starting point for a discussion.

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