A year and a half of living in a pandemic has revealed or recalled some lingering patterns related to money, gender, marriage, and family. And they’re not always pretty.
There is anecdotal evidence that men confiscated government aid from their wives, and there is data showing a link between financial stress and domestic violence. And millions of women felt they had no choice but to quit their jobs to look after children or other family members.
Marriage and parenting involve compromise, without question (and sometimes seemingly without end). But it doesn’t have to be disproportionate.
There are many reasons to balance the financial choices in your marriage – and that goes for any couple, straight or not. If you are among the many to be married now in the wake of the great wedding boom pandemic, you should add another promise: your financially egalitarian marriage.
Here’s what that could mean.
First, understand where the power lies.
When a new household creates a financial base, it is hard to avoid talking about power.
Rachel Sherman, professor of sociology at the New School for Social Research in New York, examined structures of authority in the marriages of the wealthy in her book Uneasy Street.
While gender and its associated worrying norms may play a role in heterosexual couples, she suggested that at least two additional vectors influenced the power dynamic.
The first concerns the source of all household resources, including income, unpaid labor, and inheritance. Who gets or takes credit and for what? What privileges, if any, are associated with the answers to these questions?
The other is about spending styles – who is licensed to do what, when, and who decides? Confusion can arise here because one grew up in a family with a disturbed relationship to money.
Conflicting habits can cause real problems, but understanding them is an important first step. “People are lucky when they have a partner who has the same ideas as them,” said Professor Sherman.
You have to talk. Much.
Financial planners can participate in many conversations with people who have recently married and spot worrying patterns. A common problem: only one partner speaks.
“They often only meet with half of a couple,” says Marci Bair, a financial planner in San Diego.
Most of the time, it’s the man in straight couples who shows up or calls (or wants to) alone, several counselors told me this week.
At Fyooz Financial Planning (pronounced “fuse”, like putting together the portfolios and trifles of a couple), this kind of exclusion or neglect is not allowed. Also, each couple meets with a couple: Dan and Natalie Slagle, who jointly run the Rochester, Minn business.
It can feel a bit like a double date, and like many dates, there are red flags. “They usually have to do with the pronouns used,” said Mr Slagle. “‘You’ as opposed to ‘we’.”
Mrs. Slagle picked up the thread. “If you don’t see yourself as a partnership, it will be very difficult to create a successful financial plan for two people,” she said.
So, keep your pronouns in mind, and not just when speaking to a professional. Be a united front.
There should be no “financial spouse”.
Even if the two of you are present and equally engaged in discussions about your money, many couples have only one person managing all of the household’s finances.
“I call it the financial spouse and the non-financial spouse,” said Annelise Bretthauer, a financial planner in Hillsboro, Ore.
She’s generally not a fan of this attitude or default, in part because of what can happen when a marriage ends, either when a spouse dies or when the relationship goes wrong.
Much of Ms. Bretthauer’s pro bono work deals with recently divorced women who may have spent decades as a non-financial spouse.
“And then they drink from a fire hose,” she said. “They don’t know how to make the best decisions about divorce because they haven’t been privy to financial information for years.”
And there is no one right way.
You can be sure that a shared bank account and strict spending responsibility make sense. Or maybe you prefer a trio of virtual piggy banks named Yours, Mine and Ours. Both can work.
“When people ask, I say that the right way to organize your money is not to fight for it,” said Alexandra Killewald, a sociology professor at Harvard.
Separating your finances doesn’t prevent you or your spouse from accidentally starting this argument.
“If you have segregated accounts, how segregated are they really?” Asked Lazetta Rainey Braxton, a Brooklyn financial planner. “Can you spend without judgment? However you want? Only within your common value system? “
But you can budget wrong.
Be careful how you talk – or even think – about whose income is used for what.
Viviana A. Zelizer, a sociology professor at Princeton, spent years studying how couples would put labels on money they earned, the mortgage.
“Somehow they were a little different and maybe less important than the big money items,” she said. “I would tell couples to realize how powerful this is.”
If you have at least one joint account – to pay for all joint expenses – maybe nobody will feel that their income is less relevant.
Take into account the influences outside your front door.
Despite all of your best efforts to have a financially equal marriage, inequality in the outside world can come in through the door every night and hover over the dining table.
Ms. Braxton, the Brooklyn financial planner, encourages her clients to consider the following options and the sensitivities required to manage them in a marriage.
Perhaps, on average, you earn less because you are black. Perhaps, on average, you earn less because you are female. And maybe you feel more vulnerable to losing your job.
A lot can happen at home. You could save and invest more conservatively out of fear. Or you may spend the occasional surrender just to let go.
“People in this situation must plan to rise above what they are experiencing,” said Ms. Braxton. For example, you can set up savings backstops as “pillow” funds for gentler landings or as a kind of “go-to-hell” account.
Giving up authority can give you a little more.
If any of the above sounds familiar to you, it won’t make you regressive. After all, there’s a good chance you’ve never married before. However, change can actually calm you down.
Husbands who have taken on traditional financial gender roles can feel a noticeable sense of relief when they are not working alone, especially as household finances become more complicated over time, said Ms. Bair, a financial planner in San Diego.
“It’s all on her shoulders,” she said. “And they know that they are probably not fully equipped for it either.”
Hiring professional help can also bring some comfort, but it doesn’t eliminate the need for a deep conversation with your spouse. Ms. Bretthauer said the best financial planners are in the behavior change business, not the stock-swirling business.
“Are you looking for someone to tell you what to do?” She said. “Then don’t hire me.”