Smart Money Podcast: Money Management for Couples and the Benefits of Fiduciaries


Discover methods to achieve financial harmony in relationships and why fiduciary advisors are often considered trustworthy.

Sara’s Corner: How can couples equitably share the mental load of managing finances? Can you trust fiduciary financial advisors? Hosts Sean Pyles and Sara Rathner begin with a discussion about the division of financial responsibilities among couples to help you understand how to create financial harmony in your relationship.

Today’s Money Question: Elizabeth Ayoola joins Sean to explain how you can choose a financial professional to work with, starting with an in-depth look at different types of fiduciaries including Certified Financial Planners (CFPs), financial coaches, and financial therapists. They discuss the nuances of fiduciary compensation structures and explain how you can advocate for yourself when selecting a financial advisor to work with.

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Episode transcript

This transcript was generated from podcast audio by an AI tool.

Do you know which financial advisors you can trust and which might just be looking to make a buck? Well, this episode will help you sort the good from the sketchy in the world of financial advice.

Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money Podcast, where we help you make smarter financial decisions one money question at a time. I’m Sara Rathner.

And I’m Sean Pyles. This episode, we’re joined by our co-host Elizabeth Ayoola to answer a listener’s question about fiduciary financial advisors. Are they all they’re hyped up to be and how do they compare to other folks looking to make money from giving advice?

I would say the answer to those questions are usually, and they’re better, but I don’t want to steal your and Elizabeth’s thunder.

I appreciate the restraint, Sara, even though you did just say those things.

But anyway, before we get into that, we’re going to hang out for a bit in Sara’s Corner. This is a thing I just made up where we hear from Sara about something that she recently wrote. Sara’s Corner, it’s cozy here.

I mean, I do keep a blanket on the back of my desk chair, so it is cozy here.

Yeah. My corner is cozy and also may be full of emotionally fraught conversations because I do really like to write about couples and money, so let’s bring on the fighting.

Yeah, that’s a good combination, I’d say.

So Sara, you recently wrote an article about how couples can share the mental load of money management. So to start, what inspired you to write this article? Are you giving us a peek into the Rathner household?

Maybe a little deep down, but honestly, it’s really about what my social media algorithms are serving up lately, besides baby sleep experts and a little bit of Zillow Gone Wild, which is an account I highly recommend. So fun. You never know when an indoor pool’s going to pop up.

There are quite a few people who are influencer-type personalities who discuss topics like the mental load and emotional labor within families and within households, and it got me thinking about something that causes a lot of fights about who’s handling what task, and that is, as always, money.

So in your article, you write that “Couples can fall into unproductive patterns that can lead to conflict, resentment, and even willful ignorance.” And this goes beyond money in a lot of relationships, and I do feel like this is something that anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship can relate to. So can you give us an example of one of these unproductive patterns and how can they be damaging to a relationship?

One source I interviewed talked about what they called a manager-follower dynamic where one person in the couple is in charge and they delegate tasks to their significant other, and that’s fine at work. At home, it could also be fine depending on the task, but sometimes it could get a little icky, and even if one person is handling 100% of a task, you are both benefiting equally from that labor.

Yeah. That reminds me of friends I’ve talked with who have found themselves in relationships with partners who really want a parent more than an actual partner, and that can be exhausting to deal with.

Yeah, it’s totally fine to divvy up a task and have one person kind of be like, “I’m the point person for this, so if you have any questions about it, come and ask me,” but you’re agreeing to that together. It’s not this automatic, “Well, I’m the more adulty adult here and you act like a child, so I’m going to be your parent.” That’s a really gross dynamic to have in any romantic relationship. If you are in that right now, I don’t know, reconsider.

Yeah, it can really strip away the romance from that relationship.

Yeah, there’s nothing romantic about constantly reminding your partner to pick up their damn socks already. Adults can put socks in hampers, I’m just saying.

That’s very true. Well, the hard thing is that with money, this can be a really easy dynamic to slip into because one person might know more about managing money than the other, so they end up just taking on all the money tasks or they delegate specific tasks to their partner, and if only one person knows about the finances of the household, that can be a very risky situation for both parties in the relationship.

Exactly. And again, it’s totally fine and totally normal for one of you to feel more confident dealing with money. Maybe you’ve just managed your money differently back when you were single, maybe you work in finance. That is normal, but it’s still both of your responsibility.

And the same source that told me about the manager-follower dynamic also said to me that like any task, money tasks are things that you can learn by doing. So even if you are the less confident one in your relationship when it comes to these kinds of responsibilities, you can still grow your skill set. You can learn by doing. And so as you go forward in the future, you can take on more and more tasks with confidence and not fall into that dynamic where you’re constantly relying on the other person to tell you what to do.

Let’s turn to some solutions. You first suggest that couples approach money as equals, which sounds great. Is the idea here that no one person in the relationship should have more power over their finances than another?

Absolutely. The dynamic where one person handles everything and the other person could not be bothered to know the passwords to any accounts is not good. That’s not a healthy dynamic. At best, it’s unfair. The division of labor is, in that case, is putting a lot of that work on only one person’s shoulders, and at worst, it could be a sign of financial abuse. Withholding your partner’s access to finances is sometimes a situation where you are dealing with abuse and that’s something to keep your eyes open about. But even if your partner is totally happy to hand off the work and know nothing of the household finances, they could end up in a really tough spot if your relationship ends, either through divorce or breaking up or even if the partner passes away.

So it might be a good idea for couples that are living together, have a long-term relationship, and have somewhat intermingled finances to even know the logins to each other’s accounts. Is that something that you’ve explored too?

Yeah, you could even use a password manager to do that because you can share passwords with each other very easily or you could be really lo-fi about it and just have a list stored in a secure place like a safe that you keep updated once a year. You definitely want to both be equal partners in access to the money even if you don’t necessarily divvy up those month-to-month or week-to-week tasks equally.

Well, what about actually getting those money tasks done? How should couples determine who does what?

Well, this is where the whole money date thing comes, and we talk about this a lot. Sit down, pour yourself the beverage of choice, a cup of tea, a glass of wine, and have a chat about what bills are due, what savings goals you have, which kid has outgrown their clothes and needs to go shopping because that’s also a financial thing, all those sorts of money-related responsibilities that you have coming up in the next week, the next month, even the next three months. And in that conversation, you can also divide up the tasks.

And it can be helpful to have different types of meetings at different times. Maybe once a quarter you have a higher-level meeting where you think about where you want to be at the end of that quarter or at the end of the year. And then at the beginning of each month, you can think, “Okay, here are the things we need to get done this month,” and then maybe even on a weekly basis, you can think more tactically around, “Okay, we need to get a bunch of whatever thing at Costco this week and that’s going to be a bigger bite out of our grocery budget, so let’s make sure we make room for that,” just so you have different conversations at different levels as you are managing your finances together.

Yes, and I like to think of it in terms of that timeframe. What has to be done in the next few days, what has to be done this month, and then what’s a longer-term conversation?

Well, this reminds me a little bit about how my partner and I manage other household tasks like doing the dishes, for example. In general, in our household, whoever cooks dinner does not have to load the dishwasher, and if you load the dishwasher, you don’t have to unload the dishwasher when it’s clean. And for us, it really comes down to being about balance.

Exactly. And by splitting up responsibilities this way, you’re also acknowledging the labor that the person who cooked is performing. You do the dishes because you respect the work it took for the other person to cook. And in my house, because we have the baby to wrangle, I do most of the cooking. While I am doing that, my husband is handling the child care because I don’t want to stop cooking to change a dirty diaper because that’s unsanitary. So in our home, it’s this acknowledgement of, “You are 100% dealing with a baby and I’m 100% dealing with the cooking, and we have to split this moment up in order for us to get dinner on the table.”

Well, do you have any other advice for how couples, or I guess anyone co-managing a household together, can find a more harmonious way to manage their finances?

So another thing is once you divvy up those tasks during that money date, another really important thing is owning tasks that you agree to take on from start to finish. And this is where we talk about weaponized incompetence and all those psychological phrases that get thrown around on social media when you say you’re going to do something and you don’t do it and you’re, “Eh, it’s too hard.” No, it’s not.

Right. If you show your partner that you’re going to agree to do something and then you don’t do it to an agreed upon level of completion, you’re showing them that they can’t trust you.

So in your money date, not only do you talk about the major overarching tasks that you both need to complete, but you can break them down into subtasks so it doesn’t feel quite so intimidating. So if you’re the one to step up to own a task, that means you take care of it from start to finish, and it doesn’t mean you can’t ask for help if you get stuck. You are still partners, but you are just the one spearheading everything.

Well, Sara, thanks for sharing your insights. I like hanging out in this corner with you. It’s cozy.

I’ll bring a second blanket for next time-

… so we could build a fort together.

I love it. And listener, if you want to check out Sara’s article, you can find a link to it in this episode’s show notes.

And now let’s check in on this month’s Nerdy question, which was what’s the best thing you spent money on this month? Last week, we heard from a listener who spent money on a third opinion from a doctor ahead of a major surgery and was able to find a more effective and less invasive way to resolve their pain. So hooray for taking charge of your own healthcare.

And here’s what another listener texted us. “Hello. My favorite purchase so far is a used grand piano. I paid $4,000 and $1,000 to move it to my apartment on the third floor, no elevator, but it’s the best money I spent.” Wow. “I practice more than four times a week and it’s worth every penny.”

Ugh, I love that this listener is spending money on something that is both a creative outlet and also likely a very beautiful thing to just have in their apartment. And I’m not going to pretend like spending $5,000 is nothing, it’s a significant chunk of change, but I’m willing to bet that they will get some good use out of it and it might just end up that they put some family photos on it eventually after the novelty of having a piano wears off, but still, it’ll be nice to look at.

Also, I’ll say that having lived in a third-floor walk-up apartment, can I just say how impressed I am that it’s possible to get a grand piano up there? Because that was not what the staircase was like in the apartment building I was living in. Maybe you could hoist it through a window?

Yes, I think you do have to do that. You take out the window. Sometimes you have to get a permit from the city. It can easily be $1,000 or more depending on where you are.

Well, listeners, we have so loved hearing from you and all of the great things that you are doing with your money. So to share the best thing that you spent money on last month, text us or leave a voicemail on the Nerd hotline at 901-730-6373. That’s 901-730-NERD, or email us a voice memo at [email protected].

And while you’re at it, send us your money questions too. It is quite literally our job to answer them and we love to hear what situations you’re mulling over. So please tell us and we’ll try and solve these problems together.

Well, before we get into this episode’s money question, we have an exciting announcement. We are running another book giveaway sweepstakes ahead of our next Nerdy Book Club episode.

Our next guest is Jake Cousineau, author of How to Adult: Personal Finance for the Real World, which offers tips to young people on how to get started with managing their money.

To enter for a chance to win our book giveaway, send an email to [email protected] with the subject “Book Sweepstakes” during the sweepstakes period. Entries must be received by 11:59 p.m. Pacific Time on May 17th. Include the following information: your first and last name, email address, zip code, and phone number. For more information, please visit our official sweepstakes rules page.

Now let’s get into my conversation with our co-host, Elizabeth Ayoola, about whether fiduciaries are all they’re hyped up to be.

We’re back and answering your money questions to help you make smarter financial decisions. And this episode’s question comes from Ian, who wrote us an email. Here it is. “Hi, team. I hear fiduciaries being peddled like some kind of miracle cure for financial planning, but I’m curious how being a fiduciary actually works. What is the enforcement mechanism? Is there a licensing body, like for nurses or doctors? What makes a fiduciary more trustworthy than someone who is making a promise that they totally have your best interest in mind? Cheers, Ian.”

This is a good question to ask, especially if you’re trusting someone with your money. And I really like this topic because I recently covered it in a paraplanner course I’m taking. Sean, I know you’re also in the deep waters of coursework since you’re studying to become a certified financial planner professional, which is a fiduciary role. So you’re going to answer Ian’s question so we can test your knowledge.

A fiduciary is just a fancy term for someone who has an obligation, usually a legal or professional obligation, to put their client’s interests before their own. A fiduciary can be a doctor caring for your health, a family member managing someone’s estate, or in this case, a financial professional who is managing the personal finances of their clients.

Okay. So in summary, a fiduciary prioritizes you and not their pockets.

That is the idea and the hope, but there’s a little more to it than that, and I really have to hand it to this listener because I appreciate their skepticism about what it means to be a fiduciary because they are touted as the gold standard among financial advisors.

I also think we need to zoom out a little bit and talk about what it means to be a financial advisor because the term “financial advisor” is not regulated. Anyone can call themselves a financial advisor, even the sketchiest, hustle-culture peddlers on TikTok.

I actually think we could do an entire episode on that, Sean. Right now there’s so many people sharing financial advice, and I’m afraid that people might not be doing enough vetting before taking these people’s financial advice, or even realizing that all advice shared doesn’t have their best interests at heart.

Yeah. And as a side note, I’m not a fan of imposter syndrome, but the personal finance space is one where maybe more people should feel imposter syndrome because there are just too many people online without qualifications or experience telling others what to do with their money.

I second that. And the wrong advice could really lead to great financial chaos for people, so they should absolutely be scared of sharing inaccurate or misleading advice.

Totally. And if I’m being completely honest with myself, part of why I’m pursuing the CFP certification is to quell my own occasional imposter syndrome because I, as a professional in the personal finance space, want to get as much information as I can and I want to be as qualified as I can be to help others, but that’s just me holding myself to a very high standard that I think maybe other people should hold themselves to as well.

And that’s why I like you, Sean. Okay, obviously there’s other reasons I like you too, but that’s exactly why I’m doing my qualification also because I want to share accurate advice with people. And I love to answer my friends and family’s finances questions when I can, so I want to make sure I actually know what I’m talking about.

Anyway, so back to our listener’s question. Ian wants to know how being a fiduciary actually works in the financial planning space. CFPs are a fiduciary, so how does that actually work in practice, Sean?

Yeah, that’s a good question because Ian asked about licensing to affirm that someone is a fiduciary, and in the personal finance space, that usually means getting a CFP certification, which is the gold standard of education and conduct in the financial planning space. So please indulge me as I give you a sip of the Kool-Aid that I’ve been drinking during my CFP coursework, and I’ll explain what it means to be a certified financial planner professional/fiduciary.

Okay. So part of becoming a certified financial planner involves intensive education, passing a difficult exam, but then once you are certified, you have to act according to the Code of Ethics and Standards of Conduct that are outlined by the CFP Board. And there are three parts to this fiduciary duty that is also outlined by the Standard of Conduct.

So first, there’s a duty of loyalty, which states that a CFP professional has to put their client’s interests ahead of their own, like we talked about before. They also have to avoid, disclose, and manage conflicts of interest, and they must only act in the financial interest of the client, not themselves or the firm that they work for. They also have a duty of care, which basically mandates that the CFP professional has to be competent and do their best to help their clients meet their financial goals. Also, they have a duty to follow client instructions, where a CFP professional has to abide by the terms of the engagement with their clients.

Wow, that is a lot, but honestly, it would give me confidence as a client to know that someone jumped through all those hoops for me.

Yeah, and that’s really just scratching the surface, too. And the Standard of Conduct is a big part of why being a CFP is a big deal in the personal finance space.

But here’s the thing, Sean, our listener, and to be honest, me too, is also wondering about enforcement. So let’s say a CFP professional decides to prioritize them making an extra dollar over what’s best for the client, and I don’t know, let’s say they push them into an investment or some kind of insurance product that isn’t actually a good fit for the client. What happens then? Do they call the cops? What do we do?

The police are not involved in this unfortunately, but there is an enforcement mechanism at the CFP Board. If someone suspects that a CFP isn’t living up to their fiduciary responsibilities, they can file a complaint with the board and the board will investigate, and there are a number of disciplinary actions that it could take, including stripping someone of their certification.

The thing is, the onus is typically on the clients to file the complaints, and that’s part of why hiring a financial professional, hiring a CFP doesn’t mean that you can totally sit back and ignore your money. You still have to be engaged and monitor what’s going on.

For sure, I learned that the hard way, so I try to learn things here and there. But thanks for explaining that.

I do have another question though. How would the client even know if they aren’t financially savvy or if they have a sketchy history? Are there some telltale signs?

Yeah, this is the really tricky part, right? You’re going to this financial professional because of their expertise, so they probably know more about this topic than you do, and that can make it hard to know if they are BSing you or maybe more likely to violate their ethical duty later on. There are a couple of things that you can do though.

Before you even hire a financial professional, do your due diligence and shop around. I would recommend talking with a few different financial advisors before you decide which one you want to work with long-term. You can think of it like dating in that way. You want to get to know them and feel that you can trust them. And then once you are in this vetting process, I would say turn to our old friend Google and dig into each planner that you’re considering a little bit, like you would anyone that you’re dating. Verify that they actually have the certification that they say they do, and look and see if they’ve had any disciplinary actions that have been marked against them publicly. Also, you can just Google around and see if they’ve done anything else that you find suspicious or weird that you just aren’t on board with.

Wow. I love those tips, Sean. And I also must say, when you said, “Your old friend Google,” it just reminded me about how long I’ve been in a long-term relationship with Google, but the tip’s definitely way more important. So basically, you’re telling us to put our investigator hat on. So okay, what’s the other thing you think people should do?

Okay, so this might sound a little bit squishy, but go with your gut. If you talk with someone enough, you can probably tell if they aren’t confident in their grasp of the information they’re presenting. And even if they are, you might find that they just have a different money philosophy from you, which can signal that you guys are not compatible. For example, I once worked with a financial planner who suggested that I could take a 401(k) loan to solve a short-term cashflow issue that I had. And I personally happened to think that taking a loan against my own retirement for a problem that was going to work itself out anyway was an exceptionally bad idea, so I decided to work with another financial planner instead from that point on.

Wow, that advice does not sound good, especially if it was suggested before exploring other alternatives that may not set you back for retirement. And I do understand that some people have to take out a loan against their 401(k), and that’s the only option that they have, but the downside is it might set you back, but I’m glad you went with your gut.

Right. It wasn’t right from my circumstances or how I like to manage my money, and that’s what the bottom line was for me.

Now, so far, Elizabeth, we’ve been talking a lot about CFPs because that really is going to be the primary type of fiduciary that a lot of people looking for financial planning will encounter, but I want to go back to the idea that there are a lot of other people out there giving personal finance advice.

Mm-hmm. People on TikTok, your nosy friends who are always getting in your business, the people interrupting my YouTube videos with their long-winded ads.

Yes, but also accredited financial coaches and certified financial therapists. Both of those are fiduciaries, but they have different standards of conduct and enforcement mechanisms.

Elizabeth, I know that you have some experience working with financial therapists, so can you give us the rundown on what they do and why someone might benefit from working with one?

I do, I do have experience with that, Sean. I am a wellness fanatic, that’s just a personal note, so I love the topic of financial therapy and also financial wellness. So essentially a financial therapist can help investors understand their worries and their fears around money. They also help you identify the feelings and the beliefs that you have around your money and your habits. Another way to put it is they help you identify and eliminate your money blocks, which are things getting in the way of you achieving your financial goals.

And financial coaches are somewhere between a CFP and a financial therapist. They help people meet their financial goals, and they might be better suited to help those who aren’t super high-net-worth, don’t have a lot of investable assets. Accredited financial coaches also have a specific focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, which is really important in the personal finance space, considering the racial and gender financial inequity in this country.

Absolutely. They’re doing good work and we have a lot of work to do to close the gap, but as a woman and a Black woman at that, I hope we see more progress in coming years.

So we’ve just run through a few different types of fiduciary financial professionals, and here’s my bottom line: if you are getting individualized financial advice, it’s probably for the best if that person is also a fiduciary because you know that that is a stamp of credibility, and it goes way beyond a financial influencer on TikTok telling you to sign up for their class and then peddling some investment account from a company that’s really just bankrolling their lifestyle.

1,000%. I know me personally, I’m at a point where I’m growing wealth and I’m trying to make the right investment choices so I can see positive growth in the coming years. On that note, I would definitely go to a fiduciary if I was stuck trying to make a tough financial decision.

Yeah. At the least, when you are receiving financial advice from someone, whether in person, on social media, or even on a podcast, I think people should ask themselves three questions: what is this person’s qualifications, how are they getting paid, and why are they doing this?

I definitely think more people should ask those questions. But Sean, say more about that money part because that’s a big piece of the puzzle too.

Yeah. Well, in the financial planning space, there are three main ways that people are compensated beyond a base salary. They can be fee-only, fee-based, and commission-based.

So when you meet with a fee-only advisor, they might charge you an hourly fee or a fee based on a certain percentage of your assets that they’re managing, maybe 1 or 2%. That’s pretty common. And fee-based is really similar, but there is a key difference, and that is that this advisor might get a commission from products that they sell you, like an insurance product or a specific investment account. And commission-based is exactly that: the advisor makes their money from selling financial products. So you can probably imagine why the commission-based pay structure gives some people pause.

For sure. And then even if the advisor is a fiduciary, being commission-based could muddy the waters a little bit.

Yeah. And for those who are really concerned about any conflicts of interest in the financial advisor space, fee-only might be the route where they feel most comfortable.

Well, Sean, thank you for this rundown of what it means to be a fiduciary. Your coursework is courseworking, and I can see the studying is paying off. Do you have any final words?

Yeah. I’d say that if you want a financial professional to help you with your finances, vet them thoroughly, shop around, and remember that at the end of the day, you have to be your own best advocate to get what you want from your money.

Absolutely. And that’s all we have for this episode. Sean, thank you for educating we the people. Remember, we are here for you and we want to hear your money questions to help you make smarter financial decisions, so turn to the Nerds and call or text us your questions at 901-730-6373. That’s 901-730-NERD. You can also email us at [email protected], and also visit nerdwallet.com/podcast for more information on this particular episode. And remember to follow, rate, and review us wherever you’re getting this podcast.

This episode was produced by Tess Vigeland and me. Sara Brink mixed our audio. And a big thank you to NerdWallet’s editors for all their help.

And here’s our brief disclaimer. We are not financial or investment advisors. This nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes and may not apply to your specific circumstances.

And with that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds.



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