My Husband Wasn't Earning His Keep

Paying the bills never felt fair, so she tracked her spouse’s spending—until she tallied the emotional cost of money managing

by Sandy Hingston
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Photograph: Illustrated by Dan Saelinger

This April marks the 30th anniversary of my marriage—and one year since my husband and I started sharing a bank account. “I think all couples should keep their money separate,” I used to tell anyone who asked. And it’s true that Doug and I almost never argued about money. He had his and I had mine; each month he’d pay what bills he felt he could, then hand the rest over to me. It wasn’t anything we talked about. It’s just the system we adopted.

But it was also true that for almost all of our three decades together—we both just turned 56—I made more money than Doug did. In the beginning, it was only a couple of thousand more each year. As time went by, though, the gap grew. He was a musician and, for the school years, the stay-at-home parent for our two kids. I made the long commute from the distant suburbs to my job at a magazine in Philadelphia, and the bigger bucks.

That meant I paid the lion’s share of bills. And while on paper the situation looked fair, it never felt fair to me. I couldn’t shake the sensation that Doug wasn’t doing his part—that he was holding back. Oh, I don’t mean in big ways. It was the little stuff that rankled. Why was he buying coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts instead of making it at home? Why had he bought $80 sneakers instead of putting that money toward bills?

I was so uncomfortable talking about money with him, though, that I never asked these questions out loud. It was awkward to earn more than he did. And though we’d both agreed that I would work and he would (mostly) stay home, I couldn’t rid myself of the belief that he should do a better job of supporting our family financially.

I found myself obsessively tallying which of us paid for what each month. Why, if I bought the groceries, did he put such pricey items on the shopping list? How come I always ponied up for the Christmas presents—for his family and mine? I became a quid pro quo ho, right down to the level of “Why is he drinking the wine I bought instead of the beer he did?” When we were relatively flush, things were easy between us. But when times turned tight, my resentment would flare: How come I couldn’t afford a haircut at a decent salon? Why was I still wearing dresses from 10 years ago? It just wasn’t fair.

My focus on fairness is likely the product of growing up the middle of three sisters. Nan was the oldest one, smart and beautiful; she was voted prom princess in high school. Jan was the baby of the family, coddled and unbearably cute. I was stuck between them, a stolid, solid introvert who was invariably racked with jealousy, inwardly seething: Why her and not me?

But the marital ledger-keeping was also about control. I don’t like to fly. I don’t even like to ride in cars while other people drive; I want to be behind the wheel. Somewhere in my psyche is a real fear of being blindsided, by a tractor-trailer or by fate—like getting socked with a bill I can’t pay.

While our separate-bank-accounts system seemed convenient at first, over time it made me small-minded and mean. Doug, the kids, even the dog all learned that bill time was the really bad time of the month for me. I got downright bitchy as I wrote checks, sealed envelopes and stamped them. I felt no joy in providing for my family, only a constant sense that I was giving more than I was getting.

Some experts say one clue to long-lasting happiness is to feel you’re putting more than your spouse does into the relationship. Those experts never asked me. I was after some elusive, all-encompassing tote board on which everything each of us did would have an actuarial value assigned—three loads of laundry, 30 points! clean up vomit, 85! pay for health insurance, 4,325!—and I’d finally get the credit I deserved for all that I did.

Money complicates marriage. A stay-at-home-mom friend of mine went for years getting a (very, very) small weekly food allowance from her husband for them and their three boys. She was always scrimping to pay for meals, but because she didn’t work outside the home, she was reluctant to ask for more grocery cash. Another friend enlisted me to go by her house on the day her credit card bill arrived to intercept it from the mailbox. She didn’t want her husband to find out how much she’d spent.

It was hard for me to put myself in their shoes: Who’d tolerate such an overbearing spouse? But there are other, less obvious ways to pull the purse strings, like the hissy fits I threw when it was time to pay bills.

Or my secret bank account. I put a little something into it from every paycheck and added what I could from freelance writing. It wasn’t money the family would miss; I never accumulated more than $10,000. I told myself it was for emergencies. It turns out I’m not alone: In an online study, 31 percent of people who combined finances with their significant other said they had been deceptive about money.

But even with my private cushion, dealings with Doug over money were strained. He’d wait until the last minute to tell me which bills it was my turn to pay. Who can blame him, considering how surly I’d get? Yet when he waited toolong and we wound up with a late fee, I was furious: How careless of him!

My bitterness was a passive-aggressive rebuke to Doug’s manhood. What was he supposed to say in response? “I vacuumed today!” “I got the kids off to school!” Those household and child-care duties that feminists are always insisting go undervalued by men were being undervalued . . . by me.

And my secret bank account only made things worse. I was so protective of what was in there that even when we were hit with unexpected expenses, I held that money back.

Then, several years ago, our family ledger got seriously out of whack. Just as the nation plunged into recession, our older child started college. Doug’s music business had dwindled to almost nil, thanks to changing consumer tastes. His attempts to make up the deficit with part-time jobs—school bus driver, basketball referee—couldn’t close the gap. I never said “Get a real job,” but I sure thought it.

Instead, he went back to school. It took four years, but he earned a second college degree, this one in physical therapy. He graduated the same week our daughter did. He got a good job, with much better benefits than my employer had ever offered. (Hooray! Decent health care!) My share of the bills went down; his share went up. And all at once, pay-the-bills day wasn’t fraught with hostility anymore.

Of course, our tension over money dissolved only when Doug began earning more of it and we approached a 50-50 split of the bills. Which makes me wonder: How much of my resentment was due to some inner disappointment that I hadn’t managed to get swept up by a prince and provided for? That was what I dreamed about when I was a young girl. I felt the allure again, years later, as my daughter ran through the Disney princesses: Snow White, Cinderella, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine. I wanted to whisper an addendum to “They lived happily ever after”: “because she always held on to a little money of her own.”

Who knows why I thought that? Maybe I was just reading too many alarming news reports on how divorce wallops women financially, with about one in five falling into poverty. Or maybe I absorbed it from my mom. I don’t recall her ever recommending having a bank account of one’s own, but it’s the sort of thing she would have approved of. She didn’t care for fairy tales; she liked math and hard data. She raised three daughters who all kept their maiden name when they married. Her death from cancer, just months after I met Doug, felt like an abandonment of the first order. That’s what having my pin money was: ballast against the worst that life can hand you. If Doug ever left me, he wouldn’t leave me destitute.

I found myself thinking of my mom at Doug’s graduation—from a hard-luck commuter college like the one she went to, not a fancy liberal arts institution like our daughter’s. The valedictorian of Doug’s class stood on the podium and told her inspirational tale: a young single mom, trapped by circumstances yet never giving up, always pressing on. As I listened, I realized: Doug’s story is as good as hers. It could be him up there.

For the first time, I recognizedwhat a remarkable thing he’d done in starting college all over again at the age of 51. “You could have just sat on the sofa and drunk beer. A lot of guys would,” my sister Nan’s husband told Doug admiringly. Instead, he had invested in the future of our family. More than that, he was showing the kids and me how deep his commitment to us is—deep enough for him to give up music, drive an hour and a half to get to his classes, suffer through statistics and biology and (brr!) physiology. Suddenly, I was ashamed to be squirreling away that money.

We midlife women occupy such an odd niche. We have one foot in Mad Men and one in Girls, and that has made it hard for us to feel at home anywhere. What does it mean, we wonder, to be the “head of household”? How are we expected to contain such multitudes, to be feminine and feminist, serious yet fun, sexy and tech savvy? How do we build our men up without pushing ourselves down? What do we tell our children about work and home?

But it hasn’t been easy for our cohort of men either. Look at how pliant Doug has had to be, finding a definition of manhood that includes housekeeper and bandleader, college student and dad of college student, husband and monthly supplicant to my checkbook. If it’s been exciting not to be bound by expectations the way our parents were, it’s also been harrowing to juggle new roles and possibilities. No wonder getting rescued by a prince and installed in a palace is still appealing.

We recently refinanced our mortgage. Let me rephrase that: Doug refinanced our mortgage. I signed the papers with him, but he did the legwork that’s going to save us thousands of dollars over the next 10 years. Throughout the process, I was pretty princess-like. It felt good. By coincidence, our new mortgage holder doesn’t offer the “We’ll withhold your property taxes” feature our old lender did. So Doug and I have opened a joint bank account, a place for us to park the tax money—him contributing some months, me others—that comes due every year.

Doug and I also discovered how to electronically transfer funds between our checking accounts. OMG, commingling! But it hasn’t been as traumatic as I feared. It feels . . . OK. It feels grownup, in fact. Considering Doug’s commitment to me, I’m ready to make a commitment in return—a financial renewal of our vows, if you will. I’m doing my best not to tally his-and-hers on that imaginary tote board. I try not to stress about what’s “fair.” Ours is a Marxist household these days: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. It may not be the perfect construct, but it works for us. What it took for me to understand that was the enormous output of effort Doug made in starting all over again.

So long as we were starting over, I finally came clean to Doug about my secret bank account. He wasn’t upset. After 30 years, he’s come to accept my need for control. He’s perfectly happy that I have the account if it helps me feel more secure. But you know, it’s the strangest thing. I find I don’t mind sharing my pin money anymore. In fact, I just dipped into it for the down payment on his—our—new car.

Sandy Hingston is a senior editor at Philadelphia magazine.

Next: How I Lost $500,000 for Love

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First Published Mon, 2013-03-04 11:11

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