A few months ago, I was standing in line at a sample sale for my favorite clogs, trying to keep an eye on my two year old while chatting with the woman behind me in line. As we compared our finds and tracked our children’s paths of destruction, she said something along the lines of, “I’m kind of embarrassed I’m spending my husband’s money this way, you know?” I could tell that this was the point where I was supposed to say something similarly self-deprecating, but instead there was one of those pauses where I frantically tried to marshal words to politely convey my thoughts.
I remember trying to give a disclaimer before I dove in, by saying, “Well I write about this for a living, so I think about it a lot…” and then got right into it with, “but I really think that both partners contribute to a marriage, so nobody should have to feel like the money isn’t theirs.” Then I sort of grimaced, since obviously I had just gotten very personal for a sample sale line. But blessedly, probably because the people shopping for badass women-made clogs are bound to be awesome, she was clearly down to discuss.
“It’s just that he makes so much more, and I spend part of my time taking care of our kid, so I feel like I don’t have the same right to our finances.”
And there it was. The refrain that I have heard from so many women, particularly those in hetero relationships. I’ve heard it from engaged folks, newlyweds, and, particularly, mothers over the years. Because guess what? We live in a world where women earn 70 cents on the man’s dollar (best case scenario), and nearly 30% of women opt to stay home with their children; this is a dynamic that happens over and over again, in household after household.
And while I have many facts and figures and feminist arguments that I like to make about the subject (and I’ve written in depth about why I think couples should combine finances), I was trying to keep my two-year-old from knocking over a display, and about to pay for some shoes, so I didn’t have time. So I boiled it down to the simplest argument I could possibly think of. “I significantly out-earn my husband, but he doesn’t get any less spending money than I do, because, that wouldn’t be fair, right? We contribute to the family in different ways.” And then looking at her child who was tugging at her arm, I pointed out, “And taking care of kids is some of the hardest work of a marriage, right?”
Thank God, she didn’t look offended, or slap me in the face, or any of the scenarios that had played out in my head before I opened my mouth. Instead she looked at me like a light bulb had gone on, and said, “OMG RIGHT. OF COURSE HE DOESN’T GET ANY LESS SPENDING MONEY THAN YOU.”
Progressive Men Are Hustling us
We live in a world where the majority of women earn less than their partners, and women are taught from childhood to sacrifice themselves to make other people more comfortable. When it comes to household finances, this assumption seems to go unquestioned, again and again, even in progressive households. If one person (namely, the husband) earns more, shouldn’t he get the benefit of that spending money? Apparently lots of men think so, and lots of women are going along with it.
In fact, in a recent article in Marie Clare, the generally super-progressive Gabby Dunn suggested the following:
In an episode of my podcast, Bad with Money, comedian couple Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher said that in the beginning of their relationship, when Cameron made more money, Rhea took care of all household chores. This greatly reduced Cameron’s stress and contributed more to their relationship than Rhea’s lesser income could.
But what does this really mean, particularly when we apply this advice to mixed-gender relationships? It means that we are dragging patriarchy inside our homes and embedding inequality in our wallets and relationships. It means that even though professions dominated by women are underpaid and professions dominated by men are overpaid, that men’s work is valued more highly than women’s work. That women earn less for doing the exact same jobs. Progressive men are getting more money to spend on the fun things in life because “they earned it.” And women are working the second shift, because they earned it. And we are by and large letting that assumption go unquestioned.
There are many painful conversations to be had here. There is a lot of soul searching that we all need to go through: Why do men think they deserve this? Why do we let them have it? And if marriage isn’t fundamentally about pooling resources of all kinds for the collective good of a (very) small group working toward a shared future, what is it for?
How To Change The Conversation
But I’ve found that the simplest way to change the conversation is to gender invert it. And as someone who has always out-earned her husband, I can tell you how the world looks at it when women earn more.
And nobody suggests that any of these things should happen. In fact, quite the opposite. People suggest that I should keep it a deep dark secret that I earn more. (I should probably definitely not put it on the Internet.) That I should defer to him so he feels better about who earns what. That I should do extra chores and childcare, just because. That I should obviously, always, share all that is mine with my husband. And you know, I mostly ignore that advice, other than sharing money equally. But thus far it seems to be working out just fine for everyone. We both make money, we throw it in a joint pot, we make financial decisions. Given that we both work hard, both at home and at work, we split our chores (and spending money) equally.
But I do know this. My husband has never in his life been in line for an electronics purchase and told someone, “I feel guilty spending this, because it’s kind of my wife’s money.” If he’s doing anything in that line, it’s calculating how much of our money he can get away with spending. As for the differences in our income? To the extent that he thinks about it at all, he congratulates himself on marrying someone who makes good money. (I know this is true, because I asked him.)
How are you handling finances as a couple? Does the partner who makes more money get more to spend, or #nope?