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

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 in the April 2013 issue

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