In Which I Answer a Question About Marriage and Finances That ‘Call Your Girlfriend’ Asked Us in October

One of the best ways to get me to listen to your podcast is to reference me in your podcast. So when Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman of Call Your Girlfriend talked about how much they loved The Billfold’s Doing Money column (which, to be fair, does not reference me directly, but I’ll accept an indirect hat tip), I listened to the episode that mentioned The Billfold and then started cranking through the archives because the podcast is hilarious and delightful and I am glad to have found it.

And then I discovered that in their October 25, 2014 episode “Home Girls,” they mention The Billfold again. In fact, they ask us a question. And we never responded! In our defense, they asked The Billfold a question in a podcast, not, say, by emailing any of us, but I still feel a bit remiss, etiquette-wise.

Call Your Girlfriend asks The Billfold if we can provide any additional advice to a person who wrote them a letter about a tricky financial situation. I’m only going to excerpt part of the letter, because it’s long, but here’s the jist:

My boyfriend and I have been together for five years. We live together in a house that we bought together, share food costs, and things like that. He makes more money than me. He has savings that are as big as my student debt. In addition to his full-time job, he does some freelance and art projects. I thought of my question because I was listening to your podcast while making some lasagna, and he’s out working on a freelance project, and thinking it’s this funny traditional situation. I do a fair amount of domestic work — cooking, cleaning — that benefits both of us. He does an amount of extra work outside of the house, but he keeps all the money from it. I’m getting to the question, I promise!

On the one hand, marriage: yuck! On the other hand, I have this nugget of doubt that, by eschewing marriage for feminist reasons, I’m actually shooting myself in the foot. [explanation of why he is currently earning more money than she is] If we were to get married, he would take on some of my debt and I would take on some of his assets. By not marrying, he gets all of the upsides. [discussion of marriage and gender stereotypes] We’re already living in a married-couple way, but I don’t have the protection or the legal status, and the relationship equality of sharing debts/assets, and we don’t even have kids.

The letter writer ends by asking Call Your Girlfriend to address this issue in a general way rather than trying to solve her specific situation, and Ann and Aminatou give their own response and then ask The Billfold if we could weigh in with our thoughts, so here I go:

I’ve dated people who have earned a little more money than me, I have dated people who have earned significantly more money than me, and I have dated people who earned a little less money than me.

As is the situation in nearly all of my relationships — and here I am mentally picturing Osaka from Azumanga Daioh shaking her head at me and saying “get it together!” — I adapted my spending to the person I was dating.

So at one point I was dating someone who thought it was no big deal to drop $150 at a sushi place, and at another point I was dating somebody where it was a big deal to get the brand-name Rice-A-Roni, and that was, like, a fancy dinner. In both cases I would have been happier if our shared spending was a little closer to what I felt comfortable contributing financially — because we went pretty much 50/50 on those sushi dinners, even though that was nearly all of my discretionary income and only a small percentage of his — but I only have myself to blame for not standing up for my own financial needs.

And what was I going to say to the Rice-A-Roni boyfriend? “Hey, I’d like to start spending more on our relationship than you can afford?” That didn’t seem quite right, either.

One of the boyfriends who earned less money than me had some debt, and I was dating him at a time in my life when I had a lot of savings. There was a point at which I thought of offering to pay off his debt — not right that very minute, because we had only been dating for a few months, but as a thing I would do when we had made a more formal commitment to each other. “When we start talking about marriage, I’ll just pay off any debt he has left,” I thought. “Because when you’re married, you share resources.”

There was actually a moment in that relationship, much earlier than anyone would have sensibly brought up this plan, that I almost said this aloud. But my brain stopped my mouth in time, which turned out to be a wise decision. I am, after all, currently unmarried.

I do believe that people who are married should share resources, but I believe it in a theoretical way because I have never had the opportunity to talk to somebody about it in practice. So I can understand the Call Your Girlfriend letter writer’s desire to get married, if only so they can actually have this conversation about sharing finances in a more equitable way. It’s interesting that this letter writer wants marriage not because she wants to be married, but because she wants to have the leverage to ask for her own financial needs. I want to make a joke here: “Have you seen what weddings cost these days? You’ll be spending dollars to save dimes.”

Communication is, as always, the answer, but it isn’t easy. When you’re in a relationship with someone, you like to see them happy and comfortable, and a lot of us (ME ME ME ME ME) fall into the trap of thinking we’ll accept a little less comfort so someone else doesn’t have to feel awkward about wanting a fancy dinner or whatever. It’s ridiculous to think that we can emotionally manage our own discomfort better than our partners can, but that’s the sort of overfunctioning mindset we get into: I don’t want this other person to have to figure out how to be uncomfortable and still love me, so I’ll take care of that bit of the emotional work.

(Thanks to Emily Nagoski and her blog/books for teaching me about the concept of overfunctioning in interpersonal relationships, by the way. I still haven’t figured out how to stop doing it, but at least I know what it’s called.)

I think if this letter writer wants to have a discussion about how her cooking the lasagna enables her boyfriend to go earn that freelance income that he believes is only “his,” she has to have the discussion, and it probably has to come separately from the discussion of marriage. It may teach her a lot about both herself and the boyfriend. He may say something like “I never asked you to cook lasagna, I can just make myself a bowl of cereal when I get home.” Or he may say “yeah, I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

It is perfectly reasonable to expect that, if you are in an unmarried partnership, any money you earn belongs to you. It is also perfectly reasonable to expect that, if you are in an unmarried partnership, the two of you should come up with a way of sharing assets that feels fair to both of you. What is not reasonable is the situation the letter writer is in right now, and that is the situation she needs to find a thoughtful and loving way to address.

You can’t be in a relationship where it feels like one person gets all the upsides. I mean, you can be, but only for a while. Ask him to figure out how to be uncomfortable and still love you. Later on you can decide whether you want to ask him to marry you.

Call Your Girlfriend addressed this question to The Billfold As A Whole, not just me, so please share your own advice for the letter writer in the comments.

Photo credit: jeffreyw