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

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.

First published in the April 2013 issue

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