(Originally published March 16, 2011 at playgroupwithsylviaplath.com)
When my husband and I got engaged, the subject of banking and checking accounts came up. My happily married in-laws each gave us a piece of advice.
My father-in-law said, “Absolutely have one account. It’s just so much easier that way.”
My mother-in-law said, “Absolutely have separate accounts. It’s just so much easier that way.”
The exchange went from comic to conviction when my own parents said exactly the same thing.
Like most in the honeymoon phase, I was sure I had won the husband-lottery. The fact that we ended up with two bank accounts — “ours” and “mine” just confirmed it. I even kept my own Visa card that I had paid off monthly since I was 16 (and henceforth paid using the “ours” account.) For a time, I handled our banking, paid bills, and have some vague recollection that I even completed our taxes one year.
Watching my account accrue just compounded my pride in being a working, wage-earning woman in America. It was everything I had been raised and educated to believe was my right and duty. The “mine” account paid for dinners out with friends, our vacations and even a master’s degree.
But, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Rosie the Riveter needn’t have felt their feminist poster-woman status threatened. In just a few years time, we were fortunate enough to have three children and one career that funded the household. Somewhere in a fog of baby wipes and inertia, it just happened. The “mine” account dwindled to almost nothing, while the pile of stroller accessories and Dr. Seuss books continued to grow.
Initially, it didn’t bother me. Money has rarely been an issue in our relationship, and for that I know I am fortunate, but I will not call myself “lucky”. I subscribe to the idiom, “as you make your bed, so must you lie in it” – especially when it’s a double bed. Sure, my marriage and our default roles as breadwinner and wife may be traditional. But we both know that if I didn’t buy the pants, he wouldn’t have them to wear.
Most often, “our” money pays for something for “our” children – shoes, piano lessons, little league fees, or a new pair of ice-hockey goalie pads that rivals the price of my first car. If it isn’t for “our” children, it is likely for “our” house – new windows, an oil contract or the plumber. And trust me, I have no feminist-angst over contributing to the family’s plumbing budget.
But, there is angst over a “mine” expense when there is no “mine” money. Conscious or not, there’s a momentary pause when I pay for something that is solely for me. Sometimes it can be as small as the new hardback book I want because I don’t want to wait for at the library. Or it can be as major as the new 27” desktop computer I want because I want it.
Our media does a banner job of promoting a culture of “you earned it, you deserve it.” But is the unspoken corollary, “if you didn’t earn it, you don’t deserve it?” As a former “earner”, I struggle with this. Because when you aren’t cashing a paycheck with numbers and a few zeros on it, it can be pretty easy to focus on just the zeros.
And I’m not the only one. Many women – whether wage earners or not – find ways to make peace with the issues of money and relationships: One acquaintance (a doctor) pays for her clothes half in cash and half in credit to avoid debates with her husband. Another writes checks out exclusively to “cash” to muddy the trail. A third takes out $100 cash on the debit card with every visit to the grocery store. My favorite is the friend who buys something for her husband every time she buys an item for herself, so that the charges are “commingled.”
Sure, the devices may be new, but these conventions have been part of domestic relationships for centuries. Back in the 1500s, King Henry VIII’s fifth wife Catherine brought the fashion of decorative pins with her from France. Within no time, husbands across the Empire were handing over cash to their wives so they could buy the expensive pins without asking for money each time. Thus the behavior of don’t ask, don’t tell was learned. And the term “pin money” was coined.
Frankly, a shiny cloisonné pin does nothing for me. I can even buy clothes and go to lunch with friends guilt-free. But, every time I make an appointment to have my hair done, I pause. It is the one item for which I long for a “mine” account. Sure, a girl can get a cut and blow dry at a strip mall Supercuts for $36. But if a girl wants to have any sort of, we’ll call them, “enhancements” along with that cut to feel like she’s come a long way, baby, well, baby’s going to have to pay for those. As my mother-in-law warned, a “mine” account would just make it so much easier.
A Philadelphia real estate magnate recognized the need for such comely currency when he created the Henry G. Freeman Jr. Pin Money Fund in 1912. The lucky lady recipients of his no strings attached $12,000 annual purse? The First Ladies of the land. Barbara Bush used her pin money to support a favorite charitable cause and “to do something nice for the grandchildren.”
There’s been no announcement as to what Michelle Obama will be using her pin money for. Sure, there’s the J. Crew card she could pay off and the organic fertilizer she needs for the garden. But I would suggest setting just a little bit aside for a keratin treatment or a blowout now and then.
(This piece originally appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Women’s History Month Special Issue – March 16, 2011)