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.
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?