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. 



39 comments so far

  • Actually I have always heard the opposite - that the man's money goes to paying the mortgage and the bills and the woman's money is her "pocket money" so to speak. I have never heard your version of the man getting to keep his own money to spend on himself.

    sooty kettle
    Date and time
    September 05, 2013, 9:01AM
    • I think this is true.......but then there was an article some time back saying how dangerous that approach is. Men who see their money as being the family money and leave women to use their own salaries as something a bit extra for themselves are the worst kind of men....apparently....according to someone on Daily Life.....which is the gospel to some.....

      Date and time
      September 05, 2013, 11:38AM
    • A whole income as 'pocket money'? Actually the stories about men and mortgages are true, it tends to be the man pays the mortgage and she pays for the .... all the rest of the stuff that makes life go around, like food, kids expenses, doctor's bills etc, that have no value after they've been used. Knew a couple like this once, they earned equally, they applied to their total costs equally, but when they split? Well, apparently he paid the mortgage.

      Date and time
      September 05, 2013, 11:46AM
    • Agreed everything I have read says women spend 70%+ of the disposable family income (money left after food, rent, bills etc.). I do not know how this research was conducted but it seems at odds with other research.

      Date and time
      September 05, 2013, 12:25PM
    • I haven't seen or heard of the wife's wage for the family but the opposite. Its usually the man's wage for the family and if he is lucky his wife will let him have a coffee or beer. I can't wait if things are going to turn around.

      Date and time
      September 05, 2013, 12:36PM
    • I too also thought it was the other way around! I thought the husband's money is the family money, and the wife's money is just extra - like icing on the cake. Or at least that's how we're making it work. But I can tell you I never feel guilty about a cup of coffee or anything. We both discuss expenses and a budget and as long as we're spending within the budget, what we chose to spend on is really not in issue.

      Date and time
      September 05, 2013, 1:37PM
    • This is really funny. Grew up in a family where Dad handed over the 'housekeeping' money, keeping for himself cigarette and beer money - serious smoker and serious drinker, too.

      She was then left to stretch the money to cover everything that needed to be bought.

      Date and time
      September 05, 2013, 1:45PM
    • Agree. I've never known of a married woman who didn't consider everything the man earned and all of his time to be 'ours' (ie hers to decide what to do with it).

      Date and time
      September 05, 2013, 1:48PM
    • @borngirl

      I grew up in an environment where women were given housekeeping money and they certainly didn't have access to the bank account. They scrimped for themselves if there was anything left after grocery shopping and paying the bills but hubby had a nice car, boat, shed filled with never used stuff, golf clubs etc.

      I'm curious about this his vs hers. If the husband is working fulltime and his wife has stopped paid work to look after the house and family then the mortgage and bills will likely be covered by him. Anything left over should be split evenly. If his wife starts working part-time, and this is what I've seen, it's often in lower paid work because it's easier to obtain, then his income still covers the mortgage and bills and he gets all what is leftover of his salary and she keeps what she earns. It's still a split of the discretionary income but it's just done differently. They just need to work out what the discretionary is and if she has more then she should contribute to the bills.

      If a couple are both working fulltime and similar amounts then I expect it to be 50/50 or thereabouts. Anything else would be unfair.

      Hunting Aliens
      Date and time
      September 05, 2013, 4:04PM
    • in my (real life) experience, my now ex-wife thought what was mine was 'ours' and what was hers was hers... so I tend not to agree with the premise of your article (while admitting it may be true for you)

      Date and time
      September 06, 2013, 3:26AM

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