When I first met my husband, he had just gotten a job that paid him more than double what he’d ever earned before (and almost quadruple what I made at the time). Since he rightfully felt no need to move out of the cheap little apartment he shared with an awesome roommate, he suddenly had a lot of capital to spare. He started doing things like taking three friends to a big-venue concert, or buying himself some spiffy designer duds, or giving twenty bucks to a homeless guy who’s cardboard sign he liked.
When we started dating, the same applied to me. Early on, he invited me on a snowboarding trip and, finding out I had no outdoor winter gear, bought me a whole Roxy outfit in one spree: baggy-cute pants, a jacket with all kinds of pockets, long underwear, mittens, socks. He also paid for the trip.
Perhaps all of us, freed from the constraints of a budget, would lavish gifts and experiences on our loved ones. But as the receiver, I felt weird.
I thought it was weird that I felt weird. I had been pretty spoiled growing up, and I’d never really gotten over wanting to be a princess. Even four years at a progressive liberal arts college hadn’t broken me of a serious penchant for rom-coms and secret-but-persistent dreams of living a life of luxury. It seemed at first, with this relationship, that I’d stumbled into both. Suddenly I got to go to nice bars and drink nice drinks and order three courses at fancy restaurants — all with a wonderful guy. Suddenly I had Tiffany jewelry and a dress from Anthropologie. I wasn’t very good at snowboarding (I was TERRIBLE at snowboarding), but I was good at drinking wine in a cozy lodge or lounging in the hot tub.
The problem was that I had trouble relaxing into true enjoyment of these things. I’d get ninety percent of the way there and something would stop me. I’d feel a little perturbed, a little anxious, and I couldn’t make sense of it. I theorized that I was afraid he felt some kind of obligation to keep me in nice things. So I started trying to resist the gestures. “I really don’t need this,” I would say, or “Why don’t we do something that doesn’t cost money?” He wouldn’t hear of it. “I insist,” he would say, or “Please let me do this nice thing for you,” or simply, “But I want to.”
I believed him. But it didn’t alleviate my anxiety. I realized that I was becoming accustomed to a lifestyle I couldn’t afford on my own, which made my nervous. And I could feel, if not fully understand, that any sense of equality between us was impossibly complicated by money. But I didn’t want to seem ungrateful, and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He wanted to treat me, and I liked so much of my new lifestyle, I should be able to just focus on that.
Not so easy. Inevitably, I started resenting that I had so little say in how his cash was spent. If I got slammed with an unexpected cost — a boot zipper that broke, or a bill I’d forgotten about — I wanted him to swoop in and fix it. But he had made it clear that he liked to choose what he spent his money on, and since it was his money I didn’t feel I had any right to say otherwise. My anger towards him for not helping me out financially was as much anger towards myself for not being fiscally responsible. I was ashamed to be the broke girlfriend. It embarrassed me to run out of money at the end of every month and still have pretty jewelry to wear. I didn’t know how to feel about myself.
Eventually, things started to even out, slightly. We moved in together, which made it easier to have meals at home. I felt better about contributing groceries and cooking labor, and insisted that he let me take him on a date once in awhile. This helped the relationship anxiety somewhat, but increased the financial anxiety because I ran out of money faster.
The real answer to these woes was a commonplace thing that neither of us had bothered to dabble in before: a budget.
Putting numbers down in a spreadsheet — our expenses, our respective salaries, what we could afford to put aside — opened up lines of communication that we’d subconsciously kept closed for our entire relationship. It automatically placed us on the same team and asked us to create mutual goals — long-term ones, that made us look further than what we should have for dinner. When I saw how well I pulled my weight where our bills were concerned, so much of that past shame vanished. I felt like a worthwhile contributor to the financial side of our relationship for the first time.
It also forced me to be more responsible with my own money. It was easy to get sucked into my guy’s spending habits when I didn’t have any of my own, and it was easy to resent him for not picking up my slack when I didn’t have the savings to do it myself. I can’t even describe how liberating it now feels to have those numbers typed out and decided upon, to know exactly where I stand with my own money. Information is power, and I feel like I have control, again, over my financial life.
My story turns out well. But scary cautionary tales with really similar themes exist. Men and women are still conditioned to think that a man can be a financial plan, a breadwinner, a cushion, or just subsidizer of an upscale lifestyle. It’s easy to fall into this trap not only because we have these persistent gender roles, but also because we’re told that an upscale lifestyle is the only way to go. This is a land where three different TV shows have made celebrities out of already wealthy, “real” housewives. That’s a strong and entirely crazy message.
Women also make less, on the dollar, than men. Still. It takes a lot of clarity and strength to build financial independence and to hold on to it. One resource I just discovered (and from which I borrowed my titled) is www.wife.org, the Women’s Institute for Financial Education. I feel better just knowing it exists. If know of other resources that help women find and retain financial independence, shout them out. We could all use them.
Thanks to Skistar Trysil for the snowboarding shot and kenteegardin/www.seniorliving.org for the piggy banks.
Georgia Lowe works in Manhattan and lives in Brooklyn with her husband. She always pronounces "husband" with a southern accent because she hasn't gotten used to saying it yet. She is from Minnesota.
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