Do men and women, think about, use and invest money differently? If so why? Dare one go there? One has to be very courageous, misguided or foolhardy to wander into the “sex difference”, now rebranded the “gender similarity”, research area.
Or would it be helpful at all to review the literature in this field? Would it help those who give advice to men and women about financial issues? Maybe it would help parents to make their sons and daughters equally financially literate.
There have been many studies from different countries, and with very different populations, that have shown that males and females differ in their attitudes towards money. Clinicians sometimes speak of the two different ‘‘gender cultures’’ with respect to money as a consequence of socialisation, with men showing more tendency for competitiveness, perhaps associating money with freedom and power, while women appearing less competitive, veering on the side of security and stability.
Some small scale studies and reviews also suggest that there are significant sex differences in money-related pathologies, such as impulse-buying, compulsive- spending, hoarding and credit card debt, with a few other studies suggesting that women may have less technical investment knowledge, and different financial planning behaviours than men.
There is evidence to suggest that men can sometimes have a slightly more narcissistic relationship with money, whereas women have more of an emotional tie with it. In the end, since money is such an important symbol of value and exchange in society, and thus a certain imaginary power is assigned to it, all kinds of unusual behaviours can unfold around it for both sexes, with complex cases leading to an utter inability to demonstrate financial self-control.
Studies investigating spending habits have suggested that males typically choose to spend their money on different items. Males are more likely to consume products related to physical activities and sport, whereas females prefer to purchase items used to enhance their image. Women are generally considered to enjoy shopping more than males. This stereotype has been empirically verified: apparently women attach more significance to shopping than do males. One reasoning behind this may be that females are found to relate their sense of self more closely with shopping than do males.
In one big study that I led, we examined sex differences in money beliefs and behaviours. Over 100,000 British participants completed two online measures, one of which assessed ‘‘money pathology’’ and the other four ‘‘money types’’, based on the emotional associations with money. In that study, nearly all measures showed significant sex differences, with females exhibiting more ‘‘money pathology’’ than males.
The biggest difference on the money types was on money being associated with generosity (money representing love) where men scored much lower than females, and autonomy (money representing freedom) where men scored higher than women. For men, more than women, money represented power and power. Men were more likely to be hoarders while women did more emotional regulatory shopping (impulsive and compulsive spending).
We argued that socio-economic and cultural factors could have influenced these results. This study could not answer questions of how these sex differences arise; that is, to what extent they have a biological or evolutionary basis or are a product of socialization and social structure or both. Whereas people often grudgingly accept the fact there are sex differences in money issues, they are much more in disagreement about why the differences occur.
Biology is Destiny?
There has recently been an interest in the evolutionary psychology of consumption where socio-biological explanations are offered for numerous sex differences in shopping, spending and responding to advertising. On the other hand, it has been argued that sex differences in money beliefs and behaviours are essentially a product of structural institutions and socialization and can therefore be relearned. This is the sociologists vs the biologists: supporters and detractors of the “biology is destiny” claim.
For women who have a propensity towards money issues, varying explanations are proposed – one suggestion being the influence of the menstrual cycle. Much research indicates that females are found to be more rational post-ovulation, and to act more impulsively, perhaps demonstrating anxiety or irritability, during pre-menstrual phases.
One study found that women spend more money when they are frustrated. Another investigated the relationship between the menstrual cycle and spending, concluding that impulsive spending was significantly different across menstrual phases. Spending was found to be less controlled and more excessive for some women further through their cycle in the urethral phase. The authors associate this finding with those women also reporting mood swings, increased irritability, impaired memory and concentration at this time in their menstrual cycle. Such experiences led those to women spend more money than intended, as well as more regularly spending money that was unplanned and on impulse. Almost two thirds of the women in the luteal in that sample phase had made a purchase on impulse.
A female perspective?
Do some women have a special, unique or changeable relationship with money? Two female American psychologists wrote a couple of books on this very topic. They noted: “We began teaching workshops to help women heal their emotional issues about money and regain their power over money. Our next step was writing about our experiences and discoveries.” For the women attending, their aim was to confront two possible fallacies: money defines you and is part of your self-worth. Further, that money earned should and does powerfully affect relationships.
They quoted various studies and surveys, which, for instance, showed:
- Young (American) women fear money more than learning about handling it later, work less and receive more financial support from parents than their male counterparts.
- Only 11% of women vs. 25% of men in a nationwide poll were rated as “very knowledgeable” concerning their investments.
- Women worry more (29% vs. 17%) about money and differently – men worry more about losing face, and paying the mortgage, while women worry about day-to-day issues.
- Women work fewer years and are less well paid than men. Hence they accumulate less and have less retirement provision.
They note that they begin their workshop in the familiar money messages way, asking about parental beliefs and behaviours with respect to money. They also enquire into the cultural, religious and education-based messages the participants received. They believe that (Western) society sends two strong and contradictory messages to women:
- Women don’t have to bother learning about how to manage money because their/a man will gladly and competently take care of all that. This leads women into never asking for a fair salary, never learning about investments and being uncomfortable talking about money.
- Possession of wealth comes only at a very high price: true happiness does not come from money, and interest in money will exact a painfully high price in terms of relationships and personal security. They believe that women assume a dependent relationship with money when they approach all money dealings from one or all three basic beliefs: I should not have to; I do not want to; I cannot. All lead to a sense of helplessness and powerlessness.
Further, according to them, beliefs about dependency become self-fulfilling, hence the importance of education and empowerment to reduce the feelings of anxiety. Related to this is the fear of success; the “meek is better” message that it is unfeminine and unladylike to be powerful and economically successful. This can lead to a failure to achieve potential, and lowered self-esteem and self-confidence.
They also talk about fears such as “money = security”. This, they argue, leads to the belief that any relationship is better than no relationship. This belief may be rooted in family history. They might also stay in unhealthy, poorly paid and deeply unsatisfying working situations for the same reason: It is the fear of dependency, homelessness, and being a burden that leads some women to stay in bad relationships, bad jobs, and bad families, as they believe their only security comes from the money they receive by staying where they are.
Of course, money can also be an addiction or a treadmill to nowhere. It can have a drug-like quality for various reasons: people spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about how to obtain it, so much so that we neglect ourselves and our relationships in the process.
The aforementioned psychologists suggest that some women may be particularly prone to compulsive or emotional spending that is used to comfort, vent feelings, even “feel more alive”. Shopping sprees may be a way to get back at an unresponsive partner or parent. It may be an unacknowledged manifestation of anger, fear or hurt. Compulsive spending could simply be a substitute for a direct, honest, explicit expression of anger. Yet, they argue, it keeps the spender unbalanced and diverts the focus of energy from even greater unhealthy behaviour.
The opposite of compulsive spending is guilty spending or frugality, possibly rooted in the mentality of scarcity. It is the “not enough theory”, where one can spend money (quite happily) on others but not oneself. This can be based on a faulty assumption, such as “My value (or identity) is sourced in what I give, materially” “I do not deserve,” or in cases of co-dependency, giving and not receiving can be an unconscious exertion of control where it appears to lack.
Money can also facilitate the avoidance of intimacy. People are never ready for a relationship until they have made enough money, or else they substitute money for intimacy but believe it is a bad bargain.
The therapists argue that women also get unhelpful messages about money from financial institutions. Women do not take sufficient control of their finances. Ignorance leads to fear which leads to paralysis. Avoidance behaviours are aimed to spare women from making scary decisions and taking risks. The recommendations are clear and self-evident:
- Rewrite the “can’t, don’t, shouldn’t” money message.
- Redefine your relationship with money by
a. Taking the (negative) emotion out of the issue
b.Working to understand money
- Resolve to take charge of your money life now.
After becoming more self-aware and empowered with respect to money it is easier to make better decisions: how and when to save it or give it away; how to charge for work; and how much to pay others. “Staying clear with yourself about your motivations for charitable giving, about pricing your work, and honouring other women’s work will move you toward a more positive relationship with money” (p. 132).
The workplace is also something of a Petri dish for looking at people’s differing attitudes towards money. Men and women may differ significantly in terms of their preference for a better work–life balance; there may also be differences in the trade-off for extrinsic versus intrinsic rewards, as well as the satisfaction in finding “joyful” and fulfilling work and pleasant co-workers.
Finally, the psychologists point out how important it is for young girls to be educated about money to ensure they have the knowledge and resources to understand investments, their earning capacity, career options, and how money can and should operate healthily in relationships.
But is all of the above out-of-date, psychobabble and clap-trap? Worse is it patronising, and misguided? Does it pathologise a social issue and cause more mis-information and “fake news” than it purports to clarify. Discuss.
Tolstoy famously noted that, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. He may have been right with regard to money. Children can grow up in a money healthy and happy home where money is not a taboo topic or a source of argument and tension between the parents.
People from all cultures and with very different amounts of money “have issues” with their and their family’s money. Cultural, religious and value differences often influence how boys and girls are treated differently with regard to how they are expected to acquire, store, and share their money.
Personal financial advisers often point out that their (mainly middle-aged) male and female clients have different “issues” with money. Some organisations have tried to have enough female advisers to sell to female clients as this tends to lead to better outcomes for all concerned.
About the Author
Adrian Furnham is Principal Behaviour Psychologist at Stamford Associates in London. He was Professor of Psychology at University College London 1981 to 2018, and now also Adjunct Professor of Management at the Norwegian School of Management in Oslo. He has written over 1300 scientific papers and 90 books.
• Ealy, D., & Lesh, K. (1998). Our Money, Ourselves. New York, NY: Amacor
• Ealy, D., & Lesh, K. (2000). Our Money, Ourselves for Couples New York, NY.Capital Books.
• Fenton-O’Creevy, M., & Furnham, A. (2019). Money attitudes, personality and chronic impulse buying. Applied Psychology: An International Review,
• Furnham A. (2014). The New Psychology of Money. London: Routledge.
• Furnham, A., & Grover, S. (2019). A new money behaviour quiz. European Journal of Psychological Assessment,
• Furnham, A., von Stumm, S, & Fenton-O’Creevy, M. (2014). Sex differences in money pathology in the general population. Social Indicators Research, 123, 701–713