Great news, everyone: I’ve figured out the secret to a successful marriage. It’s been 18 years, and if my musician husband and I make it past the finish line it won’t be because we’re more compatible than any other couple (risible) or because we tried harder than everyone else (please). Similar tastes in movies, shared values, a mutual disinterest in skiing — all good things to have. I’m here to tell you that what you don’t want to share with your significant other is cash.
Paying my own way began, of course, with my first boyfriend, whom I’ll call Lenny the Punk. When we met, Lenny the Punk had a real job, and I was still in high school with a mound of babysitting cash to cover my date-night expenses. I don’t remember doing so, but I must have made it clear from the start that I would always pay my own way, which back then usually meant buying a movie ticket and a fizzy almond drink. Despite Lenny the Punk’s inflexible exterior (leather jacket, shaved head), he was an enlightened soul — not too long ago I found a snarly feminist postcard that he sent me decades back — and I’d like to think he took my intent to pay my own way for what it was: an intuitive sort of feminism that at the time I would have called an interest in fairness, not realizing that they’re the same thing.
At some point after Lenny the Punk and I broke up for reasons nonfinancial, I learned that one of the things couples most often fight about is money. The solution, it seemed to me, was pinheadedly simple: Don’t share it. When partners keep their money separate, one half of the couple can’t resent the other half — your musician husband, say — for using merged funds to buy another guitar that he truly doesn’t need. In theory, not merging our cash means that my spouse and I can save our energies for bickering about one of the other things couples most often fight about: sex. But we don’t fight about sex either, maybe because we don’t fight about money. (Fights about money must be a real libido killer.)
What if your significant other makes more money than you, you ask? Before I met my husband, I lived with just such a man, and I was so splenetic in my resolve to pay my own way that I became a master of thrift in order to keep up with him. What if you’re thrifty and still find yourself unable to keep up with your partner? Then maybe you should look for someone else: That chump is probably spending way too much money.
Here’s how it works at my house: My husband and I both contribute to agreed-upon shared expenses (food, the mortgage, the kids) in proportion to how much child care each of us provides. These days we split the child care down the middle, so the math is a breeze. After we make a purchase, we initial our receipts, which go in a plastic clip, and once a month or so I tally the husband’s expenses and then mine, total them, divide by two, and then calculate who owes who how much. For a while we were doing a one-sixth/five-sixths split because my husband did child care five days to my one day a week (I had a real job then, and he worked on Saturdays), and I will admit to you that the math was a bit of a mind melter. But convenience doesn’t seem like a good enough reason for two married people to automatically pool their funds, a tradition predicated on the extinct assumption, at least here in the West, that a married woman won’t earn an income of her own. I wasn’t going to use my husband’s name; why would I use his money? And this thing with letting men pick up the tab — it’s not a serious solution to the problem of women not earning what men do for the same work, is it? That’s just compounding the lopsidedness problem, no? And it introduces another one.
“Two blow jobs,” a friend said under her breath at a museum shop many years ago as she was writing a check for some pricey mementos; she had a career that wasn’t very remunerative (did you guess freelance writer?), so she and her husband shared a checking account into which he poured his considerably larger salary. My friend had made the “blow jobs” joke for my amusement, and I’m still sufficiently amused to repeat it here. But it distilled what I think I’d sensed way back when I was dating Lenny the Punk: When a man pays a woman’s way, there’s a subtext — she owes him something. Maybe not two blow jobs, or even one. But maybe a little light housework, or maybe her understanding (“Well, he did buy me that fizzy almond drink”) when he’s being a cad.
I do realize that I’m not the first woman who has ever pledged not to depend financially on her partner. I also realize that standing by this particular principle is a middle-class luxury: I can support myself because I’m a healthy person with a college education. My parents even covered most of my college tuition, although after I graduated I had a modest quarterly loan that I paid myself. At one transitional point in my life, I moved in with my mother and my then-new stepfather, and somehow he got his hands on my student-loan paperwork one day and did the unthinkable: He paid the balance.
My mother explained to me in private that this was a testament to my stepfather’s love for me, but I was having none of it. I adored the man but was wildly uncomfortable with his picking up the tab for my loan, plus I’d been looking forward to the fizzy-almond-drink-like jolt of satisfaction that would come once I’d paid it off. I made my flustered mother find a polite way to tell my stepfather all this. I know that I reimbursed one of them — I don’t recall which; because they pooled their money, it didn’t matter to them who got my check. By now you know why it would have mattered to me.
Beware, heterosexual women averse to ruffling feathers: Offending traditionalists, including prospective mates, goes along with a commitment to not being carried by a man. It’s also half the fun.
Nell Beram is the coauthor of Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies.