Can Your Spouse/Partner Manage The Family Finances Without You?

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My wife got to ride in a single-engine Piper airplane for the first time a couple of days ago, which was exciting for her and scary for me. She even got to fly a little bit. I was surprised she agreed to go since usually I am banned from such “extreme” activities.

This, along with a recent Vanguard article about estate planning, got me thinking. Many of you reading this are the Chief Financial Officers of your households, but would your spouse or partner be able to run things well without you?

It’s funny, right now I don’t feel an urge to buy life insurance (my wife is paid well and does not depend on me for financial support), nor do I feel like I need a will (we are married, so most things would just shift to her naturally), but I do feel like I need to compose some sort of “Financial Will” because currently I take care of most of the finances. In fact, my wife hasn’t paid a single bill since we’ve gotten married! That leaves a lot of instructions to compile…

Where is all the money?
Although she knows where all our major accounts are, I have a lot of smaller accounts. I need to create a list of all financial institutions where I have accounts, what the approximate balances are, as well as a secure system to show her the account numbers as well as usernames/passwords. She already knows where all the bank statements and important legal documents are.

I should also write down all the bills, although this is another reason why I still like receiving paper statements. If a credit card or utility company wants money, she’ll get a letter.

Where do I learn about money?
As for the whole spending less than you earn thing, I think she can handle that just fine. She’s much less familiar with investing, so I would leave her this list of books to start her education. I might change this list later, but I think it offers a decent mix of basic advice and some more slightly advanced concepts.

What if I would prefer professional help?
Let’s say she feels overwhelmed and would prefer to hire a professional. I would encourage her to hire a fee-only advisor who does not work on commissions, and preferably one with a simple passive investment philosophy. I would tell her specifically to avoid names like Merrill Lynch, Ameriprise, and Edward Jones. (There are fine employees at these companies, but the conflicts of interest that exist greatly decrease the chances at finding one at random.)

Although I’ve never met with any of these firms, based on my limited knowledge of their philosophies and reputations, I would give them a shot:

However, these advisors can be very expensive for smaller portfolios, so I would definitely prefer for her learn on her own first. Maybe I would suggest a simple Vanguard Target Retirement fund as an auto-pilot option in the meantime.

How do I keep any passive income flowing in?
Some people may have rental properties, or royalty income, or some other sort of settlement income to preserve. For me, if I die then my day job and freelance income will stop, but this website has the potential to keep earning advertising money for many additional months if not years. I would need a brief manual on how to keep this site up and running (pay the hosting bill!) and who to call if something breaks. Also I would need a list of important contacts to maintain relationships with.

Of course, I would also tell her to read the contents of this site and other sites I link to for more support and advice! 😉

I would also write down a trusted accountant and lawyer, although we already have those within the family. Hmm… anything else?

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  1. We’ve done the same thing, as I’m the one who handles our online financial life, while my wife pays the paper bills. I’ve created a list of all our accounts, including URLs, IDs, and passwords. It’s been printed out, and a copy put in our safety deposit box. This is something I’d encourage all households to do so that your spouse / partner / children / parents can find this information easily in a very difficult time.

  2. Jeff Davis says

    My wife and I actually have different sections of the budget.

    I take care of the “big” things like house, car, utilities, and credit and she takes care of the “little” discretionary things like food and clothing (she likes to shop more). While I just give her a whole chunk of my budget for her, she really makes a “sub-budget” for dealing with all that, and I feel that would make her comfortable dealing with all of it.

    It’s fun though. She tells me she saved $25 last week on groceries, and I remind her I saved $2,500 by refinancing our car 🙂

    But life insurance is still very good, because we have a child coming, and the whole single-widowed mom situation is not good. If I can’t be there to help, at least money will. She has the skills to manage it, but you still have to make sure the money is there.

    Even if she sold and made profit from a whole house, that’s only going to support her for a short time. Life insurance will take care of her and the child.

    Your situation is different, but you also want to consider whether your partner would be ok dealing with all that after dealing with losing you. It might feel like overrating yourself, but you can’t deny it would be devastating to your partner to lose you.

    Just my thoughts.

  3. Nice post!

    I am the acting CFO of my house – my fiance pays me “rent” every month and I take care of all of the bills and household expenses.

    While I do have POD on all of my demand accounts, this is an excellent reminder that I need to make a record of all of our monthly obligations in case something should happen to me.

  4. Just an FYI,
    GA flying is arguably safer than riding a motorcycle.

  5. my wife has been trying to get me to do this too, just too lazy, as well as passwords change and account balances shift quite a bit for us, so if we wrote all that down it would be burdensome to keep updated. or you can create an excel sheet or such and worry about it getting in the wrong hands

  6. Great advice there, I recently had a post on who does the family finances and my wife was woeful with doing finances. I have written down all the passwords/accounts for her, but have also provided a copy to her father incase something happens to me and she needs help with the finances.

  7. Wow – I was JUST talking about this stuff last night with my mother. I’m still a dependent to her being only 19, which allows me to get away with not paying for health insurance, but they still don’t know where all of my money is.

    I decided I would be writing up a list of all of the accounts I have, including acct numbers, PINs, passwords for online access, etc. The question was – where do I put this information? A list of every single little detail about my life that I prefer to stay in my head, will be on a piece of paper available to anyones eye?

    Where do you hide that kind of thing? I’ll be writing about this in my blog today as well. =)

  8. Our Money Journey says


    It’s funny – I was just thinking about how my husband would have NO IDEA how, where, or to whom to pay any bills if something happened to me. I am much more interested in personal finance than he is so he was more than happy to let me “deal with” the finances when we got married.

    I really should follow your train of thought and make a secure file of all of our info and put it…. in our safety deposit box?

    Thanks for the post.

  9. One thing that I have done is keep a detailed list of all of our accounts. I have a copy at home in the file cabinet, a copy in the safe box, and an encrypted copy on my computer. A computer-savvy friend of the family has a key to open the file which is essentially a summary of everything you would need to steal my identity.

    Each account has contact information (especially phone number). I also try to give a general idea of the balance. For example, while I have a TreasuryDirect account, it currently has $0 balance, so there would be no point in pursuing it.

    I didn’t just include financial accounts, like life insurance and investments. I have included every account we contract with, utilities, garbage, etc. Everything that has a bill that my wife would need to know about is on the list.

  10. I agree with this posting completely. I’m definitely the CEO of the household and take as much responsibility in that capacity as possible.

    I like Jeff’s idea of sub-budgeting. My significat other is very smart and capable, its just experience that could use some polishing (which makes sense since our current dilenation of duties doesn’t give her much in the way of experience.

    I’m going to come up with a way to sub-budget. I like groceries, since she shops for them anyway. Clothes doesn’t seem too helpful, since we have to do that seperately and each need a budget. Hmmm. What else can I transfer to my CFO in training???

  11. The Frugal Immigrant says

    “Where is all the money?”

    What we started using at home for the same reason is a program called Password Safe ( see at )
    The software program is very small, fast, freeware and open source. Basically you access all your passwords (and helpful NOTES about them) by just typing a single Master password.
    I keep this nice tool with me all the time – on my USB flash memory key on my keychain.
    Because the database file is encrypted – even if somebody hacks into your PC or you loose your keys (with your USB memory key) at least you know nobody can access these passwords.

    In addition – I’ve started a project to scan all my important (financial and other) documents into PDF files and copy them to my USB key as well. This is easily done with the Send to email feature on most contemporary Multi Function Printers and Copiers, which companies buy and not utilize enough in many cases 🙂

    The scanned PDF files are stored in an encrypted file/partition of my USB key, which I created by using another great freeware and open source program called TrueCrypt –

    This way all that my wife will need to do in case I die is to access these files with the password she knows and read through the notes.
    In addition if my house catches on fire – I will still have access to these documents (and passwords) on the USB memory key which (hopefully) will be safely lying in my pocket.

    The more backups of this info the better of course!

  12. FeedTheFam_Gretchen says

    Oh, I don’t know…I’ll bet your wife is smart enough to figure it all out herself just like you did! Just leave a one or two page list with all the account names, login passwords, and web addresses (on a piece of paper – not on your hard drive!) and let her know where it is.

  13. assume u have no kids…..if u died, would u want ur significant other to become real wealthy from ur life insurance? Drinking chaimpaign, going clubbing, making out with other people, smoking cigars, buying new cars. i wouldnt. Unless we have kids together.

    her tears will dry away within 2 months.

  14. Jesse(The Penny Saved) says

    We’re about to be tackling these issues since we are getting married next summer and its going to be interesting. We are both used to being independent and handling our finances independently – particularly because we are both homeowners. Should be an adventure 🙂

  15. I write up all my
    * usernames/passwords (coded in my native foreign language)
    * when i opened the account
    * why? (highest APR)
    * physical & web address
    * contact phone

    all passport numbers/driver licence etc… basically all my/our info in a online notepad (Zoho) – and share it with her email address. Plus I periodically send the whole note to her & my gmail address.

    plus i have Yodlee (BOA My portfolio) where everything is one click assess.

  16. I like knowing that with the exception of my mortgage, and oh yeah, probably the HSBC online account (where I have some 0% money earning interest), everything else that would need to be paid still comes in the mail. So if something should happen, my husband could just watch the mail. I never opt to discontinue paper bills, because even now I am uneasy about becoming completely electronic. I definitely think there are some bills I would forget if I didn’t get them in the mail.

  17. Nice. I’m working on an alien abduction packet with the particulars of our…everything. Just in case. Because I know Micah can probably manage the money, I just want him to be able to find it easily and to know what I was up to.

  18. Lectrice says

    I hope you appreciate how lucky you are to have a trusted accountant and attorney in your family. My husband and I have been having no luck finding a good accountant, especially, since our old one died. And now we’re looking for an attorney for estate planning, but it’s just a random online search for someone in our area…

  19. Apologies for being totally off topic, but since PF blogging is all about financial voyeurism, thought this might be of interest:

    A view of a middle-class presidential candidate and his investments:

    I am amused at the idea of a presidential candidate who has only recently paid off his student loans.

    Too bad he doesn’t have time to read your posts on asset allocation! 😉

  20. I have one problem with your statement “It’s funny, right now I don’t feel an urge to buy life insurance (my wife is paid well and does not depend on me for financial support)” in that while you don’t have kids now, that could complicate matters. Remember the what-if scenario – You get in a car accident and while she is dealing with the aftermath of that she finds out that she is pregnant. Things happen, even if you are using a form of birth control, you never really know if you will be part of that small percentage. So, she has this big disturbance in her life with you getting killed, then the heartache of knowing she is pregnant and the realization that she is raising the kid on her own. Combine that with stress of a full time job and will she still be able to handle that ‘well paying job’ and take care of a newborn?

    Life insurance is actually not that expensive and can give you a bit more security. I know, you like to cut corners to save money, but I think this is a place you really should consider applying some of those saved pennies to. (No I don’t sell insurance) Personally, I actually have two life insurance policies with two different companies, call it insurance on the insurance in case one company goes under, but really I just wanted to expand the coverage of the orriginal policy and found it more cost effective to go with another company and keep the orriginal policy in place (was way cheaper years ago for same coverage level).

    On the other hand, I see no reason to insure the wife as usually the man is the major breadwinner of the family and it is unlikely that the guy will find himself pregnant afterwards. Sure, she could die during childbirth, but we have to draw the line somewhere.

  21. SavingsBuff says


    My husband and I also have a co-CFO system of sorts and we each try to “teach” the other person more about our particular areas.
    He takes care of the investing (Roth IRA, 401(k), etc.) and I run the “budget” (groceries, household needs, monthly bills, etc.) we tag team large purchases such as vehicles and home maintainence/repair. Doing a split financial leader system has made us both more aware of what’s going on in our finances and requires that we both keep the other informed.

    Maybe you could pass along month-to-month bills to your wife as another good place to “train.” It seems to work well for us.

  22. It doesn’t solve all your issues, but share your username/password for Yodlee MoneyCenter and keep your bill reminders detailed. It easily keeps track of all your small accounts/bills and the username/passwords for all your other accounts are already embedded on their site.

  23. Some great advice in this post. My brother-in-law had a serious head injury that kept him unable to communicate, let alone handle any financial matters, for several weeks. His wife was left without account numbers, passwords, etc. There was a lot of scrambling to make sure bills were paid and that she could have access to their money.

    While most of our bills are paid electronically, I make sure paper bills still come to the house. I could, however, be doing more to ensure accounts other than our joint checking account, such as my personal retirement plans, are accessible by my wife.

  24. I do all the finances as well. For transition, if ever needed, I keep an Excel spreadsheet of all my ids and passwords and also keep paper copies in my safes. The spreadsheet is encrypted and secured using PGP (pretty good privacy) with a very long key. I also keep copies of the keys to my safe in a safe deposit box along with wills, photos of our belongings, marriage license, etc.

  25. I’m a general aviation pilot and fly those small Pipers and Cessnas mostly for fun (and a little for business). As Jake (post #4) points out, GA flying is very safe. There’s a saying that you’re more apt to be killed in a car wreck on the way to the airport, than in a GA plane that you’re going to fly in.

    Personally, I’ve never understood people who fear GA planes and don’t also fear driving. There are roughly 40,000 traffic fatalities every year in the U.S. Picture that – forty thousand dead people on the road. Every year. And many tens of thousands more who are injured and maimed. That there isn’t general outrage and action taken on behalf of all of those people is incredible. Before you shrink in fear of GA flying, always consider this – in order to match the annual automobile fatality rate, there would have to be roughly 30 (4-seater) GA planes crashing and killing all aboard every single day of the year. 30 small plane crashes each day and in each one there are no survivors. Locally, you would hear news about one of these plane crashes in your state every other day. Forever. But instead of that, we’re lucky that aviation is one of the safest methods of transportation around. And the most liberating and fun.

    For everyone out there – whatever you do, please never push your own fears of flying onto others. There are few things worse than preventing others from experiencing life because you happen to have personal (usually unfounded) fears.

  26. Please, let’s not take this as a bash on flying, eh? In fact, while trying researching flying lessons for myself, I did the research on the death rates. I think this page has the best summary:

    How dangerous is flying? There are 16 fatal accidents per million hours of general aviation. It is fairly safe to assume that when a plane crashes and someone dies, everyone on board dies. By contrast, the death rate for automobile driving is roughly 1.7 deaths per 100 million vehicle-miles. Car crashes don’t always kill everyone in the car so let’s use this statistic as provided, which is for an individual traveling in a car rather than for the entire car. So considering that the average airplane accomplishes a groundspeed of at least 100 miles per hour, those million hours of flight push the occupants of the plane over more than 100 million miles of terrain. Comparing 16 fatal accidents to the 1.7 rate for driving, we find that flying is no more than 10 times as dangerous per mile of travel. And since most accidents happen on takeoff or landing, a modern fast light airplane traveling a longish distance might be comparable in safety to a car.

    We can also look at safety per hour. This makes sense for recreational pilots who have the alternative of spending a few hours flying around or spending those hours taking a scenic drive. If the average speed of car travel is 50 miles per hour, those 1.7 deaths occur in 2 million hours of driving. This makes general aviation, with 16 deaths per 1 million hours, roughly 20 times as dangerous per hour than driving.

    Risk management is much easier with airplanes than with cars. In a car, you are constantly at the mercy of other drivers. If an 18-wheeler crosses the yellow line, you’re toast. Except in the immediate vicinity of a busy airport, traffic is seldom an issue for pilots. If you die it is because something went wrong with your plane or because you flew it into the ground by mistake.

    The main point? It’s hard to compare death rates of different activities. But if you’re going to fly, pilot skill/error is critical. 82% of all GA accidents are officially attributed by the NTSB to pilot factors. I did not know this pilot or even how long he had been flying, he was a friend of a friend who was renting a plane. So I made my wife promise not to fly in inclement weather and/or nighttime. It turned out to be a beautiful clear day.

  27. i would have asked my wife to fly in a stormy night with a brand new pilot….hehe just kidding.

  28. Yes…and no. I have a book in place with everything she would need to know if something happened to me, but at first I think she would be lost. But shes smart, she would figure it out eventually. 🙂

  29. She ran her finances before there was Lazy Man in her life, I’m sure she could run them after. I still want to put some guidelines together so that she can find all the money in my accounts.

    It helps that she earns a very good salary on her own.

  30. I use MSMONEY as my total accounting tool and store in it detailed information about each account and payee including user-name, PW. PIN code, url etc.
    I backup my money file every time I make any transaction.
    I keep 5 backups on disk, 5 on flash drive and 5 on mozy.

    I have told my wife and daughter how to find any information at finger tip.

  31. Here is to life insurance! You should be able to get a half million dollar policy for $400 a year for 10 years assuming you are in good health. I’d say it’s worth it if you drive more than a few thousand miles a year.

    That would at least take some burden off of your wife and give her some room to maneuver with your loss. The same could be applied to you. With both of you, it’s likely that you’ll get a discount.

  32. I can also recommend Password Safe (mentioned by another commenter). I use a compatible Linux piece of software called MyPasswordSafe.

    I can also recommend PasswordMaker ( It’s a really convenient plugin for the Firefox web browser. It makes it convenient to create per-web-site passwords that are all different, so you are not tempted to use the same password everywhere.

    I still create my own passwords for financial things and keep them in the password safe, but for all of those other “random passwords” I just use PasswordMaker. Very convenient.

  33. You don’t “need” a will because everything will go to your wife, sure. But if you’ve ever been involved in executing an estate, you know that will is worth a LOT of hassle.

    And I’m shocked that anyone as well-read as you, Jonathan, wouldn’t at least want the Terri Schiavo forms. That poor woman showed us that we all need to get our estate papers in order.

  34. I’m pretty much in the same boat. My wife is not dependant on my salary, nor I on hers. But she has not paid a bill…or even looked at our accounts in years. I give her a Net Worth Update each month and let her know how much we have saved. We’ve got some bare bones estate docs in place, but I have recently had the same thought of making a list of anything and everything to do with money for her incase something were to happen to me. Since I am a financial planner, I have given her instructions to speak with one person at my previous employer to help her out.

    Go get a Will! At least some software generated one to have something to show.

  35. all this planning is great, but you have to remember, by giving all this information to your spouse, you might be setting yourself up for some problems in the tragic event of “divorce”. By knowing all your passwords, and with access to all your own personal accounts, she (or he) could take you to the cleaners well before any legal proceedings take place.

    Estate planning is very important, but divorce planning is something we all should not neglect.

  36. I’d rethink the insurance thing …for both of you. Most of your assets are tied up in the house or retirement accounts, that won’t be readily accessible in the event either of you dies. Will each of you be able to afford to stay in your current house on one income? The loss of a spouse is traumatic enough, but to have to be forced to sell a house and move on top of it, is horrible. I assume that you are both the beneficiaries on each other’s retirement accounts however, you’d lose a lot in taxes, so most people would rollover into another retirement account so the $ not really “available”.
    Why not buy you life insurance through your employer, it’s convenient and can be take out of your check. I’m not saying insure for millions, but peace of mind. Either enough to pay off the house, or 3-5 years to “find yourselves”.
    @ John if you really have that much to lose, and don’t trust each other you should have a prenup. Whatever each of you acquired before you married should not be considered “community property” anything after the I do is up for grabs.

    Question..if you’re married and have separate accounts that were opened prior to marriage, and there’s no prenup, is it “stealing” if you “clean out” said accounts? Does marriage automatically grant access? I would think you wouldn’t be able to take money out of an account you don’t have access to even if you are married but maybe I’m naive. Upon death is another matter.

  37. auntie green says

    In my house, I do the bills and balance the checkbook, etc. My husband keeps track of what stocks to buy/sell, etc. So we divided it up based on interest/time. I keep trying to get him to take over paying the bills but he won’t. Oh well. But we each know enough about what the other does to pick it up if need be

  38. auntie green says

    Actually, Wendy, “upon death” isn’t necessarily a different matter. The comapny I work for has just been acquired by a Fortune 500 company. First payroll check from the new company will be July 1. Today we had HR meeting to go over forms. The HR person said to make sure to keep the beneficiaries on Life Insurance and 401K updated. He said there have been cases of people who initially picked a beneficiary, then later got married and didn’t change it and it ended up not going to the spouse. I read about a situation like that last week in the Wall Street Journal as well. If you’re 22 and single and take a job out of college, you may designate your sister or your mother as your beneficiary. And if you neglect to update it when you get married, and then you die, your spouse doesn’t get it.
    something to think about….

  39. Lectrice says

    When my husband’s brother, Bill, died suddenly of a heart attack at age 55, his wife got a double whammy. Bill had never changed his first wife’s name on his death benefits! (He was a horrible procrastinator, plus probably hoped he would never die.) Bill and Wife 1 had parted 15 years before, and no one knew where she was living, so there was some hope on our part that Wife 2 would get the benefits by default. Well, the insurance company hired a private detective and eventually they found the first wife. She gladly took all the money. Luckily my sister-in-law has her own job and benefits, but what an unneccessary bunch of heartache on top of an already bad situation. A cautionary tale indeed.

  40. My wife has many bills. She gave one 50% of her insurance to the children. I can’t pay her bills alone. What should or could I do should she die? Can the policy be broken? Or can all bills be paid off the top? That will most likely take all of her insurance money.

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