Marrying Up But Not Giving Up

A month into my relationship with the man that would become my husband, the stock market was crashing. As a writer who rarely had two pennies to rub together, I can’t say that I really cared—I had debt, not investments. It wasn’t until Alex woke up in a bad mood one morning that I realized that he did care. “Do you want to know something depressing?” he said as he got dressed for work. “I just checked my portfolio. I’ve lost 20 percent of my net worth.”

I smiled forlornly and said what I’d heard on the news about things bouncing back. Then I shooed him out the door, got in the shower, and cried for 20 minutes. I had to break up with him. I couldn’t keep up with someone who had a portfolio. I didn’t use phrases like “net worth.” I used phrases like “bill collector,” “Sallie Mae,” and “late fee.” It could never work.

But Alex never saw it that way. We talked about my debt and his nest egg. The outcome of every conversation was that Alex didn’t think it mattered. He wasn’t scared to take on my student loans. He was only eager to share what he felt lucky to have. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the particulars, how the finances would shake down exactly, but I knew I loved him. And that eclipsed any figures on our bank statements. So I married him.

Once you’re married, it’s not easy to keep things separate. Boundaries between “yours” and “mine” begin to blur. Doesn’t it just make more sense to pay off the car now and save on the years of interest? Technically, yes. And doesn’t it make more sense to pay more than you owe on your student loans so you can chip away at the capital? Sure. But as Alex and I stayed up nights talking about these things, with Alex thinking strategically about what made sense and me thinking emotionally about what kind of person I wanted to be, it became more and more clear that marrying someone in a different tax bracket can be…complicated. 

I was raised by a family of strong women that fought for what they had. My grandmother owned her own company when I was a kid. My mother worked 60 hour weeks as a single mom to put food on the table. I always took it for granted that I’d pay my own way. So what was I supposed to do? Save money by paying off my debts with what Alex referred to as “our” money? Or fight against practicality, dig in my heels, and insist I do it myself?

Ultimately, I chose common sense over pride. I chose saving thousands in interest on my car loan with Alex’s help instead of paying it myself. And to be perfectly honest, once I made the decision to see Alex’s money as “our” money, I was surprised how little my self-esteem was really affected. I felt fine. He had money. I didn’t. Now his money was our money. I worked hard and brought home a paycheck. He worked hard and brought home a similar paycheck. But we had a savings account because of him, debt because of me. Big deal.

That is, until I was driving home one day and heard Destiny’s Child on the radio. It was a song  I used to listen to with my best friends in high school. “Independent Women Part 1.” The minute it started I was singing along as if I was 16 again. But my fervor started to dissipate as the song went on.

The shoes on my feet, I bought ‘em. The clothes I’m wearing, I bought ‘em. The rock I’m rocking, I bought it. Cause I depend on me

“Well,” I thought to myself, “that’s fine. I make a decent living. I did buy the shoes on my feet, I suppose.”

The watch you’re wearing, I’ll buy it. The house I live in, I bought it

Again, I figured, I still fit in the club because I don’t own a watch or a house. So… not applicable. But then Beyonce and Company stabbed me in the chest.

The car I’m driving, I bought it. Cause I depend on me

There it was. I wasn’t an Independent Woman Part 1. And before I could even let it sink in, they started singing again.

All the women who independent, throw your hands up at me

For the first time, I couldn’t throw my hands up at them. I had to sit there, at the red light, with my hands by my sides. Driving the car my husband bought.

Even if I did feel like a part of me had let down Beyonce—and myself—life went on. I got a few hard-earned raises. Alex and I moved into an eccentric house to save money. It became less and less clear whose money was whose, whose money was paying for what. And also, to some degree, I just got over it.  I mean, that’s the true ending to most stories. You just get over it.

And then this year after countless late nights and God knows how many trips to Coffee Bean, I finally sold my first novel. I signed a two book deal, and then other countries picked up the book, too. And suddenly, now I am the one with the money. I am the one talking about tax incentives and exchange rates. I’m the breadwinner. It might not last, I know that. I know I have to take each step as it comes. I have to see how well my novels do. I have to see what kind of career I can make for myself. But for right now, I’m the one with pennies to rub together.

When the deal was official, I told Alex he should buy that bike he’s always wanted. It wasn’t hugely expensive, but it’s also not money he would have ever spent otherwise. But I told him I wanted him to have it. I wanted to be able to give it to him. And as he came home from the bike store and paraded it around the living room with a huge smile on his face, I felt like a million dollars. And that’s when I got it. That’s why he was always so eager to share his money with me. It’s not about dollar amounts and comparisons. When you love someone, the money doesn’t matter. It’s the smile on their face. It’s about giving them whatever you have to give.

It doesn’t hurt, though, that when I watch Beyonce’s “Countdown” video and she says:

Yep, I buy my own. If he deserve it, buy his shit too

I can tell her, “You’re goddamn right I did.”

 

Taylor Jenkins Reid is an author and essayist. She’s never received a piece of fan mail, but don’t let that stop you from considering it.

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47 Comments / Post A Comment

arrr starr (#69)

” I mean, that’s the true ending to most stories. You just get over it.”

This is the truest thing I have heard in a long time. Excellent.

Meaux (#943)

@arrr starr. YES. I need that embroidered on a throw pillow, stat.

thecoffeestain (#1,483)

Blown away. Well done Taylor. Love your voice and your piece. Can’t wait to read your forthcoming novel.

Megano! (#124)

It’s definitely different if you’re married vs. living with someone. Cuz like, if one of you died, you’d be responsible for the other’s debts. So why WOULDN’T you do what you could to help them pay it down?

@Megano! That’s not always true! It depends on where you live but for much of the US, your debts are your own and never your spouses, unless you co-sign or have joint responsibility.

After you die, creditors can come after your estate but they can’t come after the remaining spouse.

Megano! (#124)

@forget it i quit Well, that’s almost the same thing.

Markham (#1,862)

@Megano!

The marriage and debt thing is complicated, I know this from helping a relative manage her finances through her bankruptcy and subsequent divorce. This was in a community property state by the way.

Her bankruptcy had ZERO effect on her husband’s credit rating or finances.

Now did creditors call him in the lead up? Sure. But they were banking on people assuming your debt combines when you get married, and him being scared and paying.

A lot of times creditors target your spouse and the your spouse just goes along with it, he was smart enough to tell them to bugger off and so in the end, no impact on him.

I.e. creditor sues and names both spouses in the lawsuit, the couple figures they’re in this together so they fight together, which is a de facto agreement that the non responsible spouse IS responsible. In the case of my relative, he just said: “I never owned this debt, prove I did or take me off this lawsuit”

Problem solved.

Post divorce they “agreed” in their divorce settlement that they would each take on certain debts.

Their creditors didn’t care, whomever owned the debt was who was responsible.

So stuff he agreed to pay that was on her credit report? She’d say: “But my husband agreed too…”

Didn’t matter.

Now co-signing is another matter.

IF you buy a home together and you’re both on the mortgage, then yes.

Ditto for car loans, but remember one person is always the primary on it.

Credit Cards?

Nope.

One person owns the debt and the other is an authorized user who can always remove themselves, and is never responsible for the debt.

It’s one of those perception things. Debt isn’t merged, but people think it is so they treat that way.

AnnieNilsson (#406)

This is smart and great.

What she said.

Kate (#1,408)

I am really looking forward to reading your book, Taylor Jenkins Reid!

juksie (#2,048)

“It’s about giving them whatever you have to give.” could sum up everything my father ever taught me, especially about money. so valuable to learn.

probs (#296)

So great! The best ending.

probs (#296)

@probs Also anyone who uses Beyoncé (and co.) to evaluate their lives is on the right track, not joking.

oiseau (#1,830)

I thought this was great- well written, concise. It’s weird though, because I relate but in reverse: I am the financially-more-stable one, and my boyfriend is the indebted one who I support to some extent (happily because he’s great). I wonder how he would feel about this article? Hmmm… *prints out to give to bf*

WaityKatie (#1,696)

I don’t think the point of the Beyonce song is to make married people feel bad for having someone to depend on financially. I mean, it seems more ideal to me that everyone would have something like that, but for those of us who don’t, we can still take pride in our self-sufficiency by singing along with that song.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@WaityKatie I don’t think many of us Independent Women Part 1 are sitting here, like, “F you, Colin Firth, I want to buy all my own stuff with my own meager paycheck!”

oiseau (#1,830)

Wondering: How do the ladies out there feel about depending on a man? Do you secretly or overtly want to?

Men out there, how about you? Would you prefer to be the typical provider or would you be comfortable marrying someone who takes care of the majority of the bills?

Didn’t mean to hijack; legitimately curious!

Markham (#1,862)

@oiseau I don’t see the glamour in being the breadwinner unless you like stroking your ego.

I’d prefer something equal really.

But it depends on your partner, I work with both men and women who are the primary breadwinner and some of have, well, rubbish entitled partners and some have cool ones. It seems (and I know this from experience) that you don’t know what you’re going to get until it’s too late.

@oiseau I would not like depending on a man, because then what happens if he loses his job? Or gets sick? I don’t mind a guy who makes more money than I do, and I admit it, I wouldn’t mind a guy who bought me the occasional fancy thing, either, but I think that’s separate from depending on a man. I just want ME to make enough money that I can live on it, and he can make whatever.

I guess I feel a man should be able to do the same thing. I dated a guy for a few years who was upfront about how nice it’d be to be a “kept man” and I eventually agreed that if he went to grad school, I’d support him. We ran into trouble when he decided that meant I should support him if he quit his job to write full time. So, yeah, I guess that means I wouldn’t be into being the sole breadwinner.

nonvolleyball (#305)

@oiseau I’ve been with my husband for more than a decade (married for four years), & I’ve never once made less money than him. we kept things split pretty evenly before the wedding, but I’d treat him periodically–& once we were married, it became, “okay, let’s figure out how much of my paycheck needs to go toward your student loans.”

ultimately, I think the “who earns more” issue is kind of a red herring as far as a relationship is concerned. there are lots of ways to be supportive that aren’t financial (cooking, shopping, taking care of car maintenance, cleaning, being an understanding sounding board & fun activity partner, whatever), & having a demanding job can often turn into an excuse to be kind of a jerk. the bottom line is: are you happy? do you both feel incredibly lucky to get to be with one another? is the lower-earning partner making life choices that the higher-earning partner can appreciate & respect (& vice-versa)? do you continue to be compatible personalities?

I can honestly say that I’ve never once resented the disparity in my income vs. my husband’s–&, in fact, I’m grateful he’s there to help manage our money, because I’m comparatively terrible at it. & if he ends up making more money than me down the line, I’ll be fine with that too.

ThatJenn (#916)

@oiseau I know this is way old but I just stumbled upon it. I think I would be super-uncomfortable being the person earning much less in my relationship, unless we lived very, very far below our means and could theoretically live on my income alone. That’s kind of embarrassing to admit, but it’s true. I’m sure I’d get used to it, but I think it would be weird. The times when I’ve made a similar amount as my partner, generally I’ve been in a much better financial situation in general/more responsible with money so I’ve had more money anyway. In my current relationship (we’ve lived together a few years, so let’s call it a marriage-like relationship), I make more but he has a lot more in savings/lower bills, so we have a kind of parity that works well for us as our expendable income is similar, but I still get to feel like I provide things for us (I do… I own the house and pay its mortgage, with help from the rent he pays me). Feeling like I can/do financially provide for my family is super important for me and I don’t see that ever changing. I think a big part of it is just knowing that I could survive without him if we split/he lost his job/whatever. The idea of being primarily dependent on my partner’s income makes me feel itchy. (Hi, divorced daughter of a divorced woman here, can you tell?)

Megoon (#328)

That was awesome! My husband also brought a lot more money into the marriage than I did, but I try and remind myself that I, too, have a good job, and without his paycheck would still be just fine. Would go to a cheaper gym – but really, just fine. Congrats on the book deal.

Iglooramous (#1,397)

So good! Being both in a committed relationship and an Independent Woman Pt. 1 is so much more complicated than Bey made it out to be! Have to admit, as a honey makin’ money I still feel hella baller when I buy my man pretty gifts. Great piece Taylor!

gna207 (#988)

Thank you for bringing the best tag ever into my life, Logan.
#butreallyhowdowemeetthesewealthierpeople

wearitcounts (#772)

@gna207 was totally thinking the same thing. that and, but really, how do we?

r&rkd (#1,657)

@wearitcounts
Fashion Meets Finance?

Fig. 1 (#632)

This bike-mad commenter would love to know what kind of bike he wanted.

ElBlynx (#499)

Oh man, I love everything about this and would love even more conversations about money and relationships. My husband and I made the same small salary when we both graduated from college, but since then mine has stayed the same or dropped due to internships, unemployment, and now grad school. His salary has essentially exponentially increased. Although I am better at understanding financial institutions and how to manage money, he is way better at making money. As someone who immensely valued my “independent woman” status and is now having to rely extensively on my partner, this article really hit home.

For those of you interested in reading more about the intersection of feminism, marriage, gender roles, and finances, check out Marriage as Mini-Socialism (Yay!)

readyornot (#816)

@ElBlynx I totally thought of APW within the first sentence of this piece. Right after I thought thank you, Logan, for using a Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle screen cap as the image.

sventurata (#27)

I really like this piece, Taylor! Thanks for sharing.

My relationship started off with me super mega poor, earning half minimum wage, no real hope of climbing out. My boyfriend had a perfect job, owned his car and condo outright, and loved to burn cash on dining out. Only two years ago. Wow.

Now I make ok money, precarious future but the job’s as natural as breathing to me. I paid off my debts and learned he owes over fifty thousand from miscellaneous life expenses. His job lost its lustre but continues to pay bi-weekly.

I might have to move across the country to pursue my “career,” whereas he is rooted to this town like a sturdy oak. The days unfold and nothing changes. Maybe nothing has to change.

JitterBug (#1,972)

I think it’s important to keep a little bit of independence, like your own bank account *just in case*, but the thing is when you’re in a relationship you’re in a team. Like, my boyfriend and I sit down and talk about money to figure out how we can best pay for what we want to do together. If paying off a loan with his money means saving thousands of dollars which is enough for a trip for both of us to a tropical destination for two weeks, bring it on.

The only thing is, with every friend I’ve seen get divorced or break up with a long-term partner (without kids), the thing they fight about most that brings the most acrimony is money. So where’s the balance between committing to your relationship and acknowledging that 50% of marriages end in divorce so chances are it’s not going to be forever?

nonvolleyball (#305)

@JitterBug I’m all for being realistic, but I think that part of getting married is truly believing that it’s going to be forever (even if you acknowledge that the numbers aren’t on your side).

& in a lot of instances, I think fights “about money” are really just fights about differing priorities, filtered through a stressful & omnipresent issue.

readyornot (#816)

In a world where there are no forty-working-year careers, it makes total sense to me that individuals go through ups and downs in their salaries. Seems reasonable to expect, then, that sometimes one partner is making more money, but sometimes the other. You pool the money, you smooth out the cycles for each other, you get big grins when you can provide something for the other that he loves. That’s what a marriage is.

The issue is not making the most money at this one point in time, but doing what you love, not dropping out of the work force, not accepting just positions with no room for advancement, continuing to strive for goals. And talking about it!

City_Dater (#565)

This is so good — well-written AND making a most awesome point: marriage is a partnership, and people who worry about “my money” and “your money” are pretty much sending a bad-faith message.

Maryaed (#2,056)

I’m a little tired of reading about how women rationalize doing what’s actually pretty societally expected still, despite being somewhat financially risky. It’s all good until the other person wants to stop supporting you. Also, it’s all good unless it’s the man who has a barely self-supporting job. Then he is a loser/slacker who can’t pull his weight.

I mean, I am sure their relationship is very nice but what happens if they break up? Then it isn’t “their money” anymore and she doesn’t have retirement saved.

@Maryaed I’d like to see a piece on the “loser/slacker who can’t pull his weight.” Which is to say I’d like to read a piece by someone who is married to one.

raptor41d (#1,404)

@Maryaed For the first five years of our marriage, my husband had an interesting, creative job in which he worked like 50-55 hours a week and was paid terribly. He probably would have been able to get by on his own, but it would have been a close call. My job provided the health care and the majority of our retirement savings. And then, with my first big raise, I started making nearly twice what he did.

I never resented him for doing what he loved, nor would I have accused him of not being able to “pull his weight.” Our marriage–as marriages should–had more than one way to be a contributing member. He cooks, helps clean, and takes care of our house and garden. Expecting his sole, or even his primary, contribution to the marriage to be financial would have been remarkably sexist and narrow minded.

In the last four years, I’ve had at least two other coworkers whose husbands took a significant pay cuts because of fallout from the recession. Each couple found ways to work around it by reevaluating their financial reality and their expectations of who was going to do what in the relationship.

Life, it turns out, is financially risky–unless you’re a rich kid of instagram, or something. Marriage can heighten some of those risks if you and your partner don’t see eye-to-eye on financial matters. However, in the best cases, marriage helps smooth out some of those risks.

Also, how did we jump to the “no retirement savings” conclusion? Even if that is the case here, the fact that one’s career is writing (or any sort of self-employed work) will have far more to do with that than a person’s marital status.

Maryaed (#2,056)

@raptor41d Yes, but wouldn’t you say an awful lot of underpaid and self-employed work is done by women exactly because it needs a safety net in the form of a richer partner? You don’t find this to be a sinister pattern in any way?

carolita (#869)

@Harriet Kierkegaard@facebook hey, I’m living with a guy who’s just as broke as me. We’re both artists, and probably not going to ever be rich. We rent, we have no car, we don’t buy each other expensive stuff, we don’t pay off each other’s debt magnanimously. If we do, we do it with a little bit of good-natured anxiety, and really hope to be paid back soon. Poor us, right? Um. Well, I think we’re kind of like a lot of people. I never hoped to marry someone with dough, and he certainly never did, either.

raptor41d (#1,404)

@Maryaed Maybe it’s because where I live there just aren’t many rich partners–male or female–lying around, but I don’t see a lot of that among the married couples I know.

But moving beyond what I think or you think, what do some numbers say?

There are interesting conundrums with the self employment question. The latest data that I know of (from a quick search of the Internets and the Bureau of Labor) shows that self-employed men outnumber self-employed women (5.7 million to 3.5 million, respectively), but women are more likely to have a smaller business with no other employees. So an “awful lot” of self-employed work is done by men, but it’s potentially true that women begin self-employed work on a smaller scale because it doesn’t need to be the family’s primary income.

The issue of underpayment is even trickier because that are so many confounding variables alongside sex, like educational attainment, race, and the overall income bracket of the household. The continuing demonstrable pay gap between men and women doing similar work, though, is clearly problematic. And maybe some married women are more willing to accept lower wages because they are supported by better paying spouses.

But “marry rich and give in to being supported for the rest of your life” wasn’t the point of this article. It was, “I was supported, and now I get to be the supporter.” Because in the modern world, for a lot of young married couples, that’s how it works. Sometimes you’re the financial support; sometimes your partner is.

pernickety (#2,057)

The paycheck with my name on it is bigger than the one with my partner’s, but I consider that he earned every dollar with me, and he does the same. We motivate each other to do our work, we bounce ideas off each other, and we provide emotional support on the bad days. If I was to keep money separate, I would feel like I was stealing it. That’s just the nature of our particular relationship, though.
And we’re not blind to the risk of divorce — we have a prenup that provides that everything is owned jointly doing the marriage and everything is split 50/50 in the event of divorce.

sam.i.am (#1,442)

It’s the difference between independent and interdependent (and co-dependent, but that’s another story). Would I be able to maintain my current lifestyle, if my partner and I were to break up? No. Nor would he. There have been times where he’s shouldered more of the financial load and I look forward to my turn. It’s part of being a partnership instead of being on an island.

And count me among those who thought of A Practical Wedding, who had a post today about pre-nups that’s also worth reading.

readyornot (#816)

@sam.i.am And as a result of that post, I have Kanye’s “Golddigger” in my head. All day. (holla, “WE WANT PRENUP!”)

Harriet Welch (#127)

Love love love. Two days after I got engaged I lost a job I hated and a car i hated broke down. We traded in my car and bought a fancy new one in my husband’s name. I cried inthe bathroom at the dealership. I felt badly for not contributing. However, I Negotiated the price and terms of the car to save us about $5k. My options for employment (while in school) were limited to jobs I hated. My wonderful fiancé (now husband) sat me down and reminded me of the fact that he made 2x what either of us had I the last three years. He said he would rather have a happy, unstressed wife and live on one income. It took a while for me to come to terms with it,but I did. He said that since he met me he wanted to see what I would be capable of if all of the bullshit were removed from my life. I was interested to see too. Turns out, when I am not freaking out about rent, I am better, stronger, more creative and more loving. It was amazing to me how clear and calm I felt. We don’t have much, but we have what we need. He is happy because I have the time and energy to be the most supportive wife in the world, I am happy because he is happy. It wasn’t about the money, it was that my non-monetary contributions (moral support, time, extreme thrift) were just more valuable to our family.

mhpierce (#2,065)

I registered just to say how much I love the tags on this. Also, I had more money than my boyfriend growing up, and now he earns more than me, and I’m sure we’ll carry on switching positions from time to time. And let’s not forget that Wentworth doesn’t mind that Anne Elliot isn’t rich any more.

I’m confused: here are some quotes from your previous article-

“No, when you’re an assistant in your mid-twenties with a salary around the low-thirties, you say, “Thank you. When can I move in?””

And:
“It’s given Alex and me a savings account.”

But doesn’t this piece mean that you already HAD a savings account? And that you weren’t just living on a 30k assistant’s salary-you had a wealthy partner. I guess I just feel like the last piece was a bit disingenuous.

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