Money and (In)equality in Relationships
Who makes more, you or your partner? One of you does, almost certainly; the odds of you both earning exactly the same are vanishingly rare.
I’m earning about 85% of our household income at the moment; last year my contribution was around 65%. It’ll change. It already has, more than once. Just a few years ago, my husband brought in almost three-quarters of our income.
Before we even lived together, I supported him for a while. That was largely a selfish act on my part, though; he’d been living off his savings while he worked on a novel, always intending to go back to the computer gaming industry when he ran out of money. I knew what hours he’d be working if he did that, though, and I decided I would rather have a boyfriend I ever got to see than watch him go back into that grind. (Luckily, I could afford to be so generous; it wasn’t a hardship for me at the time.)
In all my relationships until this one, I have consistently been the lower earner. As a woman who has relationships with men, that is not unusual. Even so, I’ve always been the one who keeps track of the household finances, pays the bills, and manages the budget. Apparently, this is not unusual either. In my first, brief marriage, my husband and I were fresh out of college, and poor as church mice. He was also, shall we say, financially reckless.
True story: he actually got tossed in jail one night for cracking open a beer in a subway station. Harsh, huh? Well, actually…turns out he’d been given a ticket for smoking a cigarette in that same (open-air, nearly empty) subway station a few months earlier, but he knew we couldn’t afford to pay it, so he never told me about it. By the time he popped open that can of beer, there was a warrant out for him.
Guess what? A night in jail plus an unpaid ticket plus a new ticket costs a lot more than a single infraction would have. (Not to mention entirely freaking his partner out by just not coming home from work that night.)
I was also the budget manager in my second marriage, my Trophy Wife years, though my “control” over our finances was limited to routine household expenditures — groceries, vet bills, car maintenance, dry cleaners. All the investing was handled by my husband, and any major purchases were discussed and decided on by both of us.
Actually, that isn’t entirely accurate. Yes, we did talk about whether and when to buy a new car, to travel to Europe, to remodel the house. But…since my then-husband earned four or five times what I did (and his salary rose to ten times mine just before we separated), his opinions and desires carried far more weight than mine did. If there was something he didn’t want us to do, we didn’t do it.
I did get to buy new shoes or clothes without his “permission,” though he would invariably tease me about yet another pair of black boots. If he wanted to buy a techno-gadget, though, he didn’t hesitate — nor did I tease him. He made most of the money, after all. Even though we both denied that we saw it this way, it’s clear that we both regarded it as his money.
It’s been interesting to at last begin to occupy the other side of that equation — even though, as I mentioned, my husband and I have handed the “biggest earner” baton back and forth. Our plans, however, call for him phasing out the work-for-hire portion of his occupation, in order to devote the bulk of his time to his own art and writing. Perhaps what he produces will result in money in the future; perhaps it will only “pay off” in greater life satisfaction for him (and, therefore, both of us). He is closer to retirement age than I am. We’re not actually trying to build that kind of a career for him. And just as I didn’t want to see him vanish into the 90-plus-hour-a-week gaming industry workforce when we were dating, I’d rather not see him spending the ramp-up to his golden years chasing illustration jobs while wishing he could — finally — be doing his own creative work.
Again, though, this is a selfish urge on my part. Yes, I want my husband to be happy and creatively fulfilled…but I also kind of like being the bigger earner. I like feeling that I can not only take care of myself, but that I can provide for another person as well. I enjoy the feeling of competence and — I want to say authority, though that isn’t quite right, it’s more subtle and complex than that — that comes with being the Budget Manager. I like handling the finances, being the one who (kinda) understands and can (sorta) control it all.
It isn’t all joyous control and empowerment, of course: there are indeed downsides. I am the one who lies awake at 2am worrying about money. And I was certainly the one who felt like a miserable failure when we got our taxes back from the accountant and I saw how badly I’d miscalculated what we would be owing this year.
I don’t want to be a jerk about any of this. I try hard to learn from my past experiences with partners and money. But I know I don’t always succeed. I truly believe — particularly in this marriage, where we’ve switched off — that our money is our money, it belongs equally to both of us, and we have equal say in how it’s spent. That’s a huge part of what a partnership, what marriage, means. Yet…as the budget manager, I frequently find myself in the position of saying no to things my husband wants.
That’s part of the budget manager’s job, of course; I’m the one who knows what we can and cannot afford at the moment, because I’m the one who’s keeping track of it. And given our uneven, ever-changing income, he does have to ask; it’s not like he’s going to magically know, because the answer changes from month to month — heck, even from day to day, when unhappy surprises like the tax bill from hell pop up.
But I never want to make him feel like I felt, shamed for wanting a new pair of boots (or, in his case, a few more annuals for the garden) that we could so, so easily afford.
It’s reflexive, I’m afraid; when I get frightened about the money, I clamp down — on everything. Feeling that we need to stop every bit of discretionary spending, and that I need to find more work, more clients. Never mind that I’m busier than ever and don’t even have time to take a day off once a month. At least I’m being fair about the clamping-down…I think. I hope.
But how do I know for sure? I can ask my husband, of course, but he’s so happy that I’m taking charge of all this, and grateful that I’m earning the lion’s share of our income these days — in fact, that’s just what his answer always is: “You’re the one earning the money. You get to make the decisions.” And he seems entirely comfortable with that.
Perhaps it’s the gender-flipped aspect of this, that he doesn’t have a lifetime of being the “junior partner” in a relationship and, therefore, he doesn’t have the baggage that I have around any of this. He does have feelings about money. He doesn’t just shrug and let me worry about it all by myself; he always offers to seek out more work whenever I’m really angsting about the bills. Even though I really don’t want him to have to do that. I know he feels proud when he brings in a chunk of money: “There! That’s the dentist’s bill.” Though the work was grueling, he really enjoyed the large paychecks that one long job brought in a few years ago.
And I can’t pretend not to appreciate his income — sometimes desperately — even if I do wish it wasn’t necessary.
I guess my real goal is to get to a place where I don’t have to think about money quite so much. But is that even possible?
We do have plans to retire someday. Social Security is a part of that plan; how much will be there for us is an open question. I will have a small retirement income from my university job — the one that I quit ten years ago, but I was vested, so that money is “guaranteed” (as much as anything is guaranteed these days). I have a 401K, which I have invested conservatively…but it is invested, so…fingers crossed.
Maybe when we’re living on whatever fixed income(s) we manage to arrive at, we can also come up with a system for each of us to know how much there is and what we’re “allowed” to spend. Maybe nobody will have to say no, or to feel like they aren’t pulling their weight.
I suppose it could happen. But I’m not holding my breath.
It’s far more likely that money will continue to matter much more than I wish it did.