Love, Laughter and Long Division

Actuaries’ eccentricities revealed by their partners David Karo

Now that I am retired, when I am not playing pickleball, I have a lot of time to think about the big questions in life. Consequently, I also pay much more attention to what my wife says. One of the things I have been thinking about is what it has been like for her to be married to an actuary.

I have realized that living with an actuary is not all wine and roses (imagine that?). There is the good and the bad, along with the uniquely funny things that only happen when one of the partners is an actuary. With this in mind, I contacted colleagues from my 40-year actuarial career to gain their insight and anecdotes.

Initially, I was not getting the material I knew was out there. I was told things like their spouse, the actuary, always uses the available data to make decisions, or they used to study a lot. While these things are most assuredly true about most actuaries, they are not particularly humorous. This had me questioning my interviewing skills as an “investigative reporter.”

Eventually, one partner hit the nail on the head. They said, “Oh, you want the ‘Big Bang Theory-type’ stories.” That was the perfect response. After that, when I reached a dead end when talking to partners of actuaries, I told them I was looking for things similar to what Sheldon Cooper might do or say. This had the desired effect, and the floodgates opened. The stories you are about to read are true—only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Attention to Detail

In general, actuaries are known for being detail-oriented. This can be a useful trait in a marriage, but sometimes it can cause problems. For instance, if you ask an actuary to paint a room, every square inch likely will be covered uniformly, and the edging will be to a micron from the corner. The downside is that it might take three times as long compared to when a nonactuary does the same job!

In another example, one partner routinely needed help to balance their checkbook. At one point, they gave up completely. Then, they married an actuary. Now, it balances to the penny and would stand up to a Fed review.

Simple tasks such as gift wrapping may be problematic for some actuaries. One actuarial parent created a bottleneck during a school gift-wrapping fundraiser at the mall. Their packages were beautifully wrapped, but they spent a lot of time determining the minimum size of the wrapping paper to use while still creating perfectly symmetrical angles on the sides of the packages. Sound familiar? The moral of the story is that some actuaries can’t be trusted with gift wrapping, especially when there’s a time constraint.

Spreadsheets for Everything

In the 21st century, much of actuarial work is driven by spreadsheets. It stands to reason that reliance on spreadsheets may creep into an actuary’s home life. It can be everyday spreadsheet usage, like for investments or expense tracking. However, given actuaries’ love of spreadsheets, it sometimes is taken to extremes.

One actuary developed a Christmas gift-buying spreadsheet to ensure gift equity. Their family was large, and it was too hard to shop “fairly” for such a large number of people. That meant having a spreadsheet to track how much was spent on each person. This allowed the actuary to adjust the gifts so that everyone had the same number and the total spent on each person was equal. But why stop there? They added a tab for stocking stuffers to track dollars spent and the number of items bought for each person. The spreadsheet allowed the actuary to start with an overall Christmas budget and back into the amount allocated per person. As they accrued gifts for each recipient, they could massage the amounts of subsequent gifts to hit the target spend. Efficient usage of this spreadsheet allowed this actuary’s family to have all their Christmas shopping done by July of each year. (As you will read later, not all actuaries are this proactive with holiday shopping.)

Another actuary wasn’t authorized to purchase their family’s gifts. To get more involved, they built a spreadsheet to facilitate the distribution of gifts. Again, equity was the bottom line. On Christmas morning, the actuary queried all their children, grandchildren and other family members to determine how many gifts each had under the Christmas tree. The actuary then went to the Actuary’s Workshop at the North Pole to consult their spreadsheet that defined the optimal gift-opening protocol. The spreadsheet assigned an order of gift openings by rounds. The recipient’s age was also factored in to frontload the gift distribution. This allowed the youngest children to open a few gifts in the early rounds and play with them while sitting out some subsequent rounds. The spreadsheet also worked out the rounds so everyone finished opening their gifts in the same round.

To be clear, actuaries aren’t just using their spreadsheet skills to simplify familial and marital tasks. One generous and enterprising actuary used their spreadsheet talents to streamline their partner’s job. The partner had been using Word to keep track of all their work-related data. The actuary saw the inherent inefficiency of using Word for data handling. They then built their partner an organized spreadsheet to keep track of all the data and manipulate it as needed. This made their partner’s job easier and saved them time, which then could be spent with their partner, the actuary.

The spreadsheet-usage stories so far have all dealt with actuaries and family situations. What about a single actuary in the dating world? Dating—of course, there’s a spreadsheet for that! Many actuaries might agree that a good spreadsheet is the key to dating success and eventual marriage. If one dating spreadsheet is good, then two may be even better. One actuary’s eventual spouse reported that their actuarial suitor confessed to having two dating spreadsheets. The first was used for recordkeeping. It stored information such as the potential date’s name and age, where they met (in person or on a specific website) and their online conversation history. This data-driven approach helped keep track of all their interactions. The second spreadsheet was a deeper dive. It tracked traits like personality, appearance, religious affiliation, family situation and logistics. Numerous subcategories were used in a weighted average formula to determine a desirability quotient. It is unclear how the actuary themself would have scored using their own metric.

Holidays and Actuaries

According to some partners, actuaries may have difficulty navigating societal norms associated with celebrations. This might be due to the actuary’s desire to enhance outcomes or maybe just a desire to game the system. Some examples will make this clearer.

One actuary liked to wait until Christmas Eve to purchase the family’s tree. Their argument to their spouse was that this was the optimal price point! Never mind that their children would not have several weeks of enjoying a decorated tree with gifts underneath.

Then there was the actuary who tried to convince their spouse (unsuccessfully) that it made financial sense to wait for the clearance sales on the day after Christmas to buy the extended family’s gifts. The rationale was that if the gifts were purchased before Christmas, there was a significant probability that they would not arrive until after Christmas anyway due to the holiday mail crunch. If that was the case, why not save 50%-75% and have the gifts come at approximately the same time? If you like that idea, see what your partner thinks about it.

Another actuary hosted an over-the-top annual Easter egg hunt where they hid hundreds of eggs. Strict rules and departure times were based on children’s ages to give the youngest participants a fair chance at finding eggs. Prizes were based on the number of eggs found. A spreadsheet likely was involved somewhere in this process.

Shopping and the Buying Process

Having an actuary by your side when shopping can be very beneficial. Or it can make the buying process protracted and potentially frustrating.

An actuarial partner is great to have at the supermarket. They can quickly evaluate which size of an item provides the best value per unit and inform on the optimal couponing strategy.

Big purchases may sometimes subject the nonactuarial partner to a lengthy research period followed by detailed analysis. Again, spreadsheets may be involved here. Car and home-buying seem to be purchases where this has been most noticeable, be it comparing all the car’s features and costs or analyzing home prices down to the square foot. Newly married partners of actuaries may need to be warned that their partner could go down the rabbit hole of over-analysis for even mundane purchases.

Recreational Activities

Many actuaries are obsessed with sports. This may result in dragging their families to every major league ballpark and a few minor league ones for good measure. The actuary is also likely to track statistics for their favorite sport (or their child’s sports team) since the league’s statistics never seem to capture the right level of detail.

An actuary will read the rulebook very carefully before playing any game. This is to ensure fairness and to potentially utilize any loopholes in the rules. One actuary’s family refused to play Rummikub with them. The actuary’s turn was like an exercise in 4D chess, resulting in a dozen rearrangements of the game tiles. If a move went awry, all the moves had to be unwound—and the game’s fun was irreparably lost.

Many actuaries excel at travel planning. Some partners reported that all they needed to do was provide a destination. Their resident actuary and travel agent would do all the research and plan the itinerary to the minute.

Having an actuary in the family can be handy when dining out. For them, getting to split the bill 13 ways and calculating the tip is often the highlight of the meal.

Romance and the Actuary

Some actuaries are seen, at times, as more focused on the analytical than the emotional, potentially affecting their romance game. Part of this could be because some actuaries are very literal and not necessarily trained to read the subtext.

One long-suffering spouse reported being asked to celebrate Valentine’s Day later in the week, which would make dinner reservations easier to get and reduce costs for flowers and chocolate. Another actuary combined romance and attention to detail effectively. They initially met their future spouse in math class, but they went their separate ways and didn’t reconnect until years later. Their romance bloomed, and the actuary proposed at the exact time and date they first met 20 years earlier.

Finally, an Exam Story

One actuary always had their spouse open the envelope containing exam results. This was a very stressful moment for them both. On that anxiety-producing day, it was snowing hard when the actuary arrived home. Their spouse was standing in the kitchen holding the envelope. The actuary started shaking and crying because they were positive the grade was less than a 6. Thankfully, it was an 8! When the actuary heard that, they ran outside in their bare feet and jumped around in the snow, screaming. You can only imagine what the neighbors thought had gotten into the normally reserved actuary next door.

In my view, actuaries are undoubtedly unique individuals with habits that make them stand out. While the characteristics of the actuaries sometimes may have baffled their partners, they also add depth and character to their relationships. The precision, calculation and data-driven nature of actuarial work not only defines their professional lives but also may shape their personal experiences. Let those of us who recognize these habits in ourselves take a moment to give our nonactuarial partners a great big hug for being so understanding!

David Karo is a retired ASA living in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.

Copyright © 2023 by the Society of Actuaries, Chicago, Illinois.