Why women see their salaries as their 'family's money'


Lauren Smelcher Sams


For as long as I can remember, I have erred on the side of being thrifty. Family legend has it that I once passed on a Happy Meal because I figured out it would be cheaper to buy the items I wanted separately. (I was seven) I started working at 14 and have always been proud of earning my own money and using it wisely. But last December, I began a year of maternity leave. And if I was frugal before, now I have officially entered the age of austerity.

It’s not just a matter of putting a fiscal block on my own spending, either. I have also stopped buying my baby new clothes, toys and books because, I rationalise, she doesn’t need them, right? She has plenty. When I do the grocery shopping, I scan the fruits and vegetables on the specials table first and no-name brands have become my favourite labels.

So why do I feel this way? Lately, it dawned on me that this is more than just thrift. As much as it pains me to admit it, ever since I have ‘stopped working’, I have started to act like my husband has more of a claim to our money.

Worryingly, a new study shows I am not alone.  Qualitative research, conducted by RMIT and released on Tuesday as part of the MoneySmart Week, found that “women tend to see their money as the ‘family’s money’ and see a man’s money as his own.”

This attitude plays out on several levels. First, while I don’t begrudge my husband his purchases (nor, I must add, does he begrudge mine, when I make them), I tend to feel guilty about my own and have started to think twice about all of my spending decisions – whether it’s a cup of coffee or an expensive pair of jeans –  in a way I wouldn’t have pre-baby.

And despite the fact that I have been financially independent through my adult life, I realised that I have internalised some pretty archaic views about gender and money – which is unsettling to acknowledge.

Indeed, the finding holds a mirror to the gap that still exists between the actual and perceived value when it comes to full time parenting.

Perhaps if we were able to truly see raising children as equal to salaried work, my attitude – and that of so many other women, it appears – would be different. I wouldn’t feel guilty about buying a second cup of coffee because I could say to myself, “You are working just as hard as your husband. If you want a cup of coffee, buy a bloody cup of coffee.” But in this regard, we still have a long way to go.

Marilyn Waring, a New Zealand-based political economist, pioneered research into women’s unpaid contributions to the home in her 1988 book Counting for Nothing, and 25 years later, little has changed. Back then, Waring noted that we should value work done at home just as much as work done in offices. If you’re not counted as a worker – and many women, who choose to stay at home to raise children, are not – then you’re not included in the “distribution of benefits”, she said. 

While Waring was talking about infrastructure changes to help women at home (among other things),  her point is equally valid here: if we do not even value our own work in the home by allowing ourselves the same financial freedoms as men, how can we expect them to see us as equal financial partners?

I know that I work hard, and that caring for my baby is an important job – possibly the most important one I’ll ever have. I’m proud of caring for her and I love doing it. It’s not that I value the work any less than my actual desk job – it is, quite uncomfortably, that I value myself less for it. I believe rationally that I have just as much right to spend our money as my husband does, but turns out my actions haven’t been aligned with that belief. I need to work on that, and apparently – so do lots of other Australian women.