Op-ed: Allowances are for kids — not your spouse

Personal finance

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You don’t have to scroll far to find the #tradwives and #SAHGs (stay-at-home girlfriends) of social media who glamorize the extremes of domesticity, or the wives in Dubai who film their extravagant errands, such as picking up a Cartier bracelet and stopping for a facial on the way home.

At all ends of the wealth spectrum, there’s a common thread tying these women together: permission. Someone, usually a man, is giving it to them.

The term “allowance” should make you think of money a parent gives to a child. Yet, it arises in the financial arrangements of these partnerships, too. The allusion is right in our faces, infantilizing women by placing their freedom to spend under the thumb of their partner’s permission.

Most financial experts and professionals cringe at the concept, and it should come as no surprise that the topic has been covered far and wide.

But there’s also the fact that social media’s going to social media — so much is put on for show. The most extreme content often receives the most attention, leaving open the question of how real and commonplace “allowances” actually are among couples.

Do people really operate like this?

Until recently, we thought, no. But turns out, we were wrong.

While interviewing couples for our forthcoming book on love and money, a few have used that word. Typically, the dynamic involves a male partner who earns an income and a female who cares for their children at home.

Hearing it via Zoom during real conversations about real people’s money felt worse than the sensationalized snippets on TikTok. The sense of permission took on a broader meaning with dual negative implications: These women need permission from their partners to spend money, and they have permission to not engage around the important decisions in their financial lives as a couple.

It’s disappointing, for sure, but we think there’s something to salvage beneath the surface.

Why ‘allowance’ is a problematic term

Most people who adopt this antiquated terminology don’t really intend to create a disparate weight of power and control in their relationship — at least that’s what we’ve observed.

What they actually want is to feel safe knowing that guardrails exist.

They are not trying to remove anyone’s sense of agency. They just want to know their partner is not heading to Cartier for a bracelet and stopping for a facial on the way home (figuratively speaking, of course). However, they might also be a bit lazy for embracing the easiest word, one already familiar to them from their own lives and the lives we observe online. 

Just because it’s easy doesn’t make it right. There’s harm in “allowances,” which perpetuate gender-based stereotypes and widen the wealth gap and knowledge gap around personal finance.  

What’s worse, they diminish the work being done at home. We do a terrible job as a society of assigning value to a spouse’s nonmonetary contributions, and they are just as crucial to maintaining household stability as the income flowing in.

Not to mention, restricting funds for the person who likely purchases most of the household’s needs adds a whole other layer of strain when their partner has a different viewpoint of what’s considered a “want” versus a “need.” This is a setup for constant conflict and a relationship dynamic that’s just plain unfair.

There’s an element of trust at play, too. Creating one-sided restrictions around spending can easily lead to lies. The leading method of financial infidelity among couples, 30%, is spending more than your partner would be okay with, according to a Bankrate survey.

Set a ‘check-in number’ instead

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A better way to build trust while establishing reasonable guardrails around spending isn’t through permission, but through communication. Couples can set a check-in number, which is a dollar amount they are both comfortable with each other spending before discussing it together.

There’s no one right number. We’ve spoken to couples who’ve picked $100 and couples who’ve chosen $1,000 based on their personal circumstances and comfort levels.

Consider carefully what the number should be, though. Selecting a number that’s too high could risk running afoul of your budget, which would defeat the purpose. But choosing a number that’s too low could lessen your partner’s agency to spend, which might not reflect the reality of costs to effectively perform his or her responsibilities of everyday life.

For example, setting a check-in number at $50 when your spouse purchases all the home goods, school supplies and clothing for your growing children probably doesn’t make sense. She might even grow resentful if she feels her judgment carries no weight, which, based on the data, can clearly erode trust over time.

But most importantly, the check-in number should be the same for both partners, irrespective of who earns more income.

Our idea of contribution shouldn’t be affixed to a salary and shouldn’t dictate who has more financial freedom. We all contribute in our own ways, and every contribution matters. Your husband shouldn’t be able to buy $2,000 golf clubs while you’ve got to check in for a $110 pair of sneakers. These are inequities that metastasize. They don’t just go away.

Remember, setting a check-in number isn’t an “allowance” by another name. It’s an amount up to which you and your partner are free to spend without having a conversation every time. It replaces permission with communication. It builds a team playing by the same set of rules and fostering an environment of mutual respect.

— By Douglas and Heather Boneparth of The Joint Account, a money newsletter for couples. Douglas is a certified financial planner and the president of Bone Fide Wealth in New York City. Heather, an attorney, is the firm’s director of business and legal affairs. Douglas is also a member of the CNBC Financial Advisor Council.

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