When I first started writing about married finances for APW, years ago, I assumed that most married couples handled their finances more or less the way we did. That early on, they struggled through the emotional process of combining finances (giving up the idea of “my money” was really hard for me), and then had dumped everything into one pot and sorted out some sort of budget. That was my solid understanding of how marriage worked: Mini-Socialism! All pulling together for the same goal! I still get my own money to buy shoes!
But then I realized that was not the case. Our generation is not combining their finances, more often than they are. And while that seemed troubling to me in terms of long-term implications (Do you have shared financial goals? What if one of you stays home to take care of your kids? How about the fact that men statistically out earn women?), I felt like I needed to know more. So I started asking why people were not combining finances. Lucky for me, I had an Internet of newlyweds to poll, so I got some answers. The reasons I heard most frequently were these:
- My partner earns more than me, and until I can contribute an equal amount to our relationship, I don’t feel like it’s okay to pool the bills. I can’t ask more from my partner then I am giving.
- I make less, so it’s only fair that I have less spending money. (But sometimes my partner treats me to a nice dinner.)
- I’m an independent woman, so on feminist principal I should keep my finances separate (even if I make less than my partner).
- I can’t ask my partner to help pay off my debt.
- My partner doesn’t like me to know what they are doing with their money.
- It’s better to keep the money separate, in case you get divorced.
I mean, look. There are a host of valid reasons for keeping your finances, or portions of your finances, separate. Maybe one of you runs a business. Maybe one of you is heir to a sizable family fortune, and there are legal ramifications around that. Whatever. Fair. But the point is, these were not the reasons people were giving me. The reasons people were giving me had to do with two ideas:
- That we can measure what we contribute to our partnerships in financial terms.
- That our strength lies in our total independence, not in learning mutual dependence.
And on the basis of those arguments, I think we’re making a mistake. I worry that on a fundamental level we’re coming at relationships and money from the wrong angle. We’re thinking that we need to be equal contributors to our partnerships, but we’re overvaluing financial contributions. Generations before us, of course, didn’t have the chance to fall into this trap. They knew that while everyone might have different jobs in a family, all of those jobs helped make the family tick. Yes, someone needed to earn money to buy food, but someone also needed to cook the food (which used to involve a lot less microwaving). Sure, someone needed to pay the bills, but growing tiny humans and then keeping them alive was a huge job, too. Add to this the fact that many women didn’t even have the option of doing meaningful financial work outside of the home, so partnerships were not viewed as dueling moneymaking operations.
I’m not glamorizing the past. In the past, I couldn’t even have worn pants. I’m damn grateful for all of the feminists that fought and sacrificed so I could vote, own property, have a career, choose to stay home or not, and have an equal say in running the household finances. But I don’t think those women fought and sacrificed so I would judge myself based on how much money I brought into my marriage, or upend the mini-Socialism of the family, or feel that I had to work outside the home to be a valued partner. They fought for me to be valued as a whole human being, not just as someone who earned money.
Which brings me back to finances. First, a lot of us are living legal fictions. Sure, you can choose to not combine finances and let your partner “treat” you to dinner (something I find unsettling, and reminiscent of when women didn’t have equal access to family earning power). But unless you have an ironclad prenup, under the law you own your partner’s shit. You own their money, you own their debt. And the legal reality is that your partner is treating you to dinner with money that’s yours.
Second, marriage is about pulling together. It’s about building a life together, through thick and thin. When we don’t let our partners pay down our debt with us, not only are we not letting them support us, but we’re also not letting them help-us-pay-off-the-damn-debt-so-we-can-save-for-a-downpayment-together. When we feel guilty about being unemployed, we’re not fully realizing that marriage usually lasts for a long time, and sooner or later we’re going to be financially carrying more of the burden than our partners. When we think we deserve less spending money because we make less, we’re devaluing all the things we do to make our household run (chores! cooking! jokes! hugs! planning!). Plus, we’re totally depriving ourselves of new shoes. When we hold back because of the possibility of divorce, we’re not creating a fully functional partnership in the moment. And when we keep our money separate because of feminism, I think we do feminism a disservice.
Being married is scary. It’s about creating great dependence and great emotional vulnerability. Anyone who tells you this isn’t terrifying shit has no idea what they are talking about. But it’s that release of our close held ideas of self and protection that allow new things to grow and flower. New plans, businesses, careers, travel, babies, no-babies, and all of it. It’s all made better by the truly scary shit of sharing your money and building a life together. That, and being allowed to wear pants. Literally.
This post originally ran on APW in March 2012.