Over at The Hairpin, A Married Dude is advising a woman whose husband is wonderful and great and supportive but refuses to contribute a single cent to her six-figure law school loans. The advice-seeker writes:
My husband is a generally wonderful partner, except for one issue. He refuses to pay one cent of my hefty school loans. I am a lawyer and owe about $100k. He feels I went to law school before we were married and therefore he is not responsible for them. We contribute jointly to household expenses and provide for our child, but anything extra he earns goes straight into his secret bank account, whereas every cent I earn goes toward the loans with little personal money left for me. Every time I want to take a trip or buy new appliances or whatnot, he says “if you didn’t have those loans, we could.” I cannot get him to understand that those loans are what enable me to earn $90k a year and therefore he benefits from them, too. I asked him if he’d rather I was a barista making $9/hour and he responded that at least I wouldn’t have the loans. Is he being a big jerk, or does he have a right to not want to be responsible for student debt I took on before we knew each other?
He’s being a big jerk.
He also has a right to not want to be responsible for student debt he didn’t take on.
Finances are one of the most fraught pieces of a relationship, especially when they’re tied up in a contractual relationship like marriage. I’ve been having a lot of off-line conversations about finances and marriage after this (terrible, shallow) article on financial infidelity; it’s also worth reading this (excellent, in-depth) series on marital finances by Jessica Grose.
In the many conversations I’ve been having and reading, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how widely couples’ financial situations vary. There isn’t one silver-bullet solution to financial issues in a relationship — no perfect answer of “pool your money” or “keep separate accounts” or “only have one debit card.” I can’t imagine not having my own bank account; I can’t imagine sharing a primary checking account with a partner and having someone else privy to (and scrutinizing) every small purchasing decision I make. For other couples, that level of financial transparency works, and feels intimate and honest rather than overbearing.
I would also take a partner’s financial well-being and past decisions into account when deciding to get married. Partner has $20,000 in credit card debt from overspending at Barneys for years? Partner has horrible credit because of a series of bad financial decisions? That is going to impact whether or not I think it’s a good idea to legally tie myself to Partner in marriage or any other contractual relationship (buying a home together, having a child). Perhaps that is totally unromantic and judgmental. For me, though, it feels responsible and necessary.
But while I’ve made a series of careful financial decisions so that I have excellent credit and at least some savings, I also make a lot of financial decisions that I know others would consider frivolous, and that I wouldn’t want to explain to a more penny-pinching partner. Yes, I could have saved more money if I ate out and drank less; I also enjoy the mental health and professional benefits of having a strong social network, and without regular socializing (particularly with a group of women who are like family) I am a very unhappy person. I could have saved more money if I hadn’t traveled so much; I also need to travel to feel happy and connected and alive. Ideally, I would find a partner who shares (or at least understands) those values.
I also have six-figure student loan debt, and were I ever to get married, wouldn’t expect my partner to take it on. But I would expect that debt to be factored into our collective financial situation. Because if a marriage is a partnership, and one person’s income (after paying taxes and bills and debts) is significantly larger than the other’s, then the finances of the partnership should reflect that. I would want a communist marriage, basically — if one person’s income accounts for 60% of the total income of the partnership, then that income should cover 60% of the partnership costs like rent, utilities, groceries, etc. I imagine other couples do it differently, but I can’t imagine being married to someone who made $300,000 a year to my $50,000 and expected us to pay equal shares of the rent/mortgage. To me, “equality” is about (a) being able to support yourself, but also (b) contributing according to your means and abilities. For others, the 50-50 split is the most equal, and takes out what can feel like an imbalance of power.
And then of course there are the non-marital arrangements — how you figure out finances with a romantic partner to whom you are not married, and/or with whom you live. It wouldn’t even occur to me to set up a joint account with someone I had no legal tie to, but I know plenty of couples who do it.
So I’m curious: What do you all do? Being a single lady, I work and pay all my own bills and it’s relatively straight-forward. But for those of you who are married or in relationships, how do you structure your financial situations? And do your politics (feminist, lefty, socialist, libertarian or otherwise) influence financial decisions within your relationship?