The hand that holds the wallet...

... usually belongs to a woman, according to a new survey. In most relationships, it claims, finances are under female control. Beverley D'Silva reports
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The Independent Culture
Men may still run the City and be ahead in the earnings race, but women control the cash and how it's counted at home. So, what's new? The gender gap in money matters goes beyond a basic grasp of house- keeping, according to a new survey. Fundamental differences between male and female psychology are at play. These affect how open or secretive men and women are with each other about money, the gambles they're prepared to take over investments and other factors which affect the power balance of the relationship itself.

Not that men are ashamed to admit women have the pursestrings tied and firmly knotted. In the survey, conducted among married couples by Eagle Star insurance, half the men said their wives were better at looking after the finances, and were more astute with money. When arranging finance to buy a car, for example, two-thirds of men only make a decision after their wives have explained the implications of the deal. Fiona Price, who heads an all- female team of independent financial advisers in London, finds the same is true of single professional women, who make up the majority of her clients. "When couples come for advice, the woman doesn't mind asking what might seem silly questions, while the man tends to brush over vague areas, for fear of looking ignorant. Men and women tend to be equally smart about money. But men think they know more, women think they know less."

Women being canny about finance is not new, says Jo Gardiner, of the Industrial Society's Pepperell Network. "Women have traditionally scrimped and saved to meet household bills. There's a history of women asking sensible questions to make a practical decision about a financial deal."

Lynn Cordell, 46, is a television researcher, with an 18-year-old daughter from her first marriage. She has lived with Steve, a computer programmer, for 10 years. "I'm confident with money. But I've had to be," she says. "I was divorced at 30 and had a young child to raise. My ex-husband, who was an estate agent, was a fool with money. He was always broke and still is. When we split, I drew up a brilliant divorce deal. He wanted to sit in a field and ponder life. I said fine, and providing he let me keep the house, which I'd built with my own money, I'd make no more demands. He agreed.

"When I began living with Steve, I suggested we keep our finances totally separate. He lives rent-free in my house, and pays all the main bills - food, electricity, gas. I pay the phone bill and poll tax. I make all the important financial decisions. He's not interested, but I was brought up discussing money around the dinner table. "

Lynn says she was more open about money at the start of her marriage but now feels a need to protect herself. "Steve and I are honest about what we earn, but savings is another issue. I know everything about his investments, and he knows nothing about mine. I need to keep something a secret, and if he has to pay a gas bill knowing I've got x amount stashed away, it might get on his nerves."

Women are more secretive about money, especially savings, than men, and the reasons given for this are as dissimilar for men and women as the size of their nest-eggs (his was pounds 7,045 on average compared with her pounds 1,750). Men saved secretly for a surprise for the family. Women did it in case the family should break up, and for financial security.

The gender split gapes further when it comes to investments. Women tend to be "risk averse", while men are more likely to take a gamble. "You may see a man being seduced by high-interest shares in an obscure Japanese bank, when a more reliable building society investment would suit him better," says Fiona Price.

This was true of Sam and Emma, who marry next month. Sam, 34, started his kitchen-fitting company last year. "I bought pounds 3,000 worth of shares in a company I worked for," says Sam. "When the company went bust I lost my money and my job. I may have been too involved with the company to make a good judgment, but I'd make a similar investment again; I believe the greater the risk the greater the reward."

Emma, 32, is a freelance conveyancer. She says Sam's finances were in a "dreadful state" when she met him. "He'd was the type who always waited for the red bill. When we moved in together, I took over the finances. I set up direct debits. I did all the shopping around for our mortgage. Then I took Sam along to sign the form. I'm the one who begins the discussions about money. I'm strict, which I get from my mother, who had a poor childhood. My father was an impulsive spender and it caused a lot of friction. Sam's not as rash with money as my father, but he has a head-in-the-sand attitude. I need to know I'm managing it properly." Financial independence is increasingly important to women. More have bank accounts in their own names, and the number of women with their own mortgages has doubled since 1983. "Being in control of my money is crucial to me," says Lynn. "It enables me to look after those who need me, such as my daughter, whose school fees cost about pounds 50,000. If I squirrel money away it's not greed, it's in case I have to pay a hospital bill for a close relative."

Sadia Gee, 38, says that what changed the power balance between her and Michael, 40, was having children. "When we married, Michael and I both worked full time and earned the same. We made all the financial decisions together. When we had the boys, Michael became the main breadwinner. We still make decisions together on big household purchases, such as the conservatory we've just had built. But Michael has definitely taken the upper hand and now we argue about money. I disagree politically with buying shares from flotations and, although Michael knows this, he bought British Airways shares. I felt I couldn't complain - he's earning more than me - but it did make me feel disempowered."

Money is one of the major factors cited in relationship breakdown, ranked alongside problems over childcare and in-laws, according to Julia Cole of Relate. She counsels couples whose fights over money are, she says, often a metaphor for deeper issues in the relationship. Money can symbolise a lack of commitment and closeness between two people. The woman whose husband has been having an affair, may become reckless with money as an act of revenge." Cole says that more women working and couples cohabiting calls for a rethink of attitudes. "Couples who had their own properties and bank accounts before living together may find it be harder to share than their parents, who went straight from the family home to the marital nest. Each couple has to sit down and ask: what is right for us?"

Sam and Emma have no money secrets. He appreciates her practicality, she his laissez-faire approach. Sam's father was a banker, who gave it up to work with Brazilian street children. "Dad taught me that money is great," says Sam, "but doesn't necessarily bring fulfilment. Emma and I pool our money and our relationship is based on trust. Actually, it goes beyond that - I know how Emma behaves and respect that."

Relate publishes a guide for couples who are having trouble coming to such a happy conclusion: "Money shouldn't be a worry in a relationship," it counsels. "Talk to each other. Problems are easier dealt with when you face them together."