April 2012

Aging and Strategic Learning: The Impact of Spousal Incentives on Financial Literacy

Joanne W. Hsu


American women tend to be less financially literate than men, which is consistent with a household division of labor in which men manage finances. However, women also tend to outlive their husbands, so they will eventually need to take over this task. Using a new survey of older couples, I find that women acquire financial literacy as they approach widowhood. At an estimated increase of 0.04 standard deviations per year approaching widowhood, 80 percent of women in the sample would catch up with their husbands prior to the expected onset of widowhood. These findings reflect actual increases by women and are not merely an artifact of cognitive decline among older men. The results are consistent with a model in which the household division of labor breaks down when a spouse dies: women have incentives both to delay acquiring financial knowledge and also to begin learning before widowhood. This paper represents the first empirical examination of the financial literacy of both members of couples and provides a life-cycle interpretation of the gender gap in financial literacy.

Revised Version: Accessible materials (.zip)

Original Version: Full paper (Screen Reader Version)

Keywords: Financial literacy, cognitive abilities, human capital, surveys, aging

PDF: Full Paper

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Last Update: July 10, 2020