Ken Miller’s not afraid to admit it: He gives a little extra in the bedroom when he needs a little extra cash from his breadwinner wife.
The handling of our family finances has changed a great deal over the past 20 years, as I went from primary breadwinner in a two-income marriage to househusband caring for four kids.
Twenty years ago, newly married, both my wife and I were working, and I probably made 60% of our combined income. No problem for me, no apparent problem for her: All of the money went into joint accounts and she generally kept track of and paid all of the bills. A few years later, her income shot up and roughly equaled mine, but little else changed. Shortly after that, we had our first child, and lots of things changed. First, I started working part-time and my wife stayed at full-time, and the effect of this was to reduce my share of the household income to about 25%. Second, although all of the money still went into joint accounts, my attitude changed a great deal. Acutely aware that our expenses were up and our income down, I became very reluctant to spend anything except on absolute necessities. Two years later, we had another child and I started staying home full-time. So my financial contribution went to zero, where it remains to this day.
As this happened, my tightwadded-ness got worse, even though my wife’s income rose. Food? Yes, but nothing extravagant. Clothes for the kids? Yes, if necessary and nothing extravagant. Clothes for me? No, that’s what God made birthdays and Christmas for. I also was now in charge of the bills, and so had a firm hand on our collective financial pulse.
What had happened? Well, to a certain extent, my new-found thriftiness was good. But it was caused by the unsettling feeling that the money coming into the household was not “our money,” as it always had been, but rather “her money.” In the old “our money” days, when I was the primary provider, I’d thought nothing of buying new clothes or new sports equipment; when it came time to buy a new car, I simply told my wife, did the research, and made the purchase. Now, barely more than five years later, I found myself in the supermarket comparing bottled water per-ounce prices to the third decimal point and resisting the urge the buy some 99-cent toy that the kids were screaming to have.
And my wife? She was pretty much acting the way I used to, when I was the primary provider. At around the same time I was squeezing pennies at the store she let me know that she was planning to get a new car, which she eventually did a few weeks later. With no hassle.
Now, realize that this was not my wife’s fault. She was, and is, very good about our money. She never questioned my spending in any way. Instead, this all came from inside my head.
I have to admit that I did lighten up a bit after she got the car. But just a bit. The real “aha” moments came about two years later, after we’d had our third child. Now my car was too small, too old, and increasingly unreliable. Time to get a new one. But times had changed. This time I didn’t stride confidently into the kitchen and make my intentions known. Instead, I used the weapons of the weak—I hinted at it for a few days, then I actually (I can’t believe I’m admitting this) asked permission after we made love one afternoon. My wife was thunderstruck, “Of course,” she said, “your car is falling apart. Plus, how could I refuse under these circumstances.” We both laughed, and it took me another two months to make the purchase and I tried to keep her involved every step of the way.
Then my wife’s sister (who is a very close and good friend) made a comment that unwittingly put the whole thing into perspective. As I was showing her the new SUV and driving her around, she said, “Nice going, dude. She makes the money and you get to spend it.” There it was. Despite all of my efforts to be frugal, the reality meant virtually nothing. It was all perception. And the perception was, well, pretty obvious. I couldn’t resist the temptation to take things to the next level: “You should have seen what I did to get the V-8 instead of the V-6,” and winked at her. She laughed, never dreaming that I spoke the truth.
So, today, I’ve gotten past being a tightwad when it comes to buying things for the family. I’m still pretty cheap, but I don’t break out in a cold sweat anymore at the thought of making a discretionary purchase, even for myself from time to time. And when it comes to something that is discretionary, somewhat expensive, and for just for me, I’m not above sort of seeking permission and trying to seal the deal with a little sugar. All’s fair, right?