Monday, January 16, 2012

Monday Marriage Matters: Earnings

First of all, blogger now allows stacked comments so you can reply to other people's comments, so let's all just jump for joy on that one and I look forward to adequately replying to your comments.

Secondly, I wanted to talk a little bit about marital earnings.  Since I graduated from law school, my husband has outearned me at a rate of at least 2:1.  When I was earning nothing, and he was earning everything, that was particularly difficult for me to cope with emotionally.  But even now, when I finally make enough to cover my "half" of our rent, and pay for my health insurance, I still feel a little uncomfortable about not earning as much.  This is for a few reasons.

1) It makes me feel like I'm not trying very hard.  My husband works long hours at a job in a challenging and  often difficult environment.  I work reasonable hours (10-5) for a boss I really like, who doesn't have outrageous expectations or ever get mad at me when I make a mistake and who is supportive of my job search and where I want my career to go.  My job can be really, really, really demanding, but most days it's just sort of hard, and it's not really challenging me the way I want to be challenged. (If you are thinking, "why doesn't she just get a new job?", you clearly don't understand this economy.)

2) It makes me feel like I don't have to take a job just because it pays well.  That we earn enough money between us to support both of us and put some in savings means that I can hold out a bit and try to actually build a career in a field that I like.  While this is the dream, it is not the reality for many of our friends in this economy and they have taken jobs that they don't enjoy, or they are working crazy hours, and I feel over-privileged that I do not have to make that choice.  At the same time, money is a motivating factor to push yourself to find a job that challenges you, and lacking that motivating factor, I'm only applying to jobs that look fun and interesting to me that are geographically well situated for us.  (Note: these are jobs like, "Medicaid and Estate Planning" and "Elder Law", not "ice cream taste tester.")  This doesn't displease me, but it disquiets me because it's a luxury that not everyone has right now.

3) It makes me feel guilty because I have expensive hobbies.  If you are following along, I work less than my spouse, I make less, and I'm the one who is always going to yoga or signing up for a gym or a triathlon or an expensive hockey league.  My husband doesn't have pricey hobbies (and the ones he has, he doesn't have time for.)  This makes me feel incredibly selfish and I haven't reconciled that feeling yet.

4) I feel like I'm not contributing.  You would think that if I wasn't earning as much and had flexible hours, I would do all of the cleaning and the cooking and general housewifery.  I don't.  I cook dinner most nights because I like to eat before 8pm, and I do almost all of the grocery shopping, but I still don't do the laundry or do the dishes when I make dinner.  The bottom line is, I do not think that I am making enough contributions to the marriage to justify that I am making less than half what my spouse makes.

So what do I do about these feelings?  The most important thing is to talk about it.  I talk about my feelings of inadequacy and discomfort with my husband, and he reassures me that it's fine and he's happy to let me try to build my career and get the experience I need and hold out for a good job.  I talk to him before I spend a lot of money on a triathlon or a gym membership, so that he knows I'm not just spending his/our money without thinking it through.  I make more of an effort to not make the house messier.  I apply to jobs even if I'm not sure that they are the right choice, because I don't want "holding out" to become an excuse for laziness or keep me from getting a job that could be perfect for me, even if it doesn't look that way on paper.  I take care of more chore-errands, because I drive to work and get to work later, therefore I can get an oil change before work or stop and pick up some household necessity on the way home.  And for the most part, right now we live a lifestyle that I can afford, so I do not feel as if I am living significantly far beyond my means.

Does anybody else have a high income differential in your relationship?  Do you struggle with it, or accept it?


  1. When we first moved in together, my husband was a student, so he didn't have any income. For the next few years, I was the breadwinner, but I lost a major contract just before our wedding, which resulted in my father inviting me to work with him instead.

    I had started building my own accountancy firm, but when I fell pregnant, it just didn't make sense to suddenly sign up to a 7-day-per-week job like that. I earn about 2/3 of what my husband earns now, and his salary will increase at a steeper rate than mine, going forward.

    When I was 3 months pregnant, I received a job offer that would have had a salary more than double my previous one, but with the possibility of late-notice international travel, and late-notice overtime. It was a difficult decision, but we just felt that we valued our easy life so much more than we would the extra cash. Slackers, eh?

    Our hobbies are very different - he tends to do inexpensive, regular commitments, while I will make less regular, more expensive purchases.

    He is considerably more house-proud than me, and I felt much the same way as you to start with. When I'd apologise to him, he simply said that he didn't mind, and that if I felt really bad, I should probably do something, but if I wasn't that worried about it, then I should just put it out of my mind. Admittedly, I do a lot more house stuff now that we have a baby.

    I promised myself as a teenager that I'd never be one of "those" women who doesn't earn their own money, but nowadays I recognise the value that each partner can bring to a relationship, and that it doesn't necessarily boil down to those things we can readily identify. I struggle immensely with the fact that my Dad is my boss. I'm really afraid of being "the boss's kid", and so I probably overcompensate a bit in order to pull my weight.

    1. I used to work for my cousin so I know the feeling on overcompensating. I always felt the need to show that I was qualified for my job in my own right, not just because she asked me to come work for her.

      I think that you are absolutely right about recognizing the value that both people bring to the relationship, regardless of earnings. I guess that sometimes I feel like the things I bring in are generally less valuable (although I'm pretty sure Mark would argue that my chili salmon is worth his entire annual salary) is why I have trouble - but I think you make an excellent point, which is that it won't always be this way and things are bound to shift when we have children.

  2. I feel this way a lot, generally because I spend a lot more than The Foliage does. And I know he hates that I'll buy packages of yoga classes or want to go to happy hours, but he also knows that when I'm being active and social I'm a much happier partner, so that money is really an investment in happiness too. I mean, besides the obvious he's-legally-obligated-to-want-me-to-be-happy bit, if I'm not happy I'm downright miserable, and I'll (inadvertently) drag him down with me.

    Maybe consider the cost of your activities as investments in your future. To you being healthier, longer. If your husband says he's fine with it, you really just have to let go and trust him.

    And. As a union employee. When someone suggests that union workers have it too easy, and should give up benefits, we say that the people with poor working conditions should want better for themselves, not the other way around. I really hope your husband is laying the groundwork for a job that isn't so taxing, somewhere down the line.

    For me, it helps to think of all the income as OUR income. Not how much each of us brought in. We don't even think about it anymore. The bottom line for all spending is: how does the bank account look? Is this cost in line with (or at least doesn't interfere with) our overall goals (health, real estate savings, etc.)? If both of those gets a thumbs up, we buy that ish.

    1. I had never thought about my spending on fitness as an investment in our relationship, but you are right. I sleep much better when I'm active, and I am generally happier. I'm also more willing to follow our self-imposed rule about waking up at the same time if I'm trying to get a workout in in the morning, and I'm less annoyed when he gets home late if I've used that time to go to the gym, instead of feeling like I'm just waiting around for him to get home.

    2. At first, I felt really guilty about spending a big chunk of our tax return on my gym membership for 1 yr. I mean, I could've worked out with videos at home or just taken a walk... and every day I skipped was a waste of money. BUT. I feel so much better when I go to the gym, I'm more likely to push myself harder than when I workout at home, I sleep better, I feel sexier, happier -- and it hopefully contributes enough to my overall health that it means I'll be in better shape as I age. All of which are things that (to some degree) benefit B, too, so I think it's valid to look at it as an investment in the relationship.

  3. I must admit to a little envy at viewing having a higher earning partner as a problem.

    I am the higher earner with Nick making a graduate stipend, and I always planned on working (wasn't going to college to earn my MRS or whatever it is people say) but being early career in the nonprofit world means our family is eligible for many of the low-income programs I promote at work! Ha. Sometimes I get sour-faced about it and feel like we're missing out by not being able to hop on perceived financial mainstream escalator.

    But no, I can't really complain, we have almost no debt. And as the higher earner I have no guilt buying a ten dollar block of cheese from time to time. If our earner ratio ever flips, I wonder if I'll feel a little more awkward about my gym membership, pushing for spontaneous travel, etc.

    This is only marginally related, but is one of my favorite essays:

  4. I am the "sole" breadwinner in our house. To be fair Forrest made almost a quarter of my yearly salary in six weeks last fall and on a semi-regular basis makes decent size profits selling msc. stuff on Craigslist. Most of the money he earns/makes goes towards things that are sort of luxuries which is what, intellectually, I would like to think of extra earnings as going to. But when in reality all of the money I make goes to paying bills, paying down debt, groceries, and gas sometimes I get a little pissed off.

    And then we talk about it. And I'm careful not to guilt trip him for not having a steady job (there aren't many available around here...especially since I won't HEAR of him working underground). And usually calms me down.

    I hardly ever say this to him, but I think things would be easier for me if we weren't trying to pay down our debt so fast. Occasionally the crazy in my head says that by the time we're married, I'll have so very much invested in what we have compared to him. In the end I decide it's just me being grumpy.

    1. Things were much more difficult when I wasn't making any money and we were living on one pretty modest income. I think he tried really hard to not get upset and guilt trip me, but every once in awhile it would come out. We spent last year paying dues and now we're more comfortable, which is a new thing for us, but it's still not equal, so I'm trying to deal with being financially comfortable but not "pulling my weight".

  5. Lots to say about this but first how did you get the stacked comments?

    1. They showed up! You have to have comments embedded (which I prefer to the pop-ups anyway).

  6. Initially I was going to be making about 25% more than Stephen but he just got a big raise so now we make almost the same amount. I'm very proud and happy for him (us) but I did have a pang of resentment that his job is "fun" and kind of a dream job and mine is really "practical". I also had to spend a lot of time and money on grad school that he didn't. On the flip side, he had no debt and I have modest student loans that we will pay off together so I guess it evens out.

  7. C makes more than I do. We work at the same company, but very different jobs (data entry vs. computer program-writing genius). Part of me hasn't really confronted this because it's not my REAL JOB, but I know that when I finally get my degree, I won't make as much as he does then either. Yay social work.

    This does a lot of weird things to me, as someone who's always been very independent and frugal. Now there's a bit more money, but he has a different spending style than I do because he's always made more money. Which feels weird to me. I don't feel the same ownership of our finances. I let him make more of the final decisions because the majority isn't mine. He spends way more of our joint money on his stuff, while I spend my personal money on my stuff.
    I am way more about paying down debt and scrimping in the short run so that we can get our feet solid ASAP, and he wants the little luxuries that he sees as his right because he works for them. We're still figuring that out. But I'm getting better at voicing my part.

  8. Having always made quite a lot less than B, I feel like I have so many thoughts on this topic, they're just tumbling around and not organizing themselves coherently.

    At first, when we moved in together, I stubbornly insisted on splitting everything 50/50. We're equals, dammit! A few years later, when we were engaged, I realized this was probably not the MOST equitable method, and we switched to 30/70 according to our incomes (which, to his credit, B had been lobbying for all along). I was happy to be contributing, though I rarely had leftover money for frivolous things (eg. gifts for B's birthday, haircuts, dinners out) and I wasn't able to put anything in my savings acct.

    Being unemployed for a year was a big hit to my sense of financial independence, though I've slowwwwwwly grown more accustomed to seeing it as "our" money (and I did contribute half of what's currently in our savings). I also felt/feel like the house should be sparkling clean and he shouldn't have to worry about laundry or meals, since that's the sum total of my contribution. Which doesn't always pan out IRL (note: B has never expected this of me; it's all me and my weird guilt). I'm not sure what happens when I start my part-time hours; I still won't be contributing an equal amount of money, but I also won't have as much time to focus on housekeeping/errands.

    I never thought we'd be the type of couple who merges finances completely... and I expected once I found work, we'd go back to our proportional split. However, I'm still only going to be making >1/3 of what B makes (which is itself a modest amount), and it's sounding better all-around to maybe continue keeping it all in one pot (with both of us getting a lump sum each month to use however we want--which would be an improvement over our current situation). Then we could save my entire salary and just keep living on B's income... but we'll see if opinion changes as things go on.

    Anyway, I've struggled with every feeling you mentioned, especially feeling privileged (in an icky way) enough to not have to take the first job that came along (though even when I tried being less picky, it didn't work. So.) And even though I'm now employed, I feel a bit of guilt over the fact that 1) it's part-time. We couldn't survive on my salary alone. 2) My commute will be 3 min.

    BUT, B had a 1 min. commute at his last job and he worked fewer hours than I did when I was in grad school (when I was exhausted every day and almost never had a free night or weekend). So maybe it's pointless to worry about things being fair, since we're in this for the long haul and who knows what changes time will bring?