How Single-Income Families Fight About Money

The fights are about bank accounts and bill-paying, sure. But, if we're not careful, they're also about something much more insidious: control.

by Adam Bulger

Rob knew there was tension in his marriage. But until he accidentally intercepted a text from his wife he didn’t fully understand just how strained it had become.

The Connecticut dad of one lost his job just before his wife gave birth. The timing of his job loss made staying home with his newborn an easy decision to make. But after months passed, it increasingly seemed like a difficult one to deal with. As bills and financial gripes piled up, he figured rejoining the workforce would not only help his family’s finances but also its emotional health.

So, Rob aggressively pursued, and quickly found, a job. Relief washed over him. But when he got on his wife’s laptop to email the good news, his sense of relief curdled at the site of a message his wife sent to a friend about her “unemployed loser husband.”

“It stung, but I didn’t tell her I saw it,” he says. “I didn’t see a point. I mean, the problem was already solved. I had a job. Confronting her wouldn’t make me feel any better but bringing in a paycheck definitely would.”

Clashes between overspending spouses and budget conscious breadwinners have long been a comedy staple — think of Jane snatching her husband George’s wallet in the opening credits of The Jetsons. But for modern American single-income families, fighting over money is never funny. Without proper communication, transparency, and mutual respect, fights in homes with single breadwinners can become bitter struggles for control.

Amanda Clayman, therapist and financial wellness advocate for Prudential, said that when single-income families fight over money there’s more at play than keeping a checkbook balanced. In theory, arguments over personal finance should be calmly reasoned or at least based in very simple math. But that take on home economics ignores the emotions that are really driving the disagreements.

“With money in general, oftentimes we think we’re dealing with a practical or sort of external problem, but we’re overlooking the piece that’s internal, that’s about the emotions,” Clayman said. “We think if we just land upon whatever the practical solution is going to be, that it will solve the emotional issue. But the emotional issue is often really complicated.”

Modern American families aren’t used to living on a single paycheck. It’s not normal and hasn’t been for a while. Between 1960 and 2012, the percentage of dual income families shot up from 25 to 60 percent. In that same time, Leave it to Beaver-style husband-supported households dropped from 70 percent to 30 percent.

Once you go dual income, downshifting to single is difficult for a simple reason: it means less money. While the average income for American families with two wage-earners is $102,400, for families financially supported by a father alone, the average is $55,000.

But money only tells half the story. Control is often at the heart of single-income family conflicts. With people are getting married later in life than previous generations, modern spouses go into their marriages comfortable with the independence of adulthood. They’re accustomed to controlling their domestic, professional, and financial lives. When they get married, their financial arrangements with their spouses basically amount to roommates with benefits. There may be a shared pot for certain expenses, but money is generally kept separate to let each spouse keep control of their own money. When one spouse drops out of the workforce, both wind up sacrificing some degree of control as you each agree to specialize in a singular role like making money or maintaining a home.

“So we want there to be some specialization, but as we specialize we’re each losing control in the realm where maybe we both used to operate together,” Clayman said. “So the person who is acting judgey about the other person’s spending is often trying to gain control in that realm.”

The specialization of roles in a marriage can create tension. A few months after Delaware mother Stacy became a full-time mom to her two kids, her husband Jeff thought the envelopes from the credit card companies seemed to be growing thicker. One month, he combed through the statements line by line and was alarmed by how many purchases had gone into the mission of making his already cute daughter look more adorable.

“How many outfits did she really need,” Jeff asked. “Wouldn’t she outgrow them almost immediately anyway?”

In situations like Jeff’s, Clayman believes the problem stems from discomfort with the specialization he and his wife have adopted. Like many stay-at-home parents, his wife is solely responsible for procurement. She shops for groceries, signing kids up for classes and activities, furnishing the home, buying clothes, and so forth. When one person buys everything for the family, the spouse who’s not making the purchases is apt to think they’re spending too much.

“It’s not necessarily overspending behavior, it’s just that they are now holding all the responsibility for procurement,” Clayman said.

It’s easy to wrongly perceive that a spouse is overspending when they’re doing all the spending. Unfortunately, it’s equally easy to overreact to that misperception. A 2013 Credit Karma survey found that one out of 10 respondents classified their spouse or live-in partner as a financial bully, engaging in red-flag behavior such as causing a spouse to feel guilty over their shopping habits, attempting to limit their spending, or imposing an allowance.

Leaving the workforce can make it more difficult to defend against a financial bully. The independence that comes with making their own money is gone. But moreover, they might feel vulnerable about their self image. Jobs are a major part of how adults define themselves. As such, leaving the workforce can make us question who we are.

“People experience a real disruption in identity,” Clayman said. “Instead of going to an office, now you’re home or you’re at Mommy and Me. You are not following the rhythm of a quarterly production cycle, or those things that you used to structure your day, week or year around.”

Clayman said single income families need to create financial agreements that are inclusive for both partners While the spouse who makes the money may believe they should rightfully control the money, it’s critical to realize that the other partner is an equal stakeholder in the relationship.

“No matter how the money comes into the family or who gets most anxious about it, neither one has more decision-making power than the other one,” Clayman said.

For Oklahoma stay-at-home mom of four Stephanie, single-income financial success lies in budgeting and communication.

“While my husband is the sole breadwinner, I’m responsible for making sure all the bills are paid and keeping our finances in order,” Stephanie said. “At the end of every month we sit down together to go over that particular month’s bills and set our budget for the next month. We generally only need to budget our extra spending money, especially now since we are saving to buy our first home.”

Stephanie’s system lets her share economic responsibility with her husband while also fostering transparency about finances. While they’ve had some minor fights over spending, they both know where their money goes and are comfortable talking about finances. All of which, Clayman said, is a sign of healthy relationship.

“Money is one of the last frontiers for true intimacy between partners,” Clayman said. “That’s because we misunderstand the emotion there, so we overlook it.”