Posted by Shelly Eweka.
Calling a homemaker’s spending money an “allowance” seems a bit patronizing and oppressive, don’t you think? It suggests curtailed freedom, a power dynamic. Be that as it may, I think an informal allowance system can do wonders for modern couples—even when both of them are bringing home the bacon.
Don’t sweat the small stuff
I get it: “Allowance” sounds constraining and limiting, rather like “budget.” At worst, it implies frivolous spending in need of a little constraint. But you know what? We all buy things that others (soul mates included) deem frivolous.
A few years ago, a coworker confided to me that despite her husband being the bigger breadwinner, he had no interest in day-to-day household budgeting. All he wanted was his money clip replenished each day. That struck me as comical, although it’s a common arrangement among working couples: One half limits the spending of the (sometimes higher-earning) other.
Today, there are more sophisticated tools to control a spouse’s spending, like setting up alerts on your phone for when your shared debit card balance goes under a specified amount. Obviously, this must be prefaced by a conversation about the importance of marital goals, how they align with your individual needs. Otherwise, it might seem like an arbitrary wielding of power. One of our goals is to vacation in Europe every other year and to achieve it, my husband and I need to curb some of our discretionary spending.
I’ve learned that marriage involves a never-ending series of tiny compromises and mini negotiations. Your needs and desires can never be in total alignment; you want the bedroom window open and your spouse wants it closed. He wants to buy a pair of jeans that you think is an absolute waste of money. Too often, the stronger-willed spouse gets their way at the expense of the other’s needs (not a wise long-term strategy).
While mutual agreement is essential for large purchases, small ones should be at your own discretion. You may not like your partner’s penchant for pricey gadgets, but when it comes from their own personal expense account, it’s easier to let it go.
Making allowances: How much you should each get
Like many couples, my hubby and I have a joint account. Since we’re both earning a decent wage, there’s a pile of money left over each month after all the bills have been paid. If your income is fixed, you should know how much this surplus is going to be each month, since your utilities and other bills are more or less predictable.
I really recommend using a budget worksheet so you know exactly what your cash flow situation is, enabling you to put a dollar amount on your discretionary spending.
This will show you your total sum of essential spending, as well as the sum of your joint discretionary expenses (home improvement, vacations). Also, include your savings goals under Miscellaneous. What’s the sum total? Hopefully, less than your monthly household income, leaving you enough for some of life’s little luxuries!
How does that work in practice? Let’s say the shared pot totals $800 per month, and because you’re an egalitarian couple, you decide to allow each other $400 per month to spend on whatever you want, no questions asked! I might decide to put all of mine into a brokerage account, while my husband might spend his on rare vinyls. The miracle is that I’m not allowed to get mad at him, and he doesn’t get to scorn my frugality, because the whole point of an allowance is you get to indulge your individual wants and needs. Lord knows every other cent goes towards joint goals, but a marriage consists of two personalities, and there needs to be some breathing room to avoid suffocation.
Whether you choose to split it 50/50 is up to you. If you vastly out-earn your intimate partner, or vice versa, one of you may feel entitled to a bigger allowance, and that works for many couples.
Bottom line: Giving each other equal access to household finances doesn’t always work, though it sounds reasonable in theory. You don’t want to negotiate and justify every little spending choice—life’s too short, and people are too uncompromising about their little pleasures. There’s just no room for “meeting halfway” when you want that dress.