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Shopping When Your Partner Works and You Don’t

Dropping out of the workforce and spending someone else’s income is rarely as fun as it sounds.

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When Laura*, a 45-year-old mom of two in California, takes her kids to drop off, mothers in yoga pants and Uggs note her sparkly earrings and elegant clothes. “Must be nice to send your husband to work and go shopping all day,” some have said to her face.

“People assume I am the spender of the family and that my husband earns a lot more than he actually does,” Laura, who gave up a salary of $100,000 a year to stay home with her firstborn, explains. Her looks are deceiving — the clothes a relic of her former life as an attorney and the earrings zirconium. “I’m extremely frugal and buy only what we need. I prepare home-cooked meals and we seldom buy coffee at coffee shops, or go to the movies.” But that doesn’t stop the comments. Laura says, “Being a stay-at-home mom is a privilege but also a unpleasant stereotype to live with.”

I think it’s only natural to look at someone whose life seems more comfortable than yours and assume it’s also easier. I’m old friends with a stay-at-home mom of three. She and her husband, who works for an insurance brokerage, live in a large house that they’re remodeling, have two cars, and employ a live-in au pair. I have more than I need but I sometimes covet the diamond jewelry her husband has given her, the gorgeous Chloe bag she once brought to lunch. I then envision that those things are her life: shopping and having nice things. But I know better, especially after taking the time to ask several stay-at-home parents about the state of personal shopping in their one-income family.

It turns out that spending your partner’s money can be as awkward, tedious, and fraught as spending your own money. In addition to other people’s assumptions, there’s the internal conflict to deal with. Helen*, a 42-year-old mother of two who lives in Switzerland (where her engineer husband grew up), says she’s still adjusting to spending money that her partner earns. “I lived alone for a long time, managed money in a certain way, and paid my own bills. Opening up those processes to someone else was difficult,” she says. “I didn't like him paying my debts. Giving up that control was hard.” This translated into a sense of self-inflicted guilt any time she spent money on herself, even on small purchases like a T-shirt or a bottle of nail polish, “since I was not contributing to the bank balance in a tangible way. Every time I think of spending money on me, just for me, I feel guilty that I'm taking money away from the family.” Earlier in their marriage, whenever she needed to request that he transfer money to her account, she recalls with a cringe, “I felt childish and, perhaps — I'm ashamed to say now — undeserving.”

Helen’s husband never did anything to make her feel that way, which can’t be said about all one-earner families. Plenty of partners pass judgment on their wives’ spending or even give wives an allowance, like they’re children. This type of control, says Laurel Steinberg, PhD, a New York-based couples therapist and professor of psychology at Columbia University, “can create a parent/child dynamic within the relationship. While it’s fine for the parent to tell the child what to do, no one wants to think of her husband as the father. It’s a pretty unsexy idea.” Not just unsexy: Extreme control of finances is a form of spousal abuse, and if this sounds familiar to you, be sure to know the signs of financial abuse.

However, most of the SAHPs I spoke with feel that their financial relationships with their spouses are fairly healthy, although it takes some growing pains to sketch out rough guidelines. Most SAHPs have an unspoken ceiling where they give their partners a heads up (instead of asking for permission). Caroline*, a former saleswoman and Playboy model who is the mom of one, will treat herself to the occasional Chanel or Hermes bag that costs up to $2,500, “but if it’s over $5,000, I’ll ask for it as a present.”

Most other SAHPs I spoke with who don’t earn their own income are less inclined to spend a lot of money on clothes or accessories for themselves, but do feel more comfortable treating themselves when it comes to hobbies or personal wellness or special social experiences.

Bill Casserly, a stay-at-home dad of four in Chicago who is married to a financial adviser, saves up every year for a men’s leadership conference as well as for a guys’ trip to see the Bears out of town. “With airfare, hotel, and tickets, it’s about a $1,500 trip: I give my wife about a six-month heads up on that,” he says. “If I don’t spend it, I just put it toward the next year’s trip.”

“I invest in good running shoes and enter a few annual races each year,” says Helen. “In the beginning I ‘asked’ for a lot of these things, but now [investing in] my passions and their expenses is just accepted.”

In many one-earner couples, the working spouses actually urge their partners to live larger. “I tend to be the frugal one in the family,” says Casserly. “We go to weddings and showers, she wants to spend [a lot], I think that's too much.”

“My husband has encouraged me to spend more on myself,” says Laura, for whom some recent purchases have included Mephisto shoes and a few summer tops from Target. However, the guilt is still there. “I am always thinking of the cost of the kids’ college education and mortgage payments.”

Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

To avoid this guilt, Steinberg encourages both members of the couples she sees to set up a PFB, or personal fun budget, to be used however they like “without criticism from the partner.” A month’s PFB, if not used, can be rolled over for a bigger purchase, but a person may not borrow from a future PFB for the present. In addition to being good for marriages, Steinberg says, “It helps people practice a money-sensitive mindset and model good behavior for children.”

Parents who leave the workforce are mindful of the financial examples they set for their kids. Caroline hopes her daughter learns that nothing comes for free. “You can have that purse or that ring, but save your allowance for half of it. And I may have nice things like a $5,000 purse, but I take really good care of it.” She worries about the lessons her spouse, a trader, passes along. “My husband got a Rolex for his graduation and he lost it and was fine with it. That would eat me alive.”

“I hope my kids learn that it's important to have a trusting, transparent, and compatible financial relationship [if they’re in a] long-term relationship,” says Anne*, a New England mom of three and wife of a techie. She thinks too many young couples skip explicit financial discussions before merging their lives because it’s not terribly fun. She also hopes her kids realize the value of her unpaid work. “One thing I credit my husband with is that he does not discount the unpaid labor I perform for our family and our home, and how it impacts not only our social and emotional environment, but that it does have a financial and logistical value even if it's not easy to put numbers to it.”

Unsurprisingly, the shopping habits of SAHP’s parents made their own impact. Laura’s mother, who was divorced when the kids were young, flaunted her own money in front of her children, buying herself haute couture clothing and sometimes going three weeks without repeating an outfit, while the children wore the same clothes for three days straight. Laura remembers vividly how she would buy herself a chocolate bar and eat it in front of her and her siblings without sharing. As “queen of the house,” it was her privilege alone. Looking back, Laura realizes that shopping her emotionally neglected mother’s one way of caring for herself. “She specifically told us that she never wanted to spend money on us because she resented us for being born. I have never resented her for her shopping habits,” Laura explains, but knew it was not something “felt inclined to emulate.”

Lots of spending can be a sign of that something is missing. Caroline, whose husband is a bond trader, admits that sometimes when she finds herself clicking around on Amazon, “It’s just me being a lonely homemaker. I think I shop more for myself now than when I worked.”

Steinberg says that while wish lists evolve, both kids and adults react the same way to new toys. “There’s always the desire for the next next thing. ‘I have to have that, and then I’ll be happy.’ That’s now how the brain works — it adjusts to its new spot and says ‘I’m not happy again.’”

Couples therapist Kimberly Hershenson has Manhattan clients who stay on a spending treadmill. One stay-at-home mom, she says, “mentions all the time that she feels like she has to keep up with the Joneses, to have the latest bag and pair of shoes,” not to mention facials and Botox and gym memberships. “‘I gotta look absolutely perfect to keep him interested in me,’” Kimberly says, explaining, “They have a nanny.”

Here’s what you probably secretly want to hear about the mega-rich one-income couples: “People that I work with [in this scenario] are not happy,” says Hershenson. “You would think, ‘I can stay home all day and relax and get massages.’ But they’re incredibly lonely and feel like they’re not really giving back to the world. Their day is very monotonous.” In the case of one particular couple she works with, Hershenson says, “The wife thinks of it as Groundhog Day” while her husband monitors and passes judgment on what she buys and what she does with her time while he’s gone. “His philosophy is, ‘This is my money, and I’m supporting you,’ rather than this is our money to use as a family. I’m teaching him to accept that. What she’s doing is for the family.”

In cases like that, Hershenson advises stay-at-home partners to maintain separate accounts for guilt-free spending, but even more important, “Have a schedule for yourself so you’re not getting bored.” Even if your kids are tiny (or you have no kids), it’s still important to keep an eye on the big picture. With her wealthy Manhattan stay-at-home mom, says Hershenson, “We’ve tried to work through what the wife’s goals are: Where do you see your life going? What’s important to you in life? What do you value?”

Photo: Maria Teijeiro/Getty Images

Salt Lake City marriage therapist Jordan Johnson, LMFT, advises SAHPs to “pay yourself” — tally up how much you would spend on childcare and housecleaning and meals out and actually receive money “for the work you’re doing, taking care of the house, being a support to your partner, be able to recognize the contributions you are making.“ This doesn’t just even out the relationship, it also helps assuage any self-esteem issues where the SAHP may feel about not getting a paycheck and benefits.

Helen has advice for other SAHPs on relieving guilt for treating themselves — even when it’s affordable and provides some deserved enjoyment. “Make the effort, daily, hourly if you have to, to remind yourself that you are making a contribution to family.” She suggests that when guilt or conflict sets in, imagine talking to yourself as if you were your own best friend. “Letting go of guilt takes time and effort.”

Meanwhile, those of us who do work for a paycheck need to remember the truth in the old grass-is-greener cliché, and cease making assumptions about others’ lives. Before working on this piece I asked my friend, the one with the Chloe bag and the Jennifer Meyer jewelry, what she thought I should ask other SAHPs. She was the one who suggested that I ask women what their parental example was like growing up. “I had a really hard time quitting my job because what I saw growing up was a mom who made half the money and carried the insurance,” she explains. “I didn't like the idea of being financially dependent on [my husband.]” I had never thought of it that way. I don’t think many of us do.

*Names have been changed

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