my two cents

‘I Lost My Job and My Husband Keeps Criticizing My Spending’

Photo: George Marks/Getty Images

Dear Charlotte,

My husband and I have been married for three years, and I’m currently pregnant and due in February. We’re excited about becoming parents, but besides that, our marriage has been extremely stressful for the past few months. Throughout our relationship, we’ve always made about the same amount of money and split our shared expenses (rent, etc.) down the middle. That was all going fine until August, when I was laid off from my job at an advertising firm. I went on unemployment, but it’s less than half of what I used to make. My husband still has his job (and health insurance that I was able to go on, thankfully), but it’s never been our intention to be a one-income household and it’s causing a lot of arguments. 

My husband knows it’s not my fault that I lost my job (it was part of a pandemic-related, company-wide layoff) but he was initially upset that I didn’t have more money put away just in case. (I have student loans, so anything extra would usually go toward those.) Now that I’m almost totally reliant on him for money, he sees everything I buy, and he’s constantly telling me we need to be more frugal, especially with the baby coming. I know he’s right, and I have tried to cut back. But I also hate feeling like I need his permission to buy anything, especially for stuff like the baby’s room. I’ve been looking for work, but it’s been tough to find anything, especially since I’ll need to go on maternity leave in a few months. Hopefully I’ll be able to find a job once we get child care worked out, but until then, I wish we could figure out a way to share finances better. How can we establish better communications around money? I hate feeling so dependent and helpless. I know that he feels a lot of pressure right now, too, and I wish the situation were different.

-Reluctantly dependent

I’m sorry you’re going through all of this, but I’m also glad it’s happening before the baby comes (congratulations, by the way!). You’ll be much more resilient as a couple — and as parents — once you’ve learned to talk about money and navigate tight spots like this one.

The truth is, something like this was bound to happen eventually. The odds of you and your husband maintaining perfectly equal paychecks without a single crisis throughout your lives together was always pretty slim. And of course, one of the most essential parts of marriage is that you can pick up slack for each other — emotionally, of course, but also financially when it’s necessary. (This has been called the “seesaw” effect; you switch back and forth playing the lead versus the supporting role, depending on your circumstances.) The key to riding out these imbalances isn’t about avoiding “dependence,” or chasing a static equilibrium. It’s about both of you communicating what you need and trusting that everything will even out in the long run.

That said, it’s understandable that you’re panicking right now. You’ve got several stresses stacked on top of each other — the pandemic, job loss, a kid on the way. That’s a lot! To muddle through, you’ve got to combine serious logistical planning with a lot of transparency. It’ll be a crash course.

Before we dive into that, some suggestions on work: I would encourage you to find at least some kind of remote work, on top of continuing to look for a full-time position. I have laid-off friends who have found random gigs (research, transcribing interviews, tutoring) through Craigslist or Fiverr; I know it sucks to do something menial when you’ve put years into building your career, but any amount of income is better than none. I also think you’ll find it comforting to learn that you can monetize certain skills that you never considered valuable before.

What’s more, don’t give up hope on finding a full-time position just because you’re about to have a baby. I’ve known (and worked with) women who’ve been hired while eight months pregnant and even got paid maternity leave from their new employers — unusual, but it happens. It’s illegal for employers to discriminate based on pregnancy, but depending on what state you live in, employers may not be required to give you any maternity leave (even unpaid) if you’ve worked for them for less than a year. No matter what, you should lay the groundwork for potential job leads as soon as possible, even if it means being straightforward about why you’ll need a later start date if an opportunity does come up.

As for your marital finances: Pooling your money can be terrifying at first, especially when most of it is coming from one party. The best advice I ever got about this came from Manisha Thakor, a financial adviser and the founder of MoneyZen, who likes to say that all couples should have the goal of feeling “both free and protected,” financially, in their relationship. “You both want to be free in the sense that no one is watching over your shoulder, and protected in the sense that you know the other person isn’t going to go blow your finances behind your back,” she explains.

Obviously, that’s a fine line to walk, but it will get easier with practice. A good place to start is by sitting down with all of your bills — literally compile them all, on one spreadsheet or list — and looking at what you can cut. You’ve probably done something like this already, but if you and your husband make a regular habit of reviewing your finances together every few weeks (with an eye on what worked well, what you can trim next time, etc.), it’ll help normalize and destigmatize the process. Thakor also recommends doing something to soften the mood — light a candle, put on music, make hot chocolate, etc. It’s not exactly date night, but it doesn’t have to feel like judgment day, either.

Slashing your spending is never easy, but it will alleviate some of the pressure that you’re both feeling. (In my experience, the anxiety of overspending always feels way worse than giving up some creature comforts.) And even when you do get a new job eventually — which you will! — keeping your budget tight is a good idea. Research has shown that dual-income families are actually less equipped to absorb financial shocks than single-income ones, in part because they tend to have higher fixed expenses. This is famously known as “the two-income trap,” and the best way to avoid it is to continue living well beneath your means so that you can build up a cushion.

Next, you’ll want to break down your combined budget together so that you’re on the same page about where your money should go and where there’s some flexibility. Neither of you should have to police each other’s spending (or be policed); if you agree to put a certain amount toward groceries, and you stick to it, there’s no need for either of you to nitpick. Thakor also recommends that each of you get a set dollar amount every month that you can spend on whatever you want, no questions asked. That amount might be very low, given the circumstances, but it’s important to have it nonetheless. The idea isn’t to just spend as little as possible; it’s to make a plan that you can realistically adhere to, together and individually. (Remember: ”free and protected.”)

Finally, don’t forget that how you talk about money is just as important as what you’re saying, because your words will fall on deaf ears if you’re tense and defensive. “When approaching difficult subjects, I advise couples to think about three main things: tone, intention, and timing,” says Susan Regan, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in California. Don’t just spring a money question on your husband; schedule a date to talk about a specific topic (“I’d like to talk about our budget for the baby’s room”), and then come prepared. (Do your research on what things cost, where you can save, and so forth.)

Also, keep these talks structured. “It helps to be disciplined about giving each person equal, uninterrupted air time,” says Regan. “Try setting a timer for 20 minutes, and you get to talk for ten and then he talks for ten.” Beyond budgeting logistics, allow space to discuss underlying money fears, too. “If you know your previous spending habits put him on edge, acknowledge that, but also focus on negotiating solutions,” says Regan. “That way, it isn’t about blame; it’s about what you can do in the future to make the other person more comfortable, and vice versa.”

This is one year of your life — a spectacularly challenging year, sure, but one that’ll force both of you to resolve financial conflicts that would have come up in your marriage sooner or later. On the bright side, it seems pretty unlikely that you will ever be laid off in the middle of a pandemic while pregnant again! While this won’t be the last financial challenge you face in your marriage, it could be the hardest — and also the most valuable.

‘I Lost My Job and My Husband Keeps Criticizing My Spending’