my two cents

‘My Husband Won’t Pay for Child Care!’

Photo: George Marks/Getty Images

My husband is self-employed and earns a relatively good income, but hoards all his money in his business account and leaves me to pay for child care and all other child-related expenses. He claims that all our money is “ours,” yet I feel like I am always paying more than my share of our family’s operating expenses. We both make more or less the same amount annually (although our month-to-month varies) and should be contributing equally, but he remains opaque about his earnings and I pick up the slack for him constantly.

We both have separate accounts and joint accounts, and periodically have financial meetings where he agrees to contribute more. But then, nothing happens. For example, he currently owes me $5,000 in months-old Venmo invoices for child-related costs, and I also just cut a $2,600 check for preschool. I told him I was going to have to start drawing from our family savings because I am so low on funds, and he said no … but then only Venmo’d me $900. What can I do?

He does pay for our cable, some utilities, and any trips we take, but seems to think his duties are done after that. How can we divide our shared expenses equally and stop arguing so much?

— Frustrated

That is deeply frustrating, and you’re right to be upset! There are a few solutions you can try, which I’ll get to in a moment. But first, you’ll need to find a way to give your husband the benefit of the doubt. Yes, there are a lot of red flags here — he’s secretive with money and promises to contribute equally but doesn’t follow through — and you shouldn’t ignore or minimize them. But for the sake of your marriage, let’s set them aside for the time being, assume that he intends to be a supportive partner and parent, and give him a fair shot at doing so.

One thing that stands out to me is that you both seem to be making a lot of financial decisions and paying bills separately. That divide-and-conquer strategy works fine for some couples, but it’s not working for you; it’s time to take a more collective approach. At the very least, you need to set up a more organized, central system. If you’re each fending for yourselves with your monthly budgets, it’s hard to keep track of who owes what, and having Venmo invoices flying around can get confusing.

Sonya Lutter, a certified financial planner and professor at Kansas State University who studies money issues within marriages and families, points out that couples who pool more of their resources tend to be happier together. “Research suggests that shared accounts and relationship satisfaction are highly correlated,” she says. To be fair, it’s a little bit chicken or egg — couples who combine their money might feel more secure in their relationship, or happy couples might be more likely to have an “ours” mind-set. Either way, sharing is worth a shot.

“I wish every couple used joint accounts,” says Megan McCoy, a licensed marriage and family therapist who also teaches personal financial planning at Kansas State University. “I believe it’s a sign of commitment, but more importantly, I think it shows that both partners are (a) buying things they don’t have shame about, (b) able to ask for what they want, and (c) acting with financial transparency.” Sounds like what you’re looking for.

To start the process, Lutter recommends meeting with a neutral third party who can help you determine a household budget. “I would encourage you to meet with an unbiased professional, like an accredited financial counselor or financial therapist, to lay all expenses on the table,” she says. (You can find certified financial planners here; you want one who charges by the hour, not by commission. If you’d rather meet with a financial therapist who will be equipped to untangle the more emotional aspects of money-sharing, here’s a good place to look.)

Whatever third party you wind up working with should also be able to act as a referee if you and your spouse disagree on what constitutes a household expense. “The reality of differentiating between joint expenses versus independent expenses is more difficult than most people think,” says Lutter. Her rule of thumb: Anything used by all household members or by the children qualifies as a shared expense. You should also write down your concerns about the back payments your spouse owes you and establish a plan to move forward equitably.

Once you’ve come up with your joint budget, plan to pay it all out of one joint account — no more Venmo invoices. “If a couple earns relatively equal incomes, each should contribute 55 percent of the total household expenses to a joint household account each month — 50 percent each to cover standard expenses, and 5 percent for emergency savings,” Lutter says.

As for your husband’s business: I know that self-employment can be tough, and it’s good that he’s set up a business account for tax, liability, and accounting reasons. But he also needs to make regular distributions from that account (i.e., pay himself a salary) to cover his personal and household bills. If his business cash flow is inconsistent — which often happens with small businesses — then he needs to figure out what a comfortable monthly distribution would be.

I also get the sense that he may need to get more organized in general. “I am concerned that the self-employed husband is being messy with his household receipts, because to be self-employed requires diligent accounting or you’ll end up losing money,” says McCoy. Enlisting a session or two with a small-business accountant could potentially help him get his books in order.

Now comes the tricky part: getting your spouse to stick with the program. Lutter recommends starting off with a weekly meeting on the calendar. “Scheduling the time may feel like a business arrangement, but springing the issue upon him unexpectedly will create angst and no solutions,” she says. “You should tell him that you would like to discuss your shared household expenses, as well as the expenses you have already paid that he owes. I would schedule it at least a few days out to provide him time to gather his thoughts. It may not have occurred to him that this is an unresolved issue.”

From there, ask to set a weekly time to revisit how the proposed plan is working. And be patient! “I would not expect you to sort out the household expenses in the first meeting,” says Lutter. In fact, she predicts it will take more like six months. “Try weekly meetings for the first month, biweekly meetings for the second month, and a transition to monthly meetings when you feel ready,” she says. You’ll need to revisit the household budget regularly, anyway, because kids’ expenses fluctuate as they grow; ideally, you can frame them as such, without making him feel like you’re policing him.

Of course, your spouse’s secrecy around money could be a sign of something more problematic, and I don’t want to downplay the unfairness of your picking up the slack for him. You should allow room in these weekly or monthly conversations to talk about your feelings and anxieties around money, too. But it may not be possible for him to understand the extent of your frustration until he sees the actual numbers laid out in a consistent, transparent, organized manner — so start there, and give him a chance to make it up to you.

‘My Husband Won’t Pay for Child Care!’