"How do modern couples manage their finances - and how does that affect the status of women, their long-term financial security and even their career prospects?"
That's the opening line of Katrin Bennhold's piece in today's New York Times (which we came across via The Billfold) about marriage's "unseen bottom line." A worthy, thought-provoking question, right? Unfortunately, Bennhold — who, it should be noted, is not writing in the Opinion pages but for the "Europe" section — has apparently traveled back a few decades to an era in which women are completely ignorant about their family finances, and pool money with their partners not to foster equality in a mature relationship but so they can "enjoy some unscrutinized spending." Betty Draper, is that you?
Bennhold polled 44 of her "highly educated" European and American friends, most of whom have children and jobs and share money with their husbands, because she was interested how they divvy up costs, given that most of her friends make less money than their spouses. Well, no, she was interested in what the men felt comfortable allowing their wives to purchase — because, apparently, these men don't ever buy anything frivolous, as they are pillars of stoicism and security working tirelessly to make sure their ungrateful wives can buy Jimmy Choo and Christian Louboutin heels. Here she goes:
Dissecting what constitutes joint spending makes for an intriguing study in gender equality: Milk and diapers rarely cause disputes. But what about postnatal yoga? Or haircuts, invariably more expensive for women than men?
I asked Paul, Rachel's husband, why he felt that shoes (and, it turns out, makeup and clothes! What am I doing wrong?) should be paid for by the joint account. "There are so many explicit and implicit requirements on how a woman should look," he said. You shouldn't be punished financially for being female, he said.
One friend charges a weekly massage to the joint account, arguing that pregnancy is doing her back in. Another makes her husband pay half her cellphone bill; his is covered by his employer. A third shares all her waxing expenses in the spirit of he-can't-share-the-pain-but-he-can-share-the-bill.
Well! I think we can all agree that women definitely shouldn't be punished for being female — and curiously, there's no mention of less "aesthetic" feminine expenses, such as birth control or postpartum depression therapy — but does Bennhold seriously think that men never spend money on material possessions? Apparently not, because they look and feel awesome constantly, unlike us ladies. "For a woman to feel normal she has to spend more than a man," Caitlin Moran, author of a book called "How to Be a Woman," told Bennhold, adding that it was a "tax on being a woman," and that if you "don't want to have to justify yourself every time you walk out of your door, you have to throw some money at it."
I think Moran thinks she's fighting for gender equality here, but to me, it feels patronizing and backwards to say women "deserve" more money because they're expected to look perfect at all times. If you feel like you have to "throw money at it" (Um, also, why are we calling ourselves "it"? To disassociate from the pain of having to spend tons of cash on looking beautiful so we'll be loved?) to feel normal, you should probably be throwing tons of money on therapy, not makeup.
Bennhold's thesis — that women "give up control when a man shows up" and only want joint accounts so their husbands can pay for their designer shoes — is so antiquated that it could be read as satire. For example, her friends have "creative ways" of maintaining "the independence they ostensibly sacrificed in the name of equality," like a secret trove of prewedding savings. "Another tries to get away with the occasional shopping spree by buying her husband a new pair of shoes for every pair she buys herself." Ooh, how tricky! Except, wait, what is she "getting away with" here?
Bennhold calls her piece "completely unscientific," but it's still depressing how most of her friends bashfully but cutesily admit that they have no clue how much they pay for their mortgages, how to access their joint back accounts, or how much they earn after taxes — and how they don't really care to learn. Only one of her friends is in charge of her family finances, and that's only because her husband "once forgot to cancel his gym membership when he changed cities because he didn't check his bank statements for 18 months." You guys, the situation was so dire that a WOMAN had to learn some things about money!
My parents pool their salaries and discuss important expenditures together, but both of them splurge occasionally on items the other thinks are ridiculous. (My dad likes obscenely expensive cheese, and my mom once bought 20 Majolica fruit and vegetable-shaped vases off Ebay.) My mother started giving me an allowance at an early age because she wanted me to understand how important it was to feel in charge of your own finances. Maybe that's why I can't imagine trying to "trick" my partner into buying ridiculous items for me. If your spouse has to deem your expenses "worthy" or otherwise, doesn't that make you into another one of his possessions by proxy? Perhaps the more important question: can I come back to 2012 now?
Image via Subbotina Anna /Shutterstock.