Progress has been slow, but American society’s openness around marriage norms and money issues continues to evolve. Married couples now include the LGBTQ+ community, and 38% of breadwinners are women. I share this because gender norms are becoming less normal, which in fact means that nobody is safe from the possibility of a spouse using money as a tool for control.
It is not uncommon for one spouse to take the lead in managing household finances in a relationship. Some hand off the daily money management tasks to their spouse in exchange for a chore they are more comfortable with. This is perfectly healthy as long as relinquishing the task of managing money does not mean abandoning power over money in your relationship.
A spouse who uses money to control another spouse is committing financial abuse, and that is a destructive force in a marriage. According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, financial abuse occurs in 99% of domestic violence cases and cuts across all socio-economic, educational, racial and ethnic groups.
Assigning a spouse to manage money is different. In this arrangement, a spouse can avoid worrying about bill due dates or credit card management and still have an equal say in how money is used in the marriage.
Where there’s healthy and equitable control of money, a partner manages the money, including the day-to-day finances. Deciding how money is spent is equal, regardless of any income disparities. Both partners have access to their financial account information. Both partners are transparent and honest about how much money they earn and have.
In relationships where there’s unhealthy and inappropriate control of money, your partner refuses to share with you the details of your day-to-day finances, and uses greater earning power as leverage for more power in the marriage. In these unhealthy marriages, a partner cannot access their money and instead is given an allowance. Often one partner commits financial infidelity, lying about money.
It is healthy to divide the responsibilities of managing money and a home in a way that is equitable and plays to the strengths of each partner. Take, for example, Dan and Kim Kadlec.
Dan is an a retired financial journalist. Kim is senior vice-president of global marketing solutions and customer marketing at VISA. Dan and Kim are our first Modern Husbands Ambassadors. They embody the values and spirit of the Modern Husbands community by partnering with their spouse to manage money and the home as a team. Their division of labor at home includes an ideal example of how one spouse can appropriately take on the money management tasks of the home.
Communication and transparency are essential. Also, the timing and atmosphere of money conversations significantly affect how they’ll go. Many experts recommend setting aside uninterrupted time with your spouse to talk about money in a relaxed setting where you’re not rushed. Experts often refer to these scheduled conversations as “money dates,” which are far more productive than reacting to a bill or decision when you’re emotionally charged.
Yet some married couples find discussions about money stressful and uncomfortable even in the best settings. A 2021 report by researchers at George Washington University showed that 50% of surveyed U.S. adults felt stressed when discussing their personal finances, and 60% experienced anxiety just thinking about their finances. These findings rang true among all types of demographics. One of the top predictors of having no reported stress and anxiety when talking about money was when the respondents were financially literate.
The ideal way to manage money together is the one that you and your spouse agree on. Consider these approaches:
1. Pool your money together: Put your and your spouse’s money into one bucket to manage together. Research has found that couples who do this have the lowest probability of disagreements. This is even the case for couples living paycheck to paycheck and low-income couples with small children.
2. Keep your finances separate: Alternatively, much like two roommates sharing expenses, your accounts are separate and expenses are paid based on whatever arrangement you come up with. This could be as simple as a 50-50 split, but it doesn’t have to be. There is evidence that when there is tension around money and a significant income disparity between the spouses, they might arrange a shared expense model proportionate to that difference.
3. Yours, mine, and ours: This hybrid model includes a joint account for shared expenses and separate accounts for discretionary spending. Such a model could be helpful for couples who argue frequently about how discretionary money is spent.
Who takes the lead in managing money in the household and how couples decide to manage money together depends on several factors. But never use money to control a spouse — doing so will become a destructive force in your marriage.
Brian Page is the founder of Modern Husbands, which provides men with advice about money, marriage and family matters.