Awhile ago, I worked with a couple who had this conversation in a session:
“You know, sweetie, I decided that paying only $3500. for the bike I want would be a great deal! The electric bikes run about $5000 to $6000 average! We could finance it easily with your excellent credit, or just buy it outright. And we could ride up hills on and off road! It would be so handy and fun!”
“$4000 for a bike that doesn’t even require any exercise? Do you think I’m made of money?! We have loads of other, more important expenses coming up! And, why are you leaning so happily into old age? What’s wrong with using some muscles – and paying a fraction of the price – on my dime?!”
Guess who was the primary earner in this marriage? And guess who got their way…
Historically, husbands frequently provided the income and wives stayed home running the household and dealing with the kids. Although wives often managed the checkbook, their husbands often maintained control over the spending choices made. It was an efficient but unequal system in terms of power.
Today, spousal roles are usually more blurred, with both partners earning an income and both sharing household and child rearing roles. What often remains the same however, is the fact that the higher earner generally has more say about what and when money is spent on based on their own assignment of value to purchases – (hence the electric bike discussion).
Because fluid sharing of power seems so vital to modern day marriages, I encourage couples to look at their habits or practices that create a power imbalance. It often is most obvious in this financial realm where the perception of value to an expense gets more votes and credence from the top earner.
So, instead of arguing endlessly about what’s worth spending money on, I encourage couples to set up an “Ours, Yours, and Mine” account system which supports collaboration on joint spending and expenses, as well as individual prerogative and independence around non essential spending. Things like the mortgage, utilities, food and children’s needs would come from the joint account, which the couple would fund equally, but proportionately to their income. The separate accounts would be funded based on an agreed upon monthly amount, also equally and proportionately from each spouse’s income. That way, the husband who wanted to get an electric bike would fund it from his own account in his own time without it having to meet his wife’s “priority” test.
For other one-earner couples I’d encourage them to look at the subjectivity around discretionary expenses. What’s “worth it” to one, may not be to the other. Weighting that based on who makes the money can create a nasty power imbalance that can color the relationship, so better to take turns or negotiate out disagreements about what “we” spend or don’t.
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About Susan Lager
I am a licensed, board certified pyschotherapist and relationship coach in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Through my psychotherapy or coaching services, I can provide you with
skills and tools to transform your life.