household economies [wedding post the second]

UPDATE: Molly's comment on this post made me realize I should make a point of saying that this post is about my own personal experiences and desires regarding shared finances, not meant to be a general statement about what "should" happen for couples, or what is morally "right" for all households, etc. Material security is a very, very personal thing. So all of the thoughts below are about me/mine -- not meant as a judgment of anyone else's life.
One of the first things Hanna and I did after we became a couple was go out and open a joint checking account.

Well, okay, it wasn't one of the first things -- but it was within a couple of months. And even though we'd been living together and sharing household expenses for a year and a half at that point, the shared account somehow seemed more possible, more right, to establish once we were in a sexually-intimate relationship.

Yeah, I know it doesn't make any rational sense when I put it like that. But at the time, that's how it felt. We were a couple, my logic went, and couples share material resources without keeping score. And the best, most efficient, way of doing that was an account to which we both had equal access.

And it's worked for us since then. So much so that, as we move toward our wedding in the fall, Hanna raised the question of consolidating finances further -- perhaps pooling our (frighteningly modest) savings, and more actively planning for a future down-payment or international travel. I agreed this sounded like a good move.
money love by cembas @ flickr.com
I got thinking about this last week when blogger blue milk put up a post about money and relationships, riffing on a New York Times piece on money-sharing in marriage. The comments on the blue milk post reveal a diversity of arrangements, and -- to my mind -- a surprising number of long-term couples whose financial resources are still fairly separate, or at least kept distinct.

It's not that I haven't known other options are out there for household finances, besides the single-financial-profile Hanna and I seem to be trending toward, but it's fascinating to me how many people (women particularly?) feel strongly about maintaining their financial independence even within stable, long-term relationships.

Generally-speaking, there seems to be a lot of angst and anxiety these days about establishing household economies. Which (me being me) makes me reflect on why I don't feel that level of angst and anxiety incorporating another person's financial expectations and spending habits into my life (and trusting another person with my own income). Was it weird, at first? A little. It's impossible to keep as tight a grip on the pulse of household spending when there are two of us -- unless either of us were willing to spend a lot more time tracking trends (we aren't). And I had to get used to Hanna making decisions with "my" money that I wouldn't necessarily make vis a vis discretionary spending ... but then again, she's had to do the same. For the past three years, my paychecks have been automatically deposited into an account that Hanna has full access to, and that's never really bothered me.

So the question becomes: Why? Why don't I worry? 

I think it has something to do with how material resources and respect for individual decision-making and personal property (the things of our lives) were handled in my family of origin.

I grew up in a family where there was one main source of income: my father's salary. My mother had done wage-work before we were born, and has picked up work-for-hire since we grew up and moved on, but didn't work for pay while we were growing up. Yet regardless of the source of income, financial resources were consolidated: there was one checking account out of which bills were paid and daily expenses withdrawn. It had both my parents' names on it. Their financial assets were theirs never "his" and "hers."

Us kids all got spending money when we were small, and were taken to the bank to open savings accounts once we were earning pocket money (and later more significant income). So as kids, we had money that was separate from the family economy. We were also, correspondingly, expected to take responsibility for our own discretionary spending as we were able.

And I think almost more important than the specific, technical, details concerning the flow of cash, is the fact that we had confidence in one another to be financially responsible. My parents have confidence in each other as financial decision-makers, and helped us kids gain a basic understanding of our own finances so that as we moved from familial inter-dependence into adult fiscal independence (contrary to mythology, a gradual and far-from-decisive process) we were able to communicate about economic needs and desires without moral judgment. Resources were finite, true, but decisions about how to work within those material realities was always pursued collaboratively

Perhaps because of this model, I felt little discomfort in pooling our financial resources. 

Neither Hanna nor I enjoy book-keeping. So it's way easier to have a single account for joint spending (virtually all our spending now) than it is to keep track of who's paying what bills, buying what groceries, or who should be responsible for paying the tab for the rental car. Or, as I've seen some couples do, pay one another back via the monthly rent check or something similar.

OH MY GOD THAT WOULD DRIVE ME INSANE. Actually, it drove me a little bananas when we were doing that, or trying to, for the first year and a half of our relationship. The endless "Who's turn is it to ..." and "How much do I owe ..." and "If I pay for, then you can get ..." At which point pooling finances seemed like a simple expedient to cut out all the white noise of negotiation and haggling.

Would I worry more about protecting my financial independence if I were in a heterosexual relationship? To some extent, perhaps. Like with marriage itself, I worry less about falling into heteronormative sand traps because our relationship is by definition already non-normative. I don't have the fear, for example, that my husband will just fall into handling the finances because social expectation and pressure encourages him to do so. In a relationship with two women, there is no "obvious" partner to coordinate the household economy. Rather than having social forces relentlessly pushing us toward integration, we have to move forward with deliberate insistence that, yes, this is what we wish to do. This is how we wish to live.

Which is not to suggest that hetero couples aren't making deliberate decisions. Just that the social pressure to fit heteronormative marriage ideals (male breadwinner, female home-maker) isn't applied so heavily when it comes to people who aren't in hetero relationships. We have to argue for the chance to engage in activities straight couples are pressured to do. So the experience of choice and agency is qualitatively different there.

Is part of my ease due to the fact that I am (though by a thin margin at this point) the primary wage-earner in our household? I don't have a complete answer to this. When I wrote in comments at blue milk about the fact that I don't resent the inequality in wage-earning because things even out overall in terms of domestic responsibilities, another commenter got on my case about the "regressive" nature of such an arrangement. She assumed that I was somehow implying that my wage-work was more valuable than Hanna's, when in fact I'd been trying to argue that wage- and non-wage work that contributes to the running of our household counts equally as far as I'm concerned, and as I said in my response to the critique:
With two (or more) adults in a family, you spread both wage-earning and other responsibilities around according to who is available to do what, who has what skills, and what feels fair to all people concerned. Too often, mainstream media reduces equality (and power) in household relationships to income and ignores all of the other aspects of running a household to which everyone in a family contributes.
To my mind, part of being in a marriage (or non-marital long-term relationship) is the luxury of not keeping financial score, as it were. Obviously you still keep your fingers on the pulse of basic fairness, in the sense that you speak up if it starts feeling like you always end up stopping for groceries or your partner always gets to pick the Friday-night movie. But I felt very strongly, going into our relationship, that I wanted our household to be ours not "hers" and "hers" in a nit-picky material way.

We share books, clothes, food, bath and body products, we co-care for Geraldine. Psychologically and emotionally, I didn't want to get into a situation where I started resenting that Hanna's physical therapy bills were a significant monthly expense, or to start stressing about whether her decision to prioritize buying a new season of Supernatural was less justified than my decision to pre-order the latest Diana Gabaldon in hardcover.

Do I catch myself doing it sometimes? Sure. I'm as fallible as the next person. But I want to work toward a place where mutual confidence and trust is so normal that it's unremarkable -- dare I say nigh invisible?


  1. Undercover in the Suburbs (a recent find for me) ran a post touching on similar issues; you might enjoy reading it. http://www.undercoverinthesuburbs.com/2012/05/04/math-is-not-enough-negotiating-egalitarian-marriages-and-partnerships/

    Also, my comment there talks about why I care about having separate finances and 'keeping score,' at least to some degree. It so irritates me when people frame having separate money in terms of 'not really being committed,' as they often do, because there are so many other perfectly reasonable factors here ... and I'm certainly not keeping my bags packed so I can flee from Eric and the children at any moment ... (Only, crap, I can't get the comments to display there right now. Basically, I saw my mother being financially abused for decades, and that influences my perceptions of what money does and can mean within partnerships. Also, since Eric's & my financial/employment situations and our level of joint/individual expenses have changed several times during our decade together, our 'rules' about what's shared and what's separate are renegotiated from time to time, sometimes in big ways. But I need to know what's mine rather than just figuring it will all work itself out.)

  2. Great post! I find this topic intriguing. As my fiance and I have negotiated our own financial balance, I too have thought a lot about the reasons we take the approaches we do (he's very laid back about shared finances, while I've been anxious at points). Without totally highjacking your post, here, I'll simply say that I really appreciate your comments on the effects of one's family of origin, and I love where you say, "Rather than having social forces relentlessly pushing us toward integration, we have to move forward with deliberate insistence that, yes, this is what we wish to do. This is how we wish to live." Deliberateness and choice. So key. I have to fight to remember this sometimes (those social forces are immense), but it's well worth it.

    I was kind of disappointed in the New York Times article that Blue Milk linked to. Would a more formal survey of women reveal as much financial disinterestedness (in all but one of the couples surveyed, the man keeps track of the finances) as this "completely unscientific snap poll"? I hope not! I've actually always enjoyed keeping track of accounts, bills, and budgets (again, family of origin may be responsible here, my mom was a rock star with her modest finances). Bookkeeping does get murkier with two people, but I'm *loving* Mint.com for budgeting, noting trends, etc. Have you seen it? I *highly* recommended it.

    Anyhow, thanks for a thoughtful, and thought provoking, post!

  3. @Molly -- thanks for the link, and I'll look forward to reading the post when I have a chance. Yeah, I don't really see having separate money as "not being committed," and I hope my post didn't come across that way. I realize that my own comfort level with sharing stuff if a result of privilege and security that not everyone experiences (for many, many reasons). I didn't write at length about Hanna's side of the equation here, but we've definitely had to balance her need to establish boundaries for herself with my more relaxed approach. Because of her experiences, that's important to her -- and making our sharing agreements explicit, and sticking to them, is something I try to honor as part of our partnership.

    Ah relationships and their material dimensions are such a work in progress!

  4. "heteronormative sand traps"-- when I read this, I imagined a Sarlac pit. :P

    What Molly wrote about financial abuse struck a chord with me. When my mom was living in a well-to-do suburban area in the 70s, her fellow housewives cautioned her to get her *own* account and skim money off the top of her weekly allowance to put into it. I'm not sure exactly why so many of my mom's friends felt so afraid (they were trophy wives afraid of replacements?) but the story's stuck with me as an example of how scary not being able to control your own money can be.

  5. @Molly Ren -- heteronormativity as a sarlac pit! I think we might be onto something ;)

    A group of us recently went to see "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" which is a complicated film on many levels, but the pertinent aspect here is that the Judi Dench character is a recently-widowed woman who discovers after her husband died how badly managed their household finances have been -- she's forced to sell their flat and get a job for the first time in her life (which she actually enjoys, but). It's an interesting story arc about trust and honesty, and where "trust" in the positive sense drifts into keeping secrets from one another.

  6. No, no--I didn't feel that you're judging/prescribing. But I've had undergrad students (discussing a short story) express a ferocious belief in the idea that a woman who wants any of her own separate money is keeping one foot out of the relationship. I'm also thinking of commentators like NPR's Michelle Singletary, who seem to get a lot of air time and who irritate the crap out of me.

    It occurs to me that my needs for some separation of finances & for explicit, advance agreements about money/spending have much more to do with my relationship with *money* than with my relationship with *Eric*. Which is not unlike some of what you say in your post. But I think the mainstream cultural narrative says the opposite.

    But more importantly: What did you think of Best Exotic Marigold Hotel? We saw an intriguing preview for it and couldn't tell whether it would be awesome or ... not.

  7. @Molly,

    Aha! "Best Exotic", yes, very important :). Hanna and I and a couple of close friends went to see it twice last week, which I think it merited. The first time I saw it, I was completely wrapped up in the amazing, amazing performances by Judi Dench (grieving widow), Bill Nighy (retired civil servant in an unhappy marriage), and Tom Wilkinson (barrister returning to India after forty years with a complicated past). I'd say these three characters own the movie, along with an incredible supporting cast.

    My proviso to the above is that it IS a film about English ex-pats in India, and while it does try to give the Indian actors more scope than the usual "we are props for the English" position, it glosses over the complicated history of the Raj at times. I think a film that dealt in a meaty way with that would have been an entirely different film, and it could have been much worse. But it does have a slightly uncomfortable "travel to foreign lands to sort yourself out" feel to it.

    That said -- the Judi Dench character approaches her elder years with a curiosity and generosity of spirit that I absolutely want to cultivate in my own life, and I'd argue the film is worth seeing simply for her example :)!