Spender or saver? Separate or joint accounts? Not interested in finance? Today we start a four-part Women and Money series exploring women's attitudes to money, and offering advice from experts on wealth creation and how
to be financially independent.
In this first part, Jane Phare admits to making all the mistakes this series will advise you not to do, and talks to other women about their stories.
Money. Moola, dosh, loot, bread, cash, folding, coin, lolly ... whatever we call it we can't live without it. And if we mismanage it or make bad decisions, it can ruin our lives – as the Runaway Millionaires, Rotorua couple Leo Gao and Kara Hurring, discovered when $10 million mistakenly showed up in their bank account and they went on the run. It all went horribly wrong.
Throughout my working life I've never been particularly interested in money; I couldn't really be bothered with it. I don't have a daughter but to my smart nieces now leading grown-up lives I say this: do as I say, not as I do.
And what I say is "don't abdicate responsibility to someone else like your aunty did. Keep on top of your finances."
If I told them how our family finances are run I'm not sure they'd believe me. In fact I can't tell them how they are run because I don't really know.
My generation of women has a disproportionate number like me – woefully ignorant about, or disinterested in personal finance, which is probably why my female editor asked me to write about it.
But abdicating responsibility to someone else is not the only issue facing women when it comes to money, savings and wealth. The odds are stacked against us: the gender pay gap and taking time off to care for children leads to KiwiSaver inequity for a start. Women live longer but have less saved for retirement.
Those who have let their husband or partner to run the joint finances can be left floundering in the event of divorce or the death of the spouse, with no clue how to access accounts or run the household bills.
In some cases they are left with debt they didn't know existed or what one of our case studies calls "financial infidelity".
I'm heartened to hear from educators and other women I spoke to for this series that personal finance is woven into core curriculum subjects young women learn at secondary school, and that primary and intermediate kids also learn about money.
But they also say there is still a long way to go, that not enough women are coming out of business schools, that they will still earn and save less, they are less able to raise capital to start a business and will struggle to make it anywhere near the bottom rung of the Rich List.
That women should stay in charge of their money is a message echoed throughout this series, a message driven home by financial experts and, more importantly, by women who have learned the hard way either through personal experience or watching friends or clients struggle.
It is the message that Heather McRae, Diocesan School for Girls principal, delivered at the school's Year 13 leavers' dinner earlier this month. Look after your money, she told the room full of teenage girls about to start the next phase of their lives. Take responsibility for it.
In the second part of this series McRae and others talk about why women can find themselves on the back foot financially and why they should, if possible, keep their own separate account.
Dubbed by some as a "f*** off fund , it allows a woman the freedom to leave an unhappy relationship, a dead-end job, creepy flatmates or even the country.
It is a message that somehow passed me by at Epsom Girls' Grammar School which, back then, taught me the basic subjects, three languages and how to cook - but nothing about managing money.
Growing up I learned it was unladylike to talk about money and bad manners to ask anyone what they'd paid for something. I was a good saver, squirrelling away enough from my wages as a lowly Herald cadet to pay for a trip to Europe and a Morris Minor 1000 by the time I was 20.
It was when I got married some years later that I got lazy. I abdicated responsibility for anything that looked like numbers to my husband. He was good at all that - tax, bill payments, bank statements, investments, financial decisions, internet banking, you name it, I ignored it.
I vaguely signed documents to do with a family business and never asked questions because I didn't know what to ask, and had no idea about the size of our mortgage.
But I knew how to be careful with money. We learn those life lessons from observing our parents.
My mother was extraordinarily tight with money in an almost illogical way. Dad was a high-income earner while my mother was a stay-at-home mum with a cheque book she rarely used.
She never had to ask for housekeeping but I was aware other mothers did.
It wasn't until after my mother's death that I learned she was deeply affected by the effects of the Depression and post-war England, growing up in a house without running water or a loo inside.
Years later, as a well-to-do wife and mother in New Zealand, she could never throw off that fear of not having enough money, even though we clearly had plenty. Consequently, bikes and doll's prams were rarely shiny and new, but more likely second hand and fixed up by dad.
I was expected to have after-school and holiday jobs from the age of 14. From then on I bought, or made, my own clothes.
And do I resent all that? Not a jot. It has helped me enjoy money when I had it to spend, and do without it when I didn't. But it didn't teach me to plan, or to take charge of my money.
Later in this series I talk to Australian actor and director Rachel Griffiths, who tells a similar story; only her family really were poor. She remembers second-hand clothes, scouring op shops, and a granny who "still washed the Gladwrap and hung it over the tap".
Griffiths calls it "inter-generational financial trauma", and in a way she's a classic example.
Her beautifully restored home in Melbourne's St Kilda is expensively tasteful enough to be featured in Australian Vogue, yet when her youngest daughter wanted to start a lemonade business she took her to six op shops to find a glass dispenser for $10 rather than pay $150 for a new one.
Griffiths is undoubtedly well off but, by her own admission, if she'd learned to handle her own finances early on she'd be a lot wealthier now.
She's happily married but I've witnessed many women friends who found themselves on the wrong end of financial ignorance when their relationship ended.
One left an unhappy marriage only to find the locks on the family home had been changed and the joint bank account drained. She was left with a suitcase of clothes and $17 in her purse.
I've witnessed the imbalance of power, where the husband will buy a new car without consultation but the wife has to ask for money to get the vacuum cleaner fixed. And women who have simply given up fighting for a fair divorce settlement for themselves and their kids, emotionally and financially drained, unable to continue to pay a lawyer.
But I'm heartened by the young generations coming through. They're taught about money at school and young women can take business studies as an option at secondary school.
I'm still married to the household Financial Controller and I'm still hopeless with the ins and outs of money, but I plan to change that. As several experts told me during interviews, "It's never too late to start."
While working on this series I talked to lots of women, both on and off the record. Their underlying message was invariably the same: think about money, talk about money, learn about money. Don't bury your head in the sand.
Two of their stories are below and spread throughout this series.
Melanie Weeks, events manager
Melanie Weeks never thought too much about money during her first marriage. She was young, so were her children. Her husband was a good earner, if a little impulsive.
When they bought a house after moving back to Auckland from London, the mortgage broker advised them to put everything into one joint account and use a joint credit card.
It wasn't until Weeks stopped working to look after her first-born son that she noticed a subtle shift in the way the family finances were run.
"You're doing all the unpaid work but you feel guilty about spending money. It doesn't feel like it's your money to spend and you have to ask permission from your partner."
Conversely the earning partner doesn't necessarily feel the same need to ask permission, she observed. One day her now ex-husband arrived home with a two-seater sports car.
"I was gobsmacked because we had two children and he'd bought a two-seater car with a soft top and we already had two cars."
As life got busier with two small boys, Weeks let her husband deal with family finances. It wasn't until the couple split that she realised she was in trouble.
"He had been spending a lot more than I realised and that our mortgage had grown and grown rather than getting smaller."
Debts leveraged against the mortgage
Debts, including the sports car, had been leveraged against the mortgage. Their joint account had also been accessed.
"When you first meet someone there's trust and you assume that everything is going to go harmoniously. I just hadn't kept an eye on things."
Weeks was left with two small boys and the humiliation of having to apply to Work and Income for an emergency benefit.
"It was quite shocking to me, but it can happen very easily."
Weeks' father helped her buy out her ex-husband's share of the house otherwise she would have been homeless.
That experience made her wary. She vowed that she would not have another child if she had a second relationship. "It really hit home to me the vulnerability of women who have children."
And she vowed that she would stay in charge of her own finances, and keep a separate account.
Weeks has been with her second husband for 10 years. They bought a house together within a year of meeting, and saw a lawyer to clearly arrange what would happen if the relationship ended.
The couple put an equal amount into a joint account and keep their own accounts separate. Weeks works part-time and her husband recognises her role as the primary care giver, paying for big-ticket items like holidays.
The couple talk to the boys, now 14 and 16, about money. One is a saver, the other is a little more impulsive with spending.
"My husband is really good with money and the kids see that. He does a lot of research before he spends his money on something."
Best advice: Do all those boring, sensible things like saving. My really strong advice to anyone getting into a relationship is to keep a separate account because it gives you the independence to make your own decisions. It might just be small but it's important to have that control. Keep a strong voice as to what your plan is.
Frances Cook, Cooking the Books podcaster and author
Frances Cook may be a financial journalist who writes and talks about money but she's the first to admit she's made all the classic mistakes.
After marrying her school-days sweetheart Ben five years ago, she "fell into bad habits", pretty much abdicated responsibility to her husband.
It wasn't until Cook, 31, started the Cooking the Books podcasts for NZME two and half years ago that she realised she needed to start practising what she was preaching.
"I didn't even have access for the internet banking for some of our joint accounts. It was ridiculous."
Taking more of an interest helped both ways, she says, taking some of the load of decision making off her husband and making her more aware of their joint finances and long-term goals.
"It can and should be a topic at the dinner table. That's a real passion for me."
Managing money within a relationship is a balancing act between sharing goals and team work, and independence, she says.
"Everyone has to figure out that balance for themselves, and what works for them. It's so deeply personal."
To that end, Cook and her husband both have joint accounts, and separate savings and investment accounts which the other can't access. They both get the same amount as a "fun money" allowance.
Nobody is the boss of me
"It's that peace of mind where I'm in charge of my own affairs and nobody is the boss of me," Cook says. "I'm a grown woman and I don't have to ask anyone's permission. And I think that's a really important mental safety net."
Cook admits to being "irresponsible" with money and somewhat of a shopaholic, whereas her husband is more sensible. She thinks it's not uncommon for a spender to end up with a saver in a relationship.
"It causes tension. But if you approach it the right way and you work together it actually works because a spender needs someone to rein them in and a saver actually needs someone to tell them to loosen up and enjoy life a bit. You know you don't have to wear that holey underwear until they're totally crotchless!"
Her new book, Tales from a Financial Hot Mess, based on notes she's kept from her podcasts, is particularly aimed at women.
"With women it's often a real sign of trust for us with our partners that we just hand over responsibility for the money. It's you know, 'I trust you, I love you, here you go I'm sure you'll do a great job.' It actually ends up not working out for anyone.
"When you're not taking an active role in your finances, you are always going to be doing less well."
Being open and honest about money is also important to Cook.
"Financial infidelity, hiding money or spending decisions from your partner, is a really big deal. It can spiral into financial abuse quite quickly where money is used to control another partner," she says. "If one person holds all the keys, what is the other person going to do when it hits the fan?"
Although having the conversation or asking questions can be awkward, being beholden to someone is worse, she says, a power dynamic that can get "really toxic really fast".
Cook acknowledges that divorce can be financially devastating and leave women without the means to buy a house. But women can still get into shares if a house is out of their reach, or get a flatmate to supplement rent.
"You can build up a nest egg that generates from that. It's absolutely never too late. If you've got five years or more you've got options."
Cook and her husband plan to pay off their mortgage within 10 to 15 years. "Financial independence is the goal for us. If I can reach the stage where my job is this weird quirky hobby that I do because I like it, that would be great. I don't want to ever feel totally dependent on my wages . That's too much power for someone else to have over me."
Best advice: Set up a savings account, whether you earn a little or a lot. Even if it's just $1000, that is the thing that gives people the most peace of mind.
Tomorrow in the Herald on Sunday: our panel of women experts share advice on the pitfalls and pleasures of money, what to watch for, and how to safeguard against what you don't know is coming.
Have a think about these questions which we'll answer in this series:
• Do you know all the passwords to joint accounts and do you know how to access them?
• Do you have a separate account that no-one else can access?
• Have you looked at your KiwiSaver to make sure it's working for you?
• Have you considered investing rather than keeping money in a low-interest savings account?
• If your partner looks after the money, do you ask questions and keep an eye on spending and debt?
• Do you get independent legal advice before signing documents, increasing a loan against a house or asset, or setting up a family trust? Do you stand to benefit?
Part three and four:
In Monday and Tuesday's Business Herald, and nzherald.co.nz, we look at wealth creation and why middle-aged, white males dominate the Rich List, why women are good at investing and running businesses, and why it's important not to ignore your KiwiSaver.