My husband and I were barely out of our teens when we walked into the bank to open a joint account. And close our personal ones.
We weren’t married, we didn’t even live together. I was 20 and my friends were horrified. It wasn’t so much the opening of the joint account they took exception to, but the closing of our personal ones, so that all money was shared. No his and hers, just ours.
What’s independent about having nothing while your husband keeps his pay?
We are the daughters of the first generation of women who earned their own money their whole lives. We were born and raised to be independent women, with our own careers and our own money.
I get that. A man is not a financial plan. And that works really well while both partners are earning money, but what happens when you have children? In Australia, most women stay home longer than their paid maternity leave lasts (and it is still mostly women staying home with children), while their husbands continue to work.
But when men are the only ones in paid employment, what happens to the money?
For my husband and I, the answer is easy. Everything continues as it always has: it is our money and we both have equal rights and responsibilities over it.
But this is not the answer for many other couples.
A friend of mine, Janine*, works in the finance industry. She earns good money, is ambitious, and a feminist. When she had her daughter six months ago she was entitled to the government paid parental leave, but when that dried up after 18 weeks, she was earning nothing. And, because she is staying at home for the 12 months unpaid leave from her employer she is entitled to, she was staring down the barrel at about 8 months of earning nothing while performing the daily grind of child-rearing.
Janine and her husband do not share money. They have a joint account for bills and household expenses, but they have never shared disposable income. To prepare for having a baby, Janine saved money so she would be able to afford to have coffee and go out with her friends and buy clothes that would fit and go to the gym once her daughter was born.
I don’t mean Janine and her husband saved up. I mean Janine saved up her money, while her husband carried on, and carries on, as normal.
Scrolling through the various mum groups on social media, it seems Janine’s lack of equal access to family funds is quite normal.
Just last week Vanessa* posted in one of these mum groups about her ingenious ways of saving money on the weekly grocery shop so she could “keep it for a rainy day and spend it on little luxuries for myself like a cup of coffee and piece of cake!” Vanessa’s husband transfers $200 each week into the joint account to be used on food shopping for their family of five.
These women may think they are independent, but in fact they are being taken advantage of and undervalued by the very person who should value them the most.
To my astonishment, the post was celebrated, with other mothers thanking her for these tips and looking forward to what they would buy with their new-found cash.
In my naivety, I thought women squirrelling money away from what their husbands gave them for food shopping was part of a bygone era. Apparently not.
Kelly, a stay-at-home mother of two aged three and 8 months, had to miss a friend’s birthday dinner at a restaurant and bar in the city because she couldn’t afford to go. Nothing unusual there; a lot of family budgets are very tight and it makes sense that this means sometimes you can’t go out.
But Kelly’s husband went. He could afford it. Because Kelly and her husband have an agreement where he transfers her an amount of money every month. Yep. Like an allowance. Her husband doesn’t have an allowance. Like many women I know and have come across, Kelly says it’s “his” money.
Why is it “his” money, but “our” children?
This is not independence. It’s certainly not a partnership. The lack of access to funds may even tip into economic abuse.
A man is not a financial plan. Absolutely. I completely agree. But neither is paupering yourself in service to the family while your husband goes out earning his own cash.
It’s not as if these women aren’t working. They’re working their guts out. Never mind keeping the kids fed, clothed, bathed, rested, and teaching them to be decent human beings, have you ever tried getting dried Weet-Bix off the floor?!
Without his wife to stay home and look after the children, a husband would be forking out thousands of dollars a week in childcare costs. And probably hiring a cleaner and cook too. These women may think they are independent, but in fact they are being taken advantage of and undervalued by the very person who should value them the most.
I don’t ask my husband for permission or funds to get a cup of coffee or a new shirt just because he’s the one in paid employment while I look after our son at home. And he wouldn’t dream of arguing that I haven’t “earned” the money so I’m not entitled to it.
We believe that each of us contributes equally to the family and is of equal value to the partnership, and so we are equally entitled to any money brought in. And yes, that cup of coffee.
*Names have been changed