Women, Marriage, and Money—A Response to The New York Times

(Note! We’re playing around with an extra Friday feature for the first time today. It’s tentatively called BackTalk and will be quick responses from me, and sometimes the staff, to current news articles or trend stories, or short form discussion of wedding planning. Then, next up, we’ll have Ask Team Practical to close the week. Since we’re just getting our feet wet and figuring out what works, no fancy logo or anything yet.  —Meg)

It’s possible that I’ve never had a news article show up as often in my Twitter feed with a desperate plea for APW discussion than the recent New York Times article about joint finances called, “In Marriage, the Unseen Bottom Line.” The comments were mostly in the vein of, “This article makes me livid, but hey! They quoted Caitlin Moran!”

As most of you know, I’m a long time (feminist) advocate of pooling your financial resources (see: marriage as mini-socialism). But this article, the couples that were pooling their financial resources scared the shit out of me. I suddenly understood people’s reticence to pool resources. Because yes, if pooling family resources meant that I couldn’t spend money without my partner’s say-so, or that I ceded all personal responsibility for knowing the nature of our finances (this is dangerous stuff, women of the world, whether you pool your finances or not), you bet I’d think it was anti-feminist to pool finances. Here are some key quotes:

A completely unscientific snap poll of 44 girlfriends in Europe and the United States — all highly educated, in their 30s and in relationships, most with children and a job — showed that 41 pooled at least some money with their partners. Dissecting what constitutes joint spending makes for an intriguing study in gender equality: Milk and diapers rarely cause disputes. But what about postnatal yoga? Or haircuts, invariably more expensive for women than men?

I asked Paul, Rachel’s husband, why he felt that shoes (and, it turns out, makeup and clothes! What am I doing wrong?) should be paid for by the joint account. “There are so many explicit and implicit requirements on how a woman should look,” he said. You shouldn’t be punished financially for being female, he said. Caitlin Moran, author of the best-selling “How to Be a Woman,” called it a tax on being a woman.

When women have children and one parent, still usually the mother, sacrifices at least some earnings to maternity leave or part-time work or a less ambitious career, the notion of equality would seem to demand that both parents pool their (often different) incomes and decide on an identical spending allowance. But in my mini-survey, 30 of the 41 women with joint accounts preferred keeping their (often lower) salaries in a personal account and paying a pro-rated amount into the family pool in order to enjoy some unscrutinized spending. “I know that a lot of my spending is frivolous, and I couldn’t defend it if you shoved a spreadsheet in my face.” 

But if the women spend the money, the guys control it. Only one of the friends I interviewed is in charge of family finances … What it is with us liberated women? We took care of our financial affairs when we were single. Why do we give up control when a man shows up? “It’s boring,” groaned one French friend — a banker, no less — echoing many others. “I’m rubbish at math,” said another. It’s just a division of labor, suggested a third. “He is finance minister, and I am minister of culture and entertainment.” Read the Whole Article

But with all of my reservations about the Jimmy Cho shopping on the sly, out-of-control-of-the-family-finances way that women were portrayed in the article, I felt that some of the questions that the piece was asking were key. For those of us who do pool finances, how do we deal with what comes out of a joint account? How do we deal with the fact that it is, in fact, more expensive to be a woman? (My hair and clothes just cost more, and as such, hair and clothes come from our joint account. We attempt to make up for the inequality in the world here at home.) I tend to think that the way we manage our finances points to our real values and the real way that we are treating each other. Are we treating each other with respect and care, or are we mirroring the inequalities of the world in our homes? And why on earth do women not know how much the family has in the bank?

For me, the real question becomes, how can we fully support each other, while still maintaining our independence? Because I won’t lie. It deeply saddens me that women who are staying home part- or full-time caring for children are living on less, because they can’t figure out another way to let their partner give them some damn autonomy over their spending.

Let’s discuss.

Photo: Jennah betting on the Kentucky Derby in her wedding dress by Zachary Hunt Photography

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