When I spend $65 on a vintage Jaws T-shirt in a closely watched eBay auction—closely watched by me, anyway—my marriage of 11 years hangs in the balance. At least, it used to. Once upon a time, such spending was a huge, homewrecker of an issue for us. But in September of 2010, my husband, Chris, and I adopted an allowance system. Ever since, we’ve granted each other $500 a month to spend however we want, no questions asked. And this is how we’re still married.
Couples fight over money. We know this because an entire subgenre of depressing stock photography exists to accompany articles about the issue. But even this development isn’t recent: Married couples fighting about money are depicted in 18th-century Hogarth-esque drawings. Even the great 19th-century novels about adultery turn on issues of domestic finance. In Madame Bovary, Emma kills herself when her secret debts, not her secret dalliances, are about to be discovered. Financial worries and disagreements animate much of the marital drama in Anna Karenina, too.
Then there’s that onetime staple of stand-up comedy, the “wives be shoppin’ ” joke. “Someone stole all my credit cards, but I won’t be reporting it,” quipped Henny Youngman, in one example. “The thief spends less than my wife did.” I feel the specter of such jokes hanging over me even as I write this. The stereotype these jokes underline is that men earn money and women spend it, and while it may seem thin-skinned to be offended by punchlines from the ’50s nightclub circuit, you have to consider the forces that shaped them. Women were kept from high-paying work and full workforce participation. Then their dependence was held up for ridicule, their small comforts mocked as frivolous.
I want to say that my husband and I are enlightened, that none of the gendered stuff touches us or is relevant. We both work and we both earn decent salaries, which get direct-deposited into our shared checking account. At the risk of seeming like I’m humble-bragging about our egalitarian bona fides, well, it bears on the matter. Chris’ mother immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, alone, when she was 16 years old; eventually, she earned a Ph.D. from William & Mary, which is how she supported Chris and his sister. Chris has never known from female breadwinning, or even female borderline-obsessive career ambition. In short, there’s no leap to be made, because there was never any disconnect.
No, the money thing is my own deep-seated hang-up. In a 2016 essay for the New York Times, Alain de Botton suggested that a good question to ask your partner before getting married would be: “And how are you crazy?” This is how I am crazy. The reason we had to institute an allowance system was because I cannot be questioned about buying Jaws T-shirts, or sneakers, or the occasional out-of-print biography going for $55, used, on Amazon. I am so wary of dependence that the merest suggestion makes me break out in hives. I have to feel that I am independent or I cannot be married, as much as I love Chris.
It’s because of how I grew up, of course. My dad was essentially the sole earner, and I was still in elementary school when I noticed (and envied) the cool clothes he got to wear and, even more importantly, his free comings and goings from the house. As a teenager, I’d sometimes join him for lunches downtown, near his office, enjoying the poached salmon and the busy, important-seeming restaurant atmosphere. I wanted to have money and freedom and a cosmopolitan life, too. This desire kept me going through the rocky years of transitioning from liberal-arts major to full-time employee. I would never underrate the effort and sacrifice my mom put into running the house; I’d say my view grows directly out of recognizing the larger implications of her choice.
There was another dimension, too. My family was middle-class, but because there were seven of us kids, my childhood involved a lot of hand-me-downs, and at school I was keenly aware of not having things that were brand-new, name-brand, specially purchased just for me. Twenty years later, I still crave the items I craved then. I still want real Steve Madden sandals (not the Target knockoffs), a T-shirt that says Abercrombie & Fitch, a pair of Vans Old Skool sneakers. Spending money on such things is key to my enjoyment of adulthood, and really my ability to accept its conditions at all—there’s no way I’d put up with all the BS it takes to earn money if these freedoms went away. Besides, blowing small amounts of cash can be an effective way of blowing off steam, and doesn’t leave you with a hangover. I have talked myself down from some very big ledges just by dropping $40 on a fat stack of glossy magazines.
Of course, it took me years to realize my hang-ups and put them into words. Chris and I got married in June of 2006, when I was 24 and he was 25, and for years afterward our worst, most knock-down, drag-out fights were about money. He couldn’t understand how I could spend $300 on, say, an experimental Japanese hair treatment, and I couldn’t understand why his questioning this made me so incredibly angry, right on the brink of calling up a lawyer.
It was in the middle of one of these fights that Chris came up with the idea for an allowance system. We were housesitting that weekend, sitting on my sister-in-law’s couch and talking about the new job I’d been offered in a bigger, more expensive city. I was arguing that the salary increase would be significant even with the higher cost of living; Chris didn’t believe me. So, for the first time ever, we ran the numbers, made a spreadsheet. This helped me prove my point. Seeing the benefit of the formalized math, Chris said we should institute an allowance system for discretionary spending, so that we could at last stop fighting about small purchases with their wildly outsize and disproportionate emotional valence.
I was appalled. An allowance? Nothing could sound drearier or speak more clearly of cramped, crabbed freedom. Why re-create the (relatively) financially constrained circumstances of our childhoods—the ones we’d only just escaped? I could imagine in vivid detail, too, what my single friends might think if I ever told them about this system. Is there anything dorkier and more boringly domestic than an allowance?
Most of us would never dream of having an informal financial relationship with a roommate, yet there’s a tendency to assume that informal financial relationships best serve a marriage. This is part of the magical thinking inherent in our notion of partnership. Now that we marry for love, it’s supposed to follow that we’re exactly alike. But no two people really are. Humans and chimps share 98.8 percent of their DNA, and still you don’t see us marrying them. The same holds true for you and the person you love most in the world. You’re going to value different things, and the little-acknowledged truth is that functioning partnerships often come down to small, jury-rigged systems built to accommodate your differences. You save yourself time and heartache when you stop resisting the need for them. Far from being detrimental, a little formalized math doesn’t hurt anybody. In fact, it’s clarifying.
I know this because our allowance-experiment has been running for seven years, six months, and counting. In all, we’ve each received around $44,000 in distributions. I’ve saved one-third of this money while Chris has saved about half. We keep the money in separate online brokerage accounts linked to our checking. While initially we did some end-of-month accounting, we’ve gone to an honor system that works just fine. As to what falls under the “discretionary” umbrella, it’s video games, rare books, clothes beyond an undefined reasonable limit, solo weekend trips with friends, and Japanese hair science.
As time has gone on, our system’s secondary benefits have become clear. The allowances tend to contain our discretionary spending, and make us feel comfortable about the rest of our money going into a common pot and common savings. Since we adopted the system, we’ve paid off all our student debt, opened a joint brokerage account, and even bought a modest house—despite some circa-2008 layoffs and other depredations of the financial crisis. It’s also allowed us both to build up personal savings for longer-term goals, like the rare lavish gift for one’s parents or charitable donations of size. Also Jaws T-shirts.
Doling out allowances hasn’t just ended one money fight, but effectively all of them. If we could only settle the Battle of the Thermostat now, I’d touch wood and call it all smooth sailing till our golden jubilee. I only wish we could solve other problems for $1,000 a month; I’d happily pay my hard-earned cash to accommodate some of my other deep-seated, irrational responses to the world. It makes the periods of sanity, of mellow contentment—you, me, the cat, and some takeout—possible and longer-lasting. What a bargain.