Texas Tech University

Research Shows Marital Status Affects Women's Financial Awareness

Heidi Toth

December 4, 2015

Laura Mattia, a doctoral student in personal financial planning, found married women are more likely to lack financial knowledge.

Woman paying bills
Helping women become financially literate and confident is the hypothesis behind Laura Mattia's research.

Years ago a 70-year-old woman sat across the desk from Laura Mattia. Her husband had died, and in an attempt to get her finances in order she saw a financial adviser, who recommended she buy a specific investment product. That product failed. The widow, whose husband took care of the money while he was alive, lost half of her savings.

A woman Mattia met volunteering at a rape crisis center put up with years of domestic abuse because she had no control over her family's finances and thus couldn't break away. Though she brought in half of the family's income, her husband retained control. She couldn't get enough money to get away.

A third woman worked in finance on Wall Street but let her husband handle the money. When they divorced, money was missing from their accounts. She didn't know when or where it had gone and had no way to get an equal share. A fourth woman was left destitute when her husband filed for divorce, leaving her with their house underwater and their savings cleaned out. She hadn't worked in decades, since she quit her job to support his rising career.

In the 15 years since Mattia became a financial adviser, and many years before that when she worked in corporate finance, on Wall Street and answered questions about finances, she has repeatedly been struck by how women are less likely to be financially aware and the disastrous consequences this can have. Helping women become financially literate and confident became a professional goal and the hypothesis behind her research as a doctoral candidate in the Department of Personal Financial Planning at Texas Tech University.

“These are basic life skills,” she said. “Everybody needs to know how to evaluate their own personal financial situation.”

Getting to Texas Tech

Laura Mattia

Mattia earned a bachelor's degree in psychology with plans to help people. She realized she needed a way to pay the bills, so she went back for a master's in business administration with an emphasis on finance and accounting. She worked for M&M/Mars and spent time on Wall Street.

At one point in my career I just had this aha moment, that although I was, from everybody else's perspective, a successful person, I wasn't feeling successful because I really wasn't doing what I wanted to do,” Mattia said.

For years she'd been on the receiving end of personal financial questions, mostly from women in her office who didn't have a good grasp on their finances. Many of these were educated women who made good money but hadn't been educated on investing, retirement or budgeting. She found a special market of women going through divorces who needed to know what kind of property settlement to look for and how to make a budget and set financial goals for their lives.

She chose to continue this work formally, earning her Certified Financial Planner (CFP®)
designation and becoming a full-time financial adviser, which allowed her to use all her education and gave her an avenue to help people on the scale she'd wanted to as a psych major. Mattia also became a certified divorce financial analyst and started a monthly podcast, “Financially Empowering Women.”

After several years teaching at Rutgers University, she discovered she loved teaching. To do that full-time, she wanted a doctorate. What really pushed her to earn that degree, however, was the idea of improving the financial planning profession through scientifically based education. For that she came straight to Texas Tech.

“We have the best program by far,” Mattia said. “I'd love to get into a university that has the same kind of energy that Texas Tech has. I don't think it exists, but maybe I can help create it.”

She also didn't look far for a research question for her doctorate. Mattia went immediately to her passion: figuring out why women struggle with finances more than men and finding a remedy.

The ‘Pretty Woman' factor

Every woman wants a knight in shining armor to swoop in and save her, right? That's what the movies seem to show – men saving women from poverty, bad family situations, a bad relationship, or in the case of “Pretty Woman,” the movie Mattia mentions, a life of prostitution on the streets of Los Angeles. It's a fun movie, sure, but it's not exactly promotional for women taking control of their lives, money and all.

Michael Finke

“When you take a step back and think about the messaging in a movie like that, and many other movies, that you can't get it alone, you need a man to get you out of this problem – we're not just talking about money,” she said. “We're talking about women being able to live their lives on their own terms, as they want.”

Without their finances in good shape, however, women can't do that, so Mattia set out to learn why women struggle with money more frequently than men and how to level the investing field.

She started with the available research, most of which comes from one database and all seemed to pinpoint the same issues: women have problems processing information, lack economic and financial knowledge, don't have the ability to make financial decisions, are intimidated by money and don't understand numbers.

Besides being insulting, those findings don't hold up. Michael Finke, a professor of personal financial planning at Texas Tech who works closely with Mattia in her research, said Mattia was tireless in teasing out exactly why the gender gap exists.

“Instead of just stopping at ‘women are less interested in finance than men,' Laura went to the economic literature on marital bargaining and developing a theory that proposed a different explanation – that married women, and married women with children, decide to let their husbands specialize in financial decisions while they specialize in other things,” Finke said.

Using a broader database than much of the literature on the topic, Mattia and PFP professor Sandra Huston compared financial awareness of married women to that of unmarried women and men and found it made a huge difference. There is no financial knowledge gender gap for women who were never married.

The path is easy to trace and quite rational: in one household, couples frequently divide up responsibilities to be more efficient. In most relationships, that responsibility fell to the husband. Over time the wife becomes increasingly disconnected from the couple's finances, and when something changes – divorce, the husband's death or a financial downturn – the wife doesn't know how much money they have, where it's invested, what her share is or how to move forward being responsible for her money.

“The problem is, there are certain skills that are developed over one's life and take a while to produce, so men are producing financial knowledge and women are not,” she said. “The statistics are that nine out of 10 women are eventually going to be by themselves. The real danger is when something happens to the marriage, now what? These women are in a very bad situation.”

As unromantic as it sounds, she actually recommends keeping a small part of marriage more like a business relationship. There should not be dependence, Mattia said.

“When you're in a partnership there is a certain element, a business component that you can't close your eyes to,” she said. “It really does, I think, promote a really healthy relationship because there's not this dependency.”

Next steps

Sandra Huston
Sandra Huston

The question of why women feel they should cede all authority or even awareness of finances is a little harder to answer. It's not an overall lack of education, she said. Many of the women she helps are college-educated. Some of them bring in income themselves. They just aren't educated in financial issues.

For many, it's not a lack of desire, her research has shown.

“Since we now know women are less financially knowledgeable because they rationally delegate these decisions to their husbands, we also know they are going to be more vulnerable if they get divorced or become a widow,” Finke said. “And we know they will likely be open to financial literacy education since it isn't just a fear of finance that's driving their lower literacy.”

However, simply delegating the finances elsewhere doesn't explain why women don't feel they are the best spouse to take care of the money. She recounted how many female students came up to her when she was a professor and said, “I'm a marketing major. I don't need to understand finance.”

“In business, you need to know this,” she said. “Not only that, but in life you need to know this. These aren't just skills for the working world. These are skills that can help you in your life.”

She is continuing her research into the relationship many women have with finances while also looking at ways to make financial planning a more successful place for both female planners and female clients. She's an advocate for a movement requiring financial planners to undergo certain certification or licensing procedures to weed out the ones whose primary purpose is selling a product. (Many of Texas Tech's faculty members are part of this movement as well.) She also worries male financial planners are less likely to take the one-on-one time needed to go over questions in a positive way.

“Men don't appear to be as sensitive to that as women might be,” she said. “I've attracted a lot of women to our practice because they felt they weren't being talked down to and we were helping them understand. These are professional women who have the ability to understand if someone will explain it to them.”

Mattia graduates in May, and she's already looking for teaching jobs. However, the podcast will continue, and her door likely will remain open to anyone with financial questions, related to class or not.

“Laura knows the industry of financial planning, and her interest in academia was motivated by her professional experience,” Finke said. “Often when someone has been successful in practice, they can be resistant to viewing financial planning through the lens of academic theory. But Laura was always passionate about understanding the academic theory in order to explain phenomena she saw as a planner.”