How Do You Make Your Household Budget Fair and Feminist?

Fun money isn’t so fun when you’re fighting about it

YNAB budget app on a cell phone surrounded by money and items from a woman's purse

With so many of my friends and family getting married right now, I find myself having a lot of the same conversations with relative frequency. Wedding planning is the worst. My family is being ridiculous. But the one that makes me go 😬 almost every time is when we start talking about married finances. Because this is where I feel like our generation may have gotten some things very, very wrong.

Did Our Generation Get It Twisted?

I got married roughly a decade before most of my friend group, so Michael and I have had a long time to work through the mess of our money issues. But before we got to the good place we’re in now, it was… rough (you can read all about that joyous time right here and here). Our problems stemmed largely from the same kind of mental sabotage I see my friends doing now. The examples go something like this:

  • My partner makes more money than I do, so I don’t really have a right to ask for what I need out of our budget.
  • We’ve kept our finances separate until now, so we might as well keep them that way forever.
  • My personal upkeep costs more, so it doesn’t make sense for my partner to have to shoulder that burden.
  • The only way for things to be fair is to split them 50/50, down the middle.

The problem with this kind of thinking is it can quickly create an unbalanced power dynamic in your marriage. Because here are the facts. We live in a patriarchal society. On average, women make less money than men. And our stuff costs more. Which means that “fair” in finances for women often means quiet martyrdom.

For example, I have a friend who splits things right down the middle with her partner, so when his income covers a big expense like a new car or home renovations, it gets treated almost like a gift. I have another friend who makes less than her partner does, but manages the bulk of housework (including managing their Airbnb), and still beats herself up over pulling her weight financially. And there’s the other friend, who makes secret purchases behind her partner’s back, because she doesn’t want to have to deal with the confrontation of talking about it first.

Then there is the me from a few years ago. I am the keeper of the calendar, the buyer of holiday gifts, and the maker of vet appointments (this comic is basically my life). But for whatever reason (Michael’s older, he makes more money, maybe just plain old fashioned internalized self-doubt), I had made Michael the boss of our money. Which meant that in our house, the self-sabotage went something like: I need to buy XYZ thing, but I don’t really have the authority to make that decision. (I know, I’m cringing just reading it, and I lived it.)

We Tried To Make It Fair

Getting out of this behavior pattern took a bunch of therapy and setting up a household budget with YNAB (aka You Need a Budget, the budgeting app we swear by). And while the therapy was important for identifying the root cause of our issues, setting up a budget was fundamental in working out the logistics of what made things “fair” in our household. Because as it turns out, what we had considered “fair” was actually tipped firmly in the direction of my partner ending up with more discretionary income. And it wasn’t until we started going through the YNAB method (a four-step process that helps you get real with your spending, while also making sure you have flexibility in your budget) that we realized this.

For example, the second rule of the YNAB method is that you have to embrace your “true expenses.” Aka anything you’re spending throughout the year needs to get budgeted somewhere. So when we were putting together the household budget, my haircuts were, well, a capital-c conversation. Did it go in our essentials category? Or was it “fun money?” I mean, getting my haircut is a good time, I won’t pretend it’s not (my stylist is legit). But it’s not really frivolous spending. I work on the Internet and regularly attend events where style is as important as substance. And much has been written about how much women spend in our patriarchal society just to keep up appearances. In one month, I might spend on hair, hair color, manicure, pedicure, and eyebrow wax (just to name the basics). While in the same month, my partner gets a free haircut from yours truly and calls it good. So how then, do we sort that in the budget?

So it’s no surprise that much of our budget inflation comes from me. There is a documented tax that comes with being a woman. (Even our razors cost more, just for being pink.) And if you’re a femme human with a non-femme partner (or, you know, are married to a man) that can mean a lot of justifying your spend. In fact, this came up in our last open thread about budgeting. As one reader noted:

YNAB has saved us from the slippery slope of money stress, which was a looming thing when we got married and still had separate finances. Now that I’m fluent in YNAB, it’s starting to show some of my hangups around money as a lens on fairness: why do we have a coffee line item if only my husband drinks coffee? Am I being selfish by allocating money to gifts when they’re all for my friends and family and not his (#lovelanguage)? Should I get more fun money than he does because I actually spend it, and being a female human seems inherently more expensive than being a male human? My husband doesn’t care if I reign over the budget with a free hand, so I have to answer these questions myself, but dang they’re prickly.

And this is where the crux of our modern money problems come from. Because the personal is political. So while we want to be good people who value fairness in our marriages, we’re trying to do it in a system that is inherently unequal. And if we don’t compensate for that imbalance, one person is always going to get more than their fair share.

Happy, Healthy, And Whole

So with this in mind, we have adjusted our definition of fairness thusly: What makes us happy, healthy, and whole?

One of the things I like best about the YNAB method is that you can’t pretend expenses don’t exist. You can’t act surprised when the bill comes around for your oil change if it’s happening every six months. And in our household, we’ve expanded that theory to mean, “Don’t fight who you are,” and, “Don’t fight the realities of society, your life, or your job.” Aka don’t make your life harder out of some arbitrary desire to keep things even-steven.

For example, this year we have made the following decisions: my bridesmaid dresses (for the zillion weddings I’m in) all got their own line item that doesn’t come out of my fun money. Michael got a little extra cash to work on his truck, which needed some very important improvements (power windows, yay). And we made the mutual decision to budget for regular babysitting, so that I can keep going to events after work, and he isn’t stuck commuting an hour after work to pick up the baby from daycare (that one was a win for the both of us). Of course, Michael and I have lived with a whole host of different income levels over the years and are currently in a spot with a bit more discretionary income, but the fundamentals of this conversation would have saved us so much time and stress in our past life, with much less money.

“FairNess” Is A Trap

The most important part of the happy, healthy, and whole model is graded on a curve. Because anyone who’s been in a relationship for more than five minutes knows that splitting everything in a perfectly even way is a trap that leads to all kinds of fights. People have different needs! You shouldn’t not be meeting them just because the math doesn’t square up. Not to mention, as I like to point out (mostly to myself when I’m backsliding into the bad place), just because two people make different salaries doesn’t mean that one works harder than the other. And if we gave out salaries for emotional labor, you and I would probably both be rich.

But sometimes, it can take a little longer to reach that realization when you’re talking about money. Because money is emotional. Pretty much all of us come to our relationships with some kind of value system around money.

So Yeah, You Actually Do Need A Budget

And that’s why, when said friends start talking to me about their money problems, one of the first things I do is recommend setting up a budget, and then I suggest YNAB to make that process a lot easier. (You can ask my family, who I’m pretty sure are tired of hearing me tell them that, no, they really do need a budget.)

Because setting up a budget helps take things out of the emotional place and sets it squarely in the logistical place. And when you’re in a logical place, it’s a lot easier to tackle the big picture challenge of making sure that everyone is being taken care of according to their needs. If at the end of the day I end up taking up more of the budget than Michael does, so be it (if I have to suffer the lady tax, we both do).

And who knows. Maybe if enough of us fight for egalitarian budgets, we can demonstrate to society—one partner at a time—just how unfair the female tax really is (I won’t even get started on wage inequality). That would really make me happy, healthy, and whole.

I want to know from you guys, though. How do you decide what’s fair in your marriage? do you feel like your budget reflects your values?

🎉 Coming soon: YNAB just launched a brand-new version of their budgeting app that is even more intuitive. (it’s basically the YNAB we’ve all been waiting for.) So if you’ve been wondering if ynab could work for you, stay tuned next month for all the info. 🎉

 💸Or go try it out for free for 34 days right here.💸

This post was sponsored by You Need a Budget. YNAB is a powerful yet flexible budgeting tool that has radically changed the way we approach our married money. YNAB helped us get out of $30,000 in debt, and allowed us to prioritize our finances in a way we never could before. With YNAB, we budget our expenditures in advance, so we’re able to see at a glance what kind of money we have for incidentals and make plans for a safety net. Aka fewer fights and freak-outs. YNAB lets you manage your finances from your computer or your phone, plus they’ve synced up with over twelve thousand banks (including our tiny Maine credit union), making it easy to track real-time updates in your budget. Click here to learn more about YNAB and access your free 34-day trial.

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