Experts say couples should be honest and open about money matters or the issue can become problematic
IN THE Yee family, husband Paul Yee, 41, is the “out” department. His wife Rosalind Poh, 39, is the “in” department. He spends, she saves.
When they got married 12 years ago, they had a joint bank account for savings, in addition to their individual accounts.
Two years into the marriage, Madam Poh, a risk director with American Express International, realised after examining bank statements that her husband, an IT professional, was saving only half of the $1,000 she was saving a month.
She says: “I felt it was unfair. I was unhappy to be the only one who seemed serious about saving.”
He replies: “Initially, it was a bit of ‘enjoy life’ attitude. We were buying furniture such as a massage chair and dining out every day at cafes or nice places.”
Later, the “unaccounted-for spending” went into a car that was not budgeted for and doctor’s and hospitalisation bills when the children arrived.
The couple, who live in a five-room HDB flat in Holland Drive, now have three daughters aged nine, six and four.
They then agreed to have him keep track of his or their expenditure, down to $7.50 food court meals, in spreadsheets. But they “conveniently” gave up the idea when the computer crashed, says Madam Poh, and came up with a way which both are happy with now.
She says: “Since he likes to spend, he pays all the bills. My pay, minus my personal expenses, I save for the family. I control the purse-strings for big-ticket items, for example, what car to buy and how much to pay for the renovations.”
Every month, Mr Yee spends about $5,800, which includes about $1,400 for his daughters’ piano, gym, swimming and violin lessons, $1,000 for nine insurance policies for the family and the rest for household expenses.
Their joint account has been closed.
The Yees are likely different from other couples here in how they control the household kitty.
An HSBC study released in October last year, on attitudes towards retirement and financial planning, found that Singapore men tend to balance the household books.
The study of 17,000 people, with 1,000 from Singapore, found that globally, women – 37 per cent – are more likely to take sole charge of managing the household budget than men (34 per cent).
The “inference seems to be that women are much more focused on short-term financial matters than longer-term retirement planning”, says the study.
In Singapore, only 28 per cent of women take the lead in making decisions on managing the household budget compared to 32 per cent of men.
In Japan, however, salarymen-husbands often give their salaries to their wives, from whom they then receive pocket money.
On average, each salaryman gets 36,500 yen (S$560) a month for pocket money, reported Bloomberg in June last year. The amount, after the March earthquake tightened household purse-strings, was the smallest since 1982, the news agency added.
Like most Singapore men, taxi driver Sainy Safian, 48, manages his own money. Of the $1,500 or $2,000 he earns a month, he gives $300 to $400 to his housewife spouse for groceries and marketing. The rest goes to cover the cost of the cab rental, diesel and his pocket money. There is barely anything left for savings, he says.
“I prefer to control the money myself as my wife is too soft on the kids and usually gives in to their requests for money to go out with friends or for shopping,” adds Mr Sainy, who has five children aged from 17 to 26 and seven grandchildren.
In Mr Vincent Carthigasu’s family, he and his wife, who is a nurse in a private clinic in Gleneagles Medical Centre, control the purse-strings together.
They have two daughters, aged 22 and 19. Elder daughter Tabitha started working six months ago as a video programmer in the prison service, while the younger, Patricia, has applied to the Singapore Management University.
Home is a five-room flat they bought 15 years ago at $450,000. They are paying for the apartment using their CPF accounts, each forking out half.
Mr Carthigasu, 49, a commercial sales manager in a moving company, spends about $1,500 on household expenses. This includes $400 for groceries, $300 for insurance premiums and $700 for a rented Nissan Sunny and parking fees. Big-ticket buys – such as $3,400 for air-conditioning in the flat and $800 for a 43-inch plasma TV – are also on his account.
Mrs Selina Carthigasu, 52, puts aside about $1,000 a month for household expenses – Patricia’s pocket money ($250), tithes to the church they attend ($300) and for marketing and groceries ($450).
As Mr Carthigasu has been retrenched 12 times over the years from the time his daughters were in primary school – he landed his current job three months ago – they have no savings.
Patricia’s tertiary education will likely be paid for by a loan from a bank or a friend, says Mrs Carthigasu.
The couple got a CPF education loan to fund elder daughter Tabitha’s psychology studies at the National University of Singapore.
The realities and difficulties of balancing the books in a family usually kick in when children arrive, say lawyers and financial planners.
Apart from gambling debts, a couple’s bickering is usually over expenses for children, household bills, repayment of housing and car loans, and especially when one spouse feels he or she has been paying more than the other.
Sometimes, hidden decisions – what experts call “financial infidelities” – also cause unhappiness. Financial planner Patrick Tan, 49, says these include secret splurges on luxury goods, spa treatments and drinking sessions.
He adds: “There are also occasions when someone makes a personal loan to a friend or family member without letting his or her spouse know.”
Last year, Mr Yee splurged on a $1,000 ergonomic table and $800 on a chair for his daughters.
Madam Poh says: “He waited till I was away on a business trip and bought them. When I came back, I went: ‘What?’”
Says Mr Yee sheepishly: “I said, ‘Bought already, what.’”
In the end, they agreed to disagree, says the easy-going Mr Yee.
In their case, such disagreements over financial decisions have been harmless.
But local lawyers have seen money matters break up marriages. Mr Koh Tien Hua, a partner with the law firm Harry Elias Partnership, recalls a case where a woman wanted to manage the family finances and her husband allowed her to do so because “it was easier that way”.
But they soon disagreed on her investments. Mr Koh says: “Quarrels started. She withdrew all monies from their joint accounts and said they were hers or all spent. A divorce ensued.”
Family lawyer Ellen Lee of Ramdas & Wong says that in nine out of 10 cases of couples splitting up, money is a direct or underlying cause, “even for the very rich ones”.
She cites an extreme case: A wife gave her spouse her ATM card because she trusted him. Then “he systematically emptied her bank account of $200,000 over a few months, without her knowledge and disappeared without a trace”.
Whether differences over who saves or spends more would break up a family
“depend on how reasonable or unreasonable one party pushes his or her agenda”, says Mr Koh.
Experts advise couples to be meticulous when talking money before marriage: Find out how much each one earns and agree on how much each should contribute to a separate joint account for family expenses.
Ms Lee says she often hears comments that one party never knew the other had defaulted in contributions. She says: “Be dogged. Take a look at the bank statement every month and ensure that each person contributes punctually and without fail. Provide for what happens when one fails to contribute.”
However, the Carthigasus do not believe that money talks.
Though Mrs Carthigasu has had to forgo even simple extras such as going to the movies and having dinners out, and the family takes no holidays, she is content.
“If we have a full lunch, then dinner is just a sandwich,” she says. “What we have, our daughters, they are the treasure.”