We had been married only a few months when Clarissa burst into the living room with her arms full of shopping bags. 'Honey, you can't believe how much money I saved you,' she said.
My wife had just bought a bunch of clothes on sale. 'I was so proud of myself,' she recalls 27 years later. All the more so because many of the clothes were for me; she viewed my premarriage wardrobe, or lack thereof, as an abomination.
I had a different reaction. I told her if she really wanted to save money, she wouldn't have bought anything at all. Clarissa found this logic unfathomable. 'It's like we were speaking two different languages,' she now says.
After this auspicious beginning, you'd figure I'd keep a close eye on our household finances. I don't. Clarissa has handled our day-to-day finances for nearly all our marriage.
It's partly laziness on my part. But it's also a cynical calculation. I figure Clarissa will spend less if she's in charge of sweating out paying all the bills the following month.
Instead, I've focused on the big financial picture: saving for retirement; saving for college; getting the best possible deal on a mortgage for each of our multiple moves around the U.S. for my job.
There is also a marital-harmony component to our arrangement. Clarissa hasn't held a job since our third child was born 17 years ago. The prospect of my earning all the money and controlling all the spending made her feel powerless.
I had prided myself on being quite the enlightened husband for ceding control of our day-to-day finances. Turns out our arrangement is pretty typical, according to the experts. 'In most households, the wife makes the day-to-day budgetary decisions, and the husband makes the big decisions,' says Vickie Bajtelsmit, chair of the finance department at Colorado State University.
There are exceptions. Dr. Bajtelsmit has been the main breadwinner in her marriage, and she's an expert on personal finance. 'I made most of the decisions,' she says.
Different couples figure out the division of labor differently. Sherman Hanna, an economist at Ohio State University, says he does the grocery shopping in his family. His wife, an attorney, makes all the decisions about furnishing their house. 'I have no sense of style whatsoever,' Dr. Hanna says.
As for big financial decisions, Dr. Hanna says he and his wife tend to make them together.
None of these arrangements work well without trust. In the early years of our marriage, Clarissa would sometimes run out of money and quietly pay for things with her personal credit card.
It was hardly ever stuff for herself. Usually, it was clothes for the children or Christmas presents for her family. Clarissa figured she'd pay off the debt when things loosened up for us. But, of course, with three kids and one salary, digging out was hard.
Eventually, I'd find out and explode. Once, it happened when we bought a house. I thought we had no debts outside of a car loan. But when the mortgage lender showed me our joint credit report, I saw that Clarissa had a couple of thousand dollars on her own card. It wasn't a happy moment.
A few years later, we moved again, and it happened again. 'Do I have to move to find out how much we owe?' I asked Clarissa.
Finally, I told Clarissa if she was candid about our debts, I wouldn't go ballistic. We've both pretty much kept up our end of the deal since. And it's been a much happier situation.
We still get in debt sometimes. But since I know about the problem right away, I'm able to take action, such as cutting back on retirement savings until we dig our way out.
Would we be more careful with money if I were completely in charge of our spending? Probably. But marriage is about compromise. And unless your spouse is a complete spendthrift, compromising is a heck of a lot cheaper than a divorce.
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A few weeks ago, I wrote about my fruitless attempt to exchange a pair of Nike running shoes with a torn shoelace eyelet. Nike just sent me a $92 voucher. I'm mailing it back. Earlier, I mailed back five pairs of running shoes that some marketing maven at Reebok sent me in the wake of the column.
I'm not an ingrate. But when I write about a situation in my life, I'm doing it to explore an issue -- not to get special treatment. Nike recently told me that its policy is to honor return requests for the particular shoe model I bought, and I assume that's its rationale for sending me a voucher now. Nonetheless, Nike wasn't willing to send me a voucher when I contacted the company a year ago as an ordinary consumer, so I can't accept it now.