It’s Time to Get Realistic About Marriage and Money


When I was single in New York, my roommates and I would sometimes fantasize about our future weddings. Mine would take place on a beach, I said. I’d walk down the aisle to a steel drum band playing Canon in D and we’d have hot dogs over a bonfire for dinner with roasted marshmallows for dessert instead of cake.

“That’s nice,” one of my roommates asked, “but what if your groom’s family hates the beach?”

I can only imagine the blank stare I must have given her. “You must have thought about that, right? What the groom and his family want?”

Well, no, I didn’t think about that. A mixture of fierce independence and growing up an only child actually made it really easy for me to forget that there would be a whole other family in the mix. When my ideas weren’t put to the test, they were easy to maintain. The same went for my views on couples budgeting.

In my mind, my future husband and I would have a joint budget to cover all the expenses and an individual account for each of us to manage our own fun money (which would be 5-10% of our total earnings, depending on how much flexibility we had financially).

Now that I’m older and wiser, I’ve learned that it’s easy to have stringent ideas on how things should go in marriage and finances, but life situations can never be so simply plotted out and tied up with a bow. Situations change, ideas change, and compromises have to be made. So when Time came out with the results of a survey on marriage and money – jam packed full of what to do’s based on each scenario, it occurred to me that one thing was lacking: flexibility.

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Marriage and Money Survey: The Results

I want to start off by saying that I think Time did an excellent job on this survey and article. In a world full of basic tips and overarching advice, I was pretty excited to read this robust article full of real-world advice for married couples. Here’s a peek at what Time discovered when the results of their survey came back:

  1. Women who earn more money are more involved in the household’s finances

  2. The spouse who earns more dictates the direction of the finances in the household

  3. Husbands are actually happier when their wives earn equal or more money

  4. Women who earn more are under pressure

  5. Spending is still a contentious issue for couples

  6. Women and men don’t agree on their roles and goals – leading to what feels like unequal footing and resentment

  7. Many spouses would rather lie about spending than risk a fight breaking out

One of the key takeaways from Time’s survey for me is that times are a changin’ – and men seem more on board with women taking on bigger roles in household finances than society would lead us to believe. According to University of Maryland sociology professor Philip Cohen, as quoted in Time:

“‘Men are now being raised on the assumption that the woman is going to have a career, so there’s no shame that she ‘has’ to work,” he says. “They might not want their wife to make more, but they also might not care if she does.”

However, Time points out that there are still some old habits dying hard – mostly brought on by the women themselves:

“What’s apparent is that while men typically feel ownership in the family’s finances no matter how much they earn, women often need to be making a direct and substantial monetary contribution before they feel the same.”

In other words, women feel they need to earn the “right” to feel ownership of the family’s finances – and that “right” seems to be directly correlated to their financial contribution to the household. Men don’t seem to feel this same need:

“By contrast, in the view of both husbands and wives, households in which the woman makes the same as or more than her spouse have a collaborative money management style—’We decide’ vs. ‘I decide.’ Overall, nearly two-thirds of respondents from these families say they share financial decision-making with their partner, compared with less than half from households in which the man earns more. Perhaps most telling: Only 4% of lower-earning husbands feel they’re not a financial ­decision-maker in the family, vs. 28% of lower-earning wives.

So, many men feel ownership of the household finances even if they earn less, while many women feel they need to make more money to validate that feeling…I’m feeling a Sheryl Sandberg “lean-in” comment coming to mind…

It poses the important question: Why do women think they need to earn as much as men in order to be part of the financial decision making for the household? I’m sure an entire new blog post (or book, or lecture) could be written on the subject, so I’ll keep it simple. I’ve felt that way too in the past – even though I grew up in a household that didn’t play to stereotypical gender roles in finances. Yet another reason why flexibility is so important in a financial plan – and why women need to “lean in” to the household finances, no matter how much they do or don’t earn in comparison to their husbands.

Incorporating Flexibility in Your Financial Plan

Going back to the strict ideas of how marriage and finances should work, I was given a wake up call when I got married. I ended up getting married a few years later in life than most of my peers, which led me to a point at which I wasn’t sure if I ever would in fact get married. This forced me to get real with myself on my financial future – and to do so while living far away from everything I knew growing up. I’m proud of the fact that I took steps like creating a five, ten, and 20 year plan and that I made tackling debt the top of my priorities. But I in no way accounted for someone else being a part of the plan.

My husband did the same – so you can probably imagine how our first budgeting talk went. I had my ideas of how budgeting should work and he had his own…and they just happened to be opposite. Four hours later we had no budget and hardly were speaking to each other. Luckily, a few more tries over the next few months brought us to a compromise, but it wasn’t easy!

Then life changed. Here’s how it went down in a nutshell:

  • My husband earns far more than I do and I hold feelings of intense guilt for not contributing as much as I’d like (especially after years of independently running my finances)

  • My earnings inch up, only now I feel frustrated because we’re not saving more money – and feel guilty to my past self because I’m not used to earning a livable wage

  • My husband gets accepted into a startup incubator so he quits his job to run his own company; I’m now the primary breadwinner but we are also relying on his past savings to meet the costs of living in our expensive city

All I can say is, thank goodness we had the budgeting talk before these shifts happened. This speaks to just how important it is to make the money talk a part of your relationship before you’re faced with financial challenges and shifts. All of these changes happened in the past two years and we had to act quickly to make sure we were both following our dreams and being financially responsible (or as financially responsible as we could be, given the risk of starting your own company). And, most importantly, I’m glad that we incorporated flexibility into our budget.

Out of all the advice given in the Time article, I mostly held on to the advice of teamwork. At the end of the day, a marriage is supposed to be a collaboration. Imagine, if you’re married for the next 50 years, how much life can change throughout that time! There will be times when the wife earns more than the husband and vice versa, times when the wife or husband may want to stay home with the kids (if they have kids), and maybe even times when one or the other wants to take a leap of faith to follow their dreams. A strong financial plan will account for that through flexibility and teamwork. A couple can truly support one another by allowing their plans to be as fluid as their lives – and that requires each partner knowing they have a right to equal ownership of the financial plan no matter how much they earn. Only then can there be true equality in a marriage.

Image Credit: Laurent Guerin

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