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My first memory around money is my mom telling me that if my dad asked if my outfit was new, I should say no, even if it was. My dad worked and made the money, and my mom was a stay-at-home mom who spent it. She spent it on the mortgage, the groceries, and the things we needed—but she also sometimes had to hide her decisions and her purchases. My parents never talked about their finances in front of my brother and me, or taught us how money works. I don’t know if my mom ever used a household budget, or what that amount was. Money was just always a slightly scary, mysterious, stress-inducing topic.
But I did know that when I grew up, I wanted my own money, and I wanted to be able to support myself in a way my mom was unable to do. After my parents got divorced, she had no career to go back to. I knew that I didn’t want that for myself.
And yet, as I write this, I’ve chosen to be a stay-at-home mom. I have no savings of my own, and no certainty in my financial future, besides what my husband provides. (I do have a Masters degree, and a past career as a social worker.) For now, our system is that I look after our toddler full-time, and my husband works full-time. Because I obviously need some cash, he gives me a weekly amount each Monday to spend on groceries, gas and any needs our son has, like diapers and clothes. (I don’t pay our bills or our mortgage out of this money—just gas and groceries and things for the baby.) But if I want to spend any money on myself, I have to earn it on my own.
I have never asked my husband for cash to go shopping because I don't want to have to explain or justify my purchases. If I want to get a massage, or go out to dinner with a friend, that also costs money. I also struggle with the guilt: if I went back to work, I'd have the discretionary spending money for these things. But are they good enough reasons to take time away from my son?
On my better days, I think that maybe we’ve found the balance of what’s working for our little family—for now, at least. The other half of the time, I wonder how I ended up in what seems like such an antiquated, sexist arrangement.
But I was actually the one who wanted to institute this cash-only system, in an effort to help with budgeting. When I had a debit card for our joint account, we had overdraft fees. When we switched to using a credit card, it was too easy to accidentally go over-budget. I wanted to know exactly what I was spending and what I had left. I was having flashbacks to my father opening his credit card bills and being angry and confused about the amount charged.
Pre-baby, my husband and I never communicated about what our financial goals were, and what each of us wanted. We talked about whether or not we were ready to become parents; where would the baby sleep; what names we liked. The last thing I was thinking about was the division of labour in our household, and we didn’t talk about the nitty-gritty details of one partner no longer making a salary. Because my employer didn't offer much mat leave, dividing our family into such traditional, but essential, roles felt like the right choice. Maybe even the only choice.
I’m aware that being a SAHM is also a huge luxury: I don’t have to work to support our household, and for that I’m grateful. But I’m working 24/7 at the hardest job I have ever had, the stakes have never been higher, and I make no money doing it. As a SAHM, I feel like I have very little control, because my life is ruled by my toddler: an irrational, unpredictable dictator I'm totally in love with. I would do anything for him. But the work never stops, and it’s an insane amount of labour to be doing for no pay. This is difficult in a society where we associate salary with success, power and freedom. I need to feel like I have some control over our finances, even if it's just to buy something for myself once in a while, or to tweak our budget if there are weeks I need more.
Is it normal to be so dependent or indebted to our husbands and partners? I started asking other SAHMs how they handle money with their spouses, because I feel like we aren’t talking about this—and we need to be. I recently met a mom friend for coffee, and she asked me if I could loan her $6 because she needed to pay her husband back for something. She said the "system" in their house was just stressing over every single expense.
Another friend said that her husband asks her about every credit or debit charge she makes—he does all the bills and he can’t balance their budget if he doesn't know every teeny-tiny item. In fact, they got into a huge fight when she forgot to tell him about some face wash that she ordered online. (This turned into a “why are you spending my money on nice face wash when you can just get drug store bar soap?” argument.)
I have another SAHM friend who, when I asked her what their arrangement was, said, “Well, I have a credit card and my husband pays the bill.”
“Do you have a budget?” I asked her. “Do you put things for yourself on the card? And are you ever nervous when the bill comes?”
“Oh, he knows better than to ask me about anything on the credit card bill,” she replied confidently.
Whoa. Apparently, there is a huge range.
I came home that day and sat down with my husband and asked him to show me where our money goes. What are our bills? What are our savings, our expenses, and our retirement goals? What kind of plan do we have for emergencies? For travel? For a college fund? He showed me a budget in which he had already made all of the decisions: he’s saving half of his income for retirement and he has savings for us to live on for two years if he were to lose his job. (I appreciate that he is an extra-cautious super saver—six months of living expenses is the standard safety net recommendation.) He then proceeded to talk to me like I was a child—or at least it felt that way. Maybe I am juvenile for not knowing any of this stuff, but it made me angry. (It also resulted in me furiously googling, “what to do if you can’t talk to your husband about money without hating him.”)
But ever since we actually talked, face-to-face, about where our money goes, things have shifted at our house. I learned that communication about your finances is essential for every relationship, even though it’s hard and it seems taboo. I’ve gotten much more comfortable around money and expenses. We’re purposefully using words like “budget” rather than “allowance,” because I find the term allowance to be beyond patronizing. We also set aside a certain time of the week to discuss finances, so that it doesn’t continuously seep into our relationship. And it also really helps now that I know what my husband’s financial goals are—and I agree with them. I respect that he’s such a saver.
When the credit card bill comes, instead of being worried or scared, I feel good. I’m proud of what I did not spend. And I know that in a couple years, when the hard work of baby-raising has eased or shifted, I will return to the paid workforce. In the meantime, my husband deeply values the work I am doing at home, and so do I.
Even if I'm not contributing to our bank account right now, we need to think of it as our money, because we're in this together.
This article was originally published online in January 2020.