For Full-Time Parents, Does Giving Up Income Always Mean Giving Up Financial Control?

Casey Hynes — Up Close & Personal Finance

I’ve been working since I was 14, when I got my first job copying legal documents at a law firm down the street from my high school. The work was as boring as it sounds, but I liked being able to say that I was employed and earning my own money. The gig only lasted a few months, but it was followed by others—candy store clerk, badge checker at a local beach, server at Fuddruckers, hostess at Chuck E. Cheese. Sure, I loathed most of these jobs—and complained about them loudly—but I never yearned to stop working altogether. Even when I was doing something I hated, I looked forward to starting a career I loved so I’d never again have to mop greasy restaurant floors or weep over crappy tips.

From grade school through grad school, I always maintained a vision of myself as a self-sustained career woman. As I got older, I heard stories of women who got married, ceded control of their finances to their husbands, and were shocked to find their families deep in debt after decades of assuming all their accounts were in the black. I shuddered at the prospect of one day realizing that the nest egg I built to see me through retirement, or the house I thought was mine forever, or the emergency fund that brought me peace of mind at night were in jeopardy. I didn’t want it to happen to me.

My boyfriend and I aren’t married and we don’t have children, but our finances intertwine a little more each year, and milestones like marriage and kids are frequent topics of conversation now. We’ve discussed the possibility of one of us becoming the sole breadwinner while the other became the full-time caregiver for our child. We played around with the idea of trading off every couple years depending what each of us has going on career-wise, but as a programmer, he’s in a higher-paying field and is more likely to have a job with good benefits. And while I consider myself a career woman and feminist, I also find myself drawn to somewhat more traditional roles when I think about having children.

So, I’m OK with the idea of being the one who cares for our theoretical progeny full-time while my partner earns a steady paycheck. But the prospect of living entirely off my partner’s income doesn’t sit well. It’s not that I don’t think we could manage it. We’ve been on a steady journey toward financial essentialism and lifestyle minimalism during the past year, so I’m confident we could make the adjustment. But the thought of handing all of our financial responsibility over to him made me realize how much my work, and the money it brings in, is tied to my self-worth. I’m proud of the fact that I make a full-time income as a freelance writer. I like that we split the cost of all our expenses, from rent to the car payment to our groceries. And even though I know that I’d be contributing to our household in different ways, there’s still a part of me that resists that scenario.

I suspect the reason is rooted in my past. Even though I worked throughout high school, I was rarely flush with money. A few hours of work after school or on weekends was just enough to go to the movies or to a restaurant occasionally, or to buy the clothes and books I could never seem to deny myself. When I had additional money to spend, I lavished it on my family, especially my younger sister, who I bought magazines, clothes, and toys for whenever she asked. Occasionally I would pick up ice cream or take-out food for my entire family, despite my parents admonishing me for not saving that money instead.

But these spending habits, which plagued me into adulthood, often left me short on cash. I had to borrow money from friends when we went to Pizza Hut or IHOP before cheerleading practice. Sometimes I was so hard up, I’d have to ask for quarters to get a Snickers bar from the vending machine. On too many occasions, I couldn’t afford to pay those little loans back. Until recently, those memories colored my cheeks with shame.

Despite what my present-day credit card balances and student loan debts suggest, I now despise owing people money. The ability to throw in for dinners, outings, and group gifts matters to me because it means I’m pulling my weight. In my relationship, it matters even more. We’re partners. I don’t ever want my boyfriend to think I’m slacking or taking advantage of him.

More to the point, I like that we’re financial equals. For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of having a successful writing career. And I didn’t meet my boyfriend until my late twenties, so for most of my adult life, I’ve been financially on my own. Rent, utilities, clothes, entertainment, travel, debts—those were all on me. It’s nice to have someone to share expenses with now, and managing our joint responsibilities has brought us closer together. But when I think about ceding those duties to him, I worry about losing a piece of myself. There is a sense of success and power that comes from financial independence.

If that day comes, the transition would be eased by our agreement to always share the financial management duties, no matter what our separate income statuses. And I also have my past to thank for that. Growing up, I recall my parents discussing our family’s finances together. When I asked my mom about this recently, she said they’d always been transparent about bills and financial obligations. Even if one of them was earning more money, both were involved in decisions about how the money was spent and where it was going each month. My boyfriend and I have largely adopted the same practice. While we each handle payments for different accounts, we let each other know how much the monthly bills are and discuss all big purchases with one another.

Not only does this ensure we’re on the same page, it also reaffirms that we’re on the same team. If one of us feels stressed about money, we know we can tell the other person and that we’ll have a conversation about how to manage the situation together. Those conversations aren’t always easy, but they inevitably lead to us reassessing our spending habits and having deep conversations about our long-term goals. Regardless of who earns more income or who pays the bills in the future, I intend to keep having these conversations throughout our life together. Because as the stakes get higher, it will be more important than ever to make the big decisions as a team.