This post is by staff writer Sarah Gilbert.

With my husband across the planet in Kuwait for most of the past two years, we don’t fight a lot.

When we do fight, it’s about three things: what I’m doing with the kids. What things are going to be like when he comes back (for leave, or for good). And money.

We started out so well?
At the beginning of our relationship, I had a great job I was leaving, along with my ex-boyfriend, to move back home to Portland and my to-be-husband. It was easy to find a new job (this was 2001), and we settled quickly into the financial structure that existed then. I made most of the family’s money and paid all the bills. My husband and I, honestly, were thinking ahead only in general terms. “I want to save money for retirement,” we would say. “Let’s have college savings funds for the boys,” we’d say.

We merged finances very soon in our young marriage; while I bought the house and had entered into the credit cards before we married, we shared equally in the choices about how to spend our money and control over the debit card. Most of our arguments about money were retroactive. (“Why did you buy drinks for your friends, again?” I might say. “How much did you spend on fabric?” he might say in return.)

Conventional roles work?
When I ended my relationship with full-time work for a salary in late 2008, my husband was supportive. At first, I was making quite a lot in my freelance job and he could make enough at the service-oriented jobs he was working at the time to balance the books. Eventually, we decided he should take advantage of a need for his talents and skills in the Army; it would provide plenty of income and benefits while we regained our financial footing. When he returned, he’d be more employable. He’d have a promotion or two, and those medals and honors do add up to respect in many lines of work.

Since we made that decision, but for one glorious month when I had a couple of great freelance jobs come together, he’s made the majority of the income. He seemed excited about that, at first; his chance to “provide for his family!” He said things like, “it’s my turn,” and “I’m proud I have the opportunity.” We kept our finances combined; the paycheck came into a joint USAA account, and I paid the bills, like always. It was easier; I had the bills coming into my mailbox, and I was the one with most of the expenses outside of bills, as the day-to-day costs of being a soldier overseas can be limited to phone cards, internet cards, cigarettes, and soda. (Well, they could be limited to almost nothing, but some allowances must be made for the difficult environment.)

That was great, until he came home for a few months and discovered I’d saved little money for an emergency fund. I thought he understood that we were paying off a lot of debt and I wouldn’t be saving money until it was closer to a zero balance. We couldn’t come to a good understanding, here; I thought I’d done a pretty good job of managing the money, he thought I’d spent too much on food. “Maybe I have spent a lot on food, but you spend way more!” I said, watching him load up on convenience foods that were “easier” than my organic, from-scratch options.

Perception is reality?
Fundamentally, we just have a very different approach to food; mine has changed as I’ve become more educated about agricultural techniques and the impact of chemicals on the body. I’ve also seen my health improve as I nearly eliminated refined sugar and many processed foods, including conventionally-farmed meats, and seen how severely my children’s behavior can react to a great deal of chemicals and refined sugars in their diet. Not only does it seem worth it (especially as the primary caregiver) to me to spend a little more per pound for some of the things I buy, I really believe that my food schema is less expensive in total than his. It’s certainly less expensive than our two competing food schemas, combined.

While he agrees in principle with most of my ideas about diet, he is impatient about waiting a long time for a meal (especially after coming home from a place where meals are served at exactly the same time each day) and seduced by the super saver deals on meat and prepared foods at Safeway. With both of us buying food, we waste a lot, making our total expense outrageous — plus we’re spending way too much time either arguing over our spending or feeling resentful and angry over the other spouse’s spending. I know enough to know that “perception is reality,” at least in this sort of dispute. It doesn’t matter whether my food budget is $600 a month or $1200 a month. It mattered that I spent $45 on a box of organic nectarines. (Once! They’re super good and I plan to buy that same box again this summer.)

A fix?
He came up with a plan to stop the fighting: he would start a separate account, get paid into that account, and he would pay all the bills, then put money in savings, and give me money for food, babysitting, and other household expenses if I needed it; after lots of argument I had said I would pay for food out of my freelance income.

While this worked in some ways; he was so proud he was paying the bills and saving money, and he thought he’d solved all our problems; it didn’t work for me. Now if I didn’t make enough to cover the month’s expenses on the homefront I’d have to go ask him for money. If I was late sending him a bill I’d feel bad and want to pay it myself. Sometimes our communication was mixed up, causing late fees or overdrafts. The bank treats accounts that are getting direct deposit from the government very differently than those that are receiving direct deposits from private companies, so I was paying more fees for ATM withdrawals, among other things.

The worst part was — I thought — it set up a weird dynamic between us. When I came to him to ask for money, it gave him a lot of power to say “no” if he thought my use wasn’t a good one. Because we don’t talk every day, I would have to save up my money talk for when we did get a phone call, leading him to say (when he was feeling dramatic) that I only ever wanted to talk to him about money. The problem escalated as the months went on, until we came to a kind of agreement about a budget he’d give me, and not ask how I was using it.

A better solution?
It’s still not perfect. He thinks I don’t need as much money as he sends me, no matter that I beg him to ask his friends how much their wives spend on food, babysitting, transportation, clothes… (which is kind of cheating, as I spend virtually nothing on transportation and clothes); I think his structure is only going to continue to cause this unease between us. I can’t deny that it’s nice to have him paying the major household bills. And it’s certainly my goal to make enough to pay for all the groceries and babysitting my little heart could desire; I do, some months, and those are so much easier between us.

Separate accounts can work
I really do believe that separate accounts can work; but only if either:

  • Both partners are making enough to meet their individual needs and one is making enough to save after the bills are paid; or
  • Both partners are almost perfectly aligned in their spending values.

I’m hoping I can manage to make #1 happen, because I’m fairly sure #2 is too far in the distant future to count on. How about you: Have you made a joint account work? Do you fit one of these two categories or do you have another one I should add to my list? If you’ve had separate accounts and it hasn’t worked out, did you find a way to solve the problem?

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