The division of cognitive labor means that the person not in charge of a particular task doesn’t necessarily acquire additional knowledge about that task. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Both partners in a couple have a financial need to know, and offloading the responsibility for joint finances onto one can cause problems.

That’s among the findings of a study in the Journal of Consumer Research that examined the poor state of financial literacy and questioned why financial education seems to have so little effect in making people make better financial choices.

Couples tend to share responsibilities, with one taking on the task of managing, say, health care, while the other may tend to joint savings and spending.

But according to the study, it’s not always the partner with the greatest financial understanding that takes on responsibility for a couple’s finances—becoming, in effect, the couple’s chief financial officer.

And the other partner’s financial knowledge, however good or poor, tends not to improve once the tasks are divided up, since that’s not within that partner’s purview.

Says the report, “Financial literacy seems to develop as consumers learn by doing. Those who are in the non-CFO role do not ‘do;’ consequently, they do not learn or improve over time.”

And financial education tends to bounce off people if it’s not in the sector about which they need information—or presented at the time the information is needed.

The research, the report says, “suggests that timing is not everything when it comes to financial education. The target matters just as much as the time.”

Educational interventions have little effect, the report theorizes, because those two conditions are “rarely met,” with the right person in the relationship receiving the right information at the time it is needed.

People tend to develop knowledge based on their need to know, the report says, paying attention to what they think they need to be aware of while letting other information pass them by.

And their personal relationships can affect who gets designated to be in charge of finances or to take care of other responsibilities, resulting in a broad range of knowledge held by both halves of a couple—but not necessarily translating into each one knowing enough outside their particular area of responsibility.

The division of cognitive labor (one person makes sure the car is maintained and home repairs are done, while the other plans vacations or children’s education) means that the person not in charge of a particular task doesn’t necessarily acquire additional knowledge about that task even if the partner in charge does.

And when it comes to finances, that can be particularly problematic in the event of divorce, widowhood or extended illness.

The report concludes, “[S]pecialization may lead relationship partners to develop significantly different levels of financial literacy over time, which may in turn create noticeably different outcomes for ‘household CFOs’ versus ‘non-CFOs’ when partners are forced to independently process financial information and make financial decisions. This model of distributed responsibility and differentiated expertise has implications for the causes and consequences of financial literacy, the delivery of financial education, and consumer welfare more generally.”

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