A lot of what I cover here at Your Comeback comes back to a woman’s sense of identity, and this week’s financial theme is no exception. C. W., who wrote the piece below, conveys real confidence about who she is, in her relationship with her husband and in the world at large. She also described a confident partner, which answered-in this case-one of the questions that has been on my mind while reading your e-mails. What is the male perspective on being the lower earner? I wondered how C.’s husband feels when relatives and clueless acquaintances discover the “shameful secret” that she makes more than he does. From the sound of things he is able to shrug the attitude off. But perhaps that’s harder to do in other setups?
Let me know if that thought resonates with you. Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org . Meanwhile, enjoy today’s account of a utopian setup.
My husband and I have been together nearly eight years, since 2002, when I was a college student and he was a waiter. He entered graduate school after we’d been together a year or so, and since I entered the working world in September 2005, I’ve made significantly more money than he. The actual amounts have varied, but right now his grad-school stipend is less than half of my salary, which is about where things have been for the past four years. We’ve been married since April 2008, but have been living together and sharing household expenses since 2003.
Periodically, relatives or clueless acquaintances will “figure out” that I must out-earn my husband, and it’s always presented like they’ve discovered a shameful secret. Whenever this happens, I end up confused, because it’s not something that bothers me-or something I really think about at all. I’m terrible with money management, so my husband handles our monthly budget. Rent, cable, Internet, phone, car-renters’ insurance, and a few other regular expenses come out of my checking account. He pays for pretty much everything else.
Since a grad student’s schedule is much more flexible than an office worker’s, he’s always been the one to get the car’s oil changed and buy groceries. In the past couple of years, he’s regularly cooked dinner for both of us-sometimes having it ready when I get home, sometimes with me sous-chef-ing for him (he’s a fantastic cook and I’m much less creatively capable in the kitchen). If he’s doing a load of laundry, and I manage to get my non-hand-dry clothes separated, he’ll throw my stuff in with his and I usually help fold. Other household chores are more or less split between us: I clean the bathroom, he handles the vacuuming and general straightening of the living room. Any major “let’s get all this crap put away or thrown away” cleaning sessions are usually conducted jointly, although the other day he surprised me by doing a massive overhaul of the entire apartment.
So it’s apparent that he does a lot around the house to help both of us out-something that I’m already well aware of and grateful for. But I’d be loath to characterize his role as “house husband” or anything of the kind, and I certainly don’t expect him to cook dinner on a given night, nor do I get upset if he got caught up in something and didn’t have time to accomplish some household task.
Likewise, he has never tried to pressure me into finding a higher-paying job-when I actually took a pay cut a couple years ago to work in a less stressful environment, he was completely supportive. We talk about our somewhat unusual arrangement from time to time, and we both see things the same way: We’re both contributing to our mutual happiness and our ability to enjoy the free time we have together. Whether that contribution comes in the form of “Good, we can pay rent,” or “Let’s eat this delicious meal in our clean apartment,” both are equally valuable and necessary for our household.
We’re aware that our current situation won’t continue indefinitely. Eventually he’ll get his Ph.D., and we’ll have a whole new set of priorities to work out together, and we might someday have kids who complicate the division of labor. But I think our fundamental understanding will remain the same. If he were suddenly making a salary that we could both amply live on, I might quit my job and get an MFA-but if he could only find adjunct teaching jobs that required me to continue working, I’d be happy to stay where I am in an administrative role at a university or maybe get a nonprofit management master’s that would boost my salary potential down the line.
Either way, we’re both committed to being open and honest with ourselves and with each other about our priorities, and to ensuring that our number one priority is enjoying the time we spend together.
I’d like to think that our approach is viable no matter who’s making the higher salary. As long as both members of a partnership are contributing something and there’s no brewing resentment due to unexpressed feelings of unfairness, all that matters is that the bills get paid and that the domestic space stays livable. At least, that’s our take on things.
Photograph of man by Jack Hollingsworth/Photodisc/Getty Images.