Monday, July 7, 2014

Balancing the Budget: Financial Fairness in Open Relationships

Dear Viny,

I am the sole breadwinner for my family of four. My job supports me, my wife, and our two daughters, both of whom are in college. Between debts, mortgages, car payments, school tuition, mobile phone contracts, and all our other household and life expenses, most months we just manage to break even financially. My wife is a homemaker, and doesn't bring in any income, but does the general household maintenance for us.

We are in a plural/poly relationship, and I have another partner who I am committed to, and see quite often. Recently, my wife has begun exploring the world of online dating -- and she's been getting quite a bit of attention. She spends a lot of time texting and talking on the phone with new acquaintances, and is actively dating some of them. She has even taken a few flights to meet people she has met online, but who are not local.

Here's what is bugging me: even though I have always seen the money I make as "our" money, I now am conscious of the fact that so much of her time -- and MY money (Ha! Do you smell a ratty double standard?) -- are being invested in her outside relationships. I haven't addressed this with her because, after all, I can't pretend that my other relationship has been without its time and financial costs as well. Nevertheless, I'm feeling a bit used! Please advise.

-Bill Foot


Dear Bill,

Anecdotal evidence, which has since been confirmed by painstaking research (um... okay, a 5-minute perusal of Google results for “what do couples fight about most often?”), suggests that SEX and MONEY are waaay up there when it comes to the topics most likely to cause conflict in a marriage. Combine the two, throw in some jealousy, mix unevenly, and you've got yourself a recipe for one seriously craptastic casserole.

Let's start with the blandly obvious, shall we? I assume it's already occurred to you that you'd be feeling less financially pinched, and less put-upon, if your wife were to get a paying job. Running the household may have been a full-time job when your kids were younger, but now that your daughters are in college, your wife might consider turning some of her newly freed-up time into money. I suspect, however, that this simple solution is unworkable for some reason, or you wouldn't be asking me for advice.

So, here are three experiments you can try – and please note that not one of them requires you or your wife to make any more money than you currently do!

Experiment #1. How about a trial separation of (some of) your joint finances? My husband and I came up with this experiment about ten years ago, and it was such a success that we've managed our money this way ever since. Here's how it works. Regardless of who makes what, you and your wife have a certain amount of money coming in each month. Figure out how much money remains after you've met all your fixed expenses (e.g., house payment, car payment, utility bills, the monthly amount you have to set aside for your annual property taxes, etc.). Then itemize every other type of expense that you both agree is a necessity (e.g., groceries), budget a reasonable amount for those items/activities, and subtract that. Any remaining money gets divided up evenly between the two of you. That way, you each have an agreed-upon amount to spend on purely personal choices: dates with other people, luxurious morning lattes, that new set of matching towels your spouse thinks is an extravagance as long as the old threadbare ones can still absorb water, etc. If you and your wife can both keep track of your personal spending on paper, great. If not, an envelope full of cash disbursed at the beginning of the month will also work. It may seem like you're making a completely semantic distinction by dividing your total household income into “ours together” and “ours, separately, split equally among individuals” but I highly recommend this method of balancing the marital budget for open couples (and triads, quads, etc.) who choose to pool their financial resources. It circumvents a lot of potential squabbles and resentments.

Experiment #2. This one is trickier, but basically, you're going to do the same thing with time that you did with money in the first experiment. Together, you and your wife have 48 hours in a day, 336 hours in a week, and about 1460 hours in a typical month. Figure out how many hours each of you spends sleeping, on average, and subtract that. Then subtract the time you spend at your job, and the time your wife spends on general household maintenance. Then itemize every other task that you both agree must be done in order for the household to run smoothly, figure out how much time each of these tasks takes, and subtract that. At the end of all this accounting, the number you'll be left with is the number of hours you have for discretionary activities. Divide those hours equally between you. Then, for an entire month, keep track of how you ACTUALLY spend your time by jotting down everything you did, and how long it took, at the end of every day. (Yes, the accounting is a pain, but you're gathering important information.) Over the course of the month, the challenge will be for each of you to spend as much of your personal “free” time as you can without going over budget. At the end of the month, share your tallies, reflect on what got done and what didn't, and see what you can learn. If it turns out that there are serious inequities, it will be easier to address them once you have concrete data.

Experiment #3. Guesstimate the amount of time and money your wife currently spends on her dating life, and answer the following question for yourself: If your wife were investing the same amount of time and money on some other purely personal pursuit – plein air painting, say, or running marathons – would you still be feeling used? If your answer is “no,” or even “not as much,” then I think you need to take a good look at why not.

I have a hunch that when you say you are feeling “used,” what you really mean is that you are feeling afraid. Back when there were no other applicants for your job as breadwinner, you may have occasionally wondered whether your wife values you principally for the financial support you've been able to provide her, but it was probably just a niggling, gnawing little fear. Now that she's begun dating, this fear is gnashing at you, roaring, red in tooth and claw. After all, if she only cares about your money, she will probably leave you if she ever finds a better deal. And if she does end up exchanging you for a guy (or gal) with a fatter wallet, you are going to feel like the biggest chump in the world for actively bankrolling your wife's search for the chump she finds to replace you.

Insecurities that are common enough in monogamous relationships tend to get magnified in openly non-monogamous relationships. According to some, that's a pretty compelling argument in favor of monogamy. I disagree. I think the magnifying lens of sexual jealousy gives us an opportunity to recognize our insecurities for what they really are, and deal with them accordingly. And I think it also shows us what's been hiding under the toasted breadcrumbs and melted cheese of popular discourse, feeding our fears.

The other day, one of my less-enlightened Facebook friends posted the following quote: “A successful man is one who earns more money than his wife can spend. A successful woman is one who can find such a man.” This particular gem can be traced back to Lana Turner, a Hollywood star from the 50's who was married eight times, to seven different men. Bracketing everything I find deeply irritating about it [sexism! gender stereotyping! heteronormativity! OMFG, can we just stop already?!], I think Turner's witticism points to a cultural norm that's still operative in many traditional male-female marriages: men are encouraged to gauge their self-worth according to how much money they make; women are encouraged to gauge their self-worth according to how much money someone else is willing to spend on them.

The point I'm trying to make here is that you and your wife, along with just about everyone else wandering around on this tiny white'n'blue marble we call home, want desperately to be valued. The problem is, we have all kinds of crazy ideas about what makes us valuable: sketchy, way-past-the-expiration-date notions about sex, money, and the putative differences between men and women. (Fucked-up shit, in other words. The main ingredient in every nasty casserole.) No wonder we treat each other like commodities! No wonder we act as though there's a price on our heads! No wonder so many of us waste obscene amounts of time and money trying to find out exactly what that price tag says – looking in every mirror, scrutinizing every selfie, asking everyone we meet the same monotonous question, over and over: “How much am I worth to you?”

Unfortunately, I don't have a magic pepper grinder (one twist of my wrist makes your mess taste great!), but I do have this refreshing truth to offer you: Everyone – male, female, intersex, genderqueer, and gender-neutral – is intrinsically, immeasurably valuable. You don't need to prove your worth, Bill. You're priceless.

Shillings and Sunshine,

1 comment:

  1. Goof advice for everyone, not just poly folk. Buying someone a present out of a shared bank account always feels silly, even dishonest--why are you spending money on something I'd never spend it on? These techniques solve that. And, of course, they also solve the "why did you spend $200 on her dinner and order me takeout pizza?" problem.