The fun part's over, kids.

How to Stop Money From Killing Your Marriage

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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I haven't taken a full count, but as far as I can estimate, we have nearly 90 rolls of Bounty paper towels in our basement. You could be forgiven for thinking that we were stocking up for an expected flood from a nearby orange juice factory, but the truth is more prosaic: two working spouses taking advantage of the convenience and thrift of Amazon's Subscribe and Save. For months, I have been dutifully taking paper towels out of their Amazon boxes, wondering why they seemed to come so frequently; for months, my husband has been tucking the excess neatly away on basement shelves, wondering why our household's Current Paper Towel Balance had continued to grow even after he canceled his subscription. The truth was only revealed when husband happened to be downstairs at the precise moment when the UPS man stopped by with our latest monthly deposit.

It's a perfect illustration of a major drawback of the modern egalitarian marriage: coordination failure. In a traditional household, paper towel acquisition was within the wifesphere. She monitored the stocks, arranged for any necessary purchases and put them away within a storage scheme of her own devising. No one had to discuss the distribution of responsibilities or quarrel about their execution. But egalitarian marriages split things up along the idiosyncratic preferences of each couple. That creates three problems that every couple must deal with: Negotiations, Overlaps and Gaps.

Let me make one thing clear: I am not writing a brief against egalitarian marriage. I am in one. Both of us work, often quite long hours. Both of us assume some household duties: I oversee the plant life (ineptly), buy groceries, cook, vacuum and clean out the roof gutters as necessary; my husband, who is much neater than I am, is in charge of storage, dishwashing, home electronics and the termination of any pests larger than an ant. Nor am I a Self-Hating Egalitarian; I think this is a splendid arrangement. But like everything else in life, it has drawbacks, and this one is worth noting.

Our initial problem was an Overlap. Storage was unquestionably my husband's area. But acquisition was ambiguous, because we didn't usually buy paper towels at the grocery store. So we both established orders. Hence: a surplus.

When my husband attempted to deal with the surplus, we fell into a Gap. I continued to purchase household supplies, which certainly could fall within my general jurisdiction over kitchen and grocery. But with me doing the buying and Peter neatly putting them away in a space where I wasn't confronted with our massive oversupply ... well, we now have enough paper towels to open a Bounty distributorship.

We could have reduced the overlap and the gap by drawing boundaries more firmly. But that would have put us into the most dread problem of egalitarian marriage: Negotiation.

Take the kitchen. I am in charge of kitchen equipment, cooking and organization. But my husband is in charge of dishwashing and storage. The result: We have a carefully thought-out scheme of What Goes Where that is completely intuitive -- to me. He doesn't know where the measuring spoons go, and half the time, I can't find them.

We could fix this by carefully mapping out a scheme that both of us find intuitive. Unfortunately, we don't have six weeks and a crack team of high-level diplomats to devote to the negotiations. Peter could also simply ask me where every single item goes every single time he does the dishes, but our yard is small and our basement is on a concrete slab, and I can't figure out where I'd put the grave. So what if I haven't seen my sifter in three months? It seems a small price to pay.

All this is very interesting, I hear you say, in a voice that implies it isn't interesting at all, but why are you telling me this?

Well, it's Friday, and on Fridays, I try to do a cooking or a personal-finance post. And chief among the challenges facing egalitarian marriages is the one they present to personal finances.

Traditional marriages seemed to have two main modes of managing money: Dad handed over his paycheck to Mom as soon as he got it, and she gave him an allowance for beer and cigarettes. Or money was a man's business, and Mother had an allowance for clothing and household operations but had to beg her husband for big purchases such as a washing machine.

I'm not saying that either of these systems was better; obviously, if I thought they were better, I'd be agitating for my household to use one of these methods. But they were simpler. They cut down on the losses, in time and money, that are created when you blow up the fixed boundaries.

Couples have created any number of alternative systems to try to get around these problems. All of them have drawbacks.

You can live like roommates, with each person contributing a share to the running of the household. This can really cut down on negotiation and overlap. But it creates even larger problems with gaps. I've talked to people who had this system degenerate into a toxic war over expenses, with each partner keeping track of who ate how much of the peanut butter and blood-curdling fights over whether one partner must pay if the other partner thinks they need to call a plumber about the slow drain.

This is especially fraught if one partner earns much more than the other. One of two things then seems to happen: One partner in the marriage has a much better standard of living than the other, which isn't really much like being married at all. Or you have to negotiate who pays what share of what, and how to handle it when the richer partner wants a better vacation, and gee, I thought this was going to keep us from having to argue over all that stuff?

Anecdotally, resentment from the lower-earning partner generally seems to be pretty high. It's also utterly impractical if you have children. As far as I can tell, the couples who stick with it without nasty tit-for-tat wars tend to be second marriages where there are adult stepchildren and complicated asset situations.

In general, my rule about marriage is this: In a good marriage, you cannot be happy if your partner is broke. Keeping your money may make sense if you are expecting to leave it to kids you have from another marriage, or if your spouse is one of those unfortunates who will spend any amount of money they get their hands on. But except in rare circumstances like these, it creates more problems in your marriage than it solves.

You can also pool some and keep some for yourself. This works pretty well for young newlyweds whose earnings are pretty equal (and small). But if they're unequal, you run into the same sort of problems outlined above: There you are, enjoying your new computer, and there's your partner, fretting over whether they should replace their dying phone or get the suit they need for their job interview. And while you have fewer gaps, you have more overlap between joint and personal expenses that has to be negotiated, as does the spending of the larger pool of joint money.

You can pool everything, with allowances. This works pretty well for couples whose joint expenses have begun to dominate their individual expenses: kids, home renovations, pets and so forth. It has big advantages: It forces you to define household goals and allows you to direct all the family money toward those goals. But you have to develop a detailed budget, track expenditures to make sure you're hitting it and negotiate basically everything the family spends.

Then there's "everyone spend what they want out of the joint account." This is the worst system, with the possible exception of "live like roommates." It is favored by DINKs who just realized that they're 42, overextended on the mortgage and have nothing saved for retirement. But right up to that point, you have a lot fewer fights about money.

The point of this article is not that you should go back to giving one partner almost complete control of the money. It's that a modern family needs modern financial controls: an explicit plan for handling money, good accounting, and a recognition that no matter what system you choose, you should expect to encounter gaps and overlaps -- and negotiations to prevent or resolve them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net