What, this old thing?

(or The Abrogation of Responsibility. Snappy, huh?) 


It’s Saturday night and you’re about to enjoy a night out with The Girls. Significant Other is schlepping around in another room waiting for you to be absent so that something dark and incomprehensible can be watched on TV. You calculate your dash down the stairs, the hop, skip and a jump across the hall to where your coat is waiting for you and the swift exit that will follow on the cheery note of “Don’t wait up!”. But, on this occasion, unfortunately, the time it takes you to do up those coat buttons has been just about long enough for an observant partner to clock how you look and comment on it.

“You look nice. That a new top?”

Changing room dilemmas

There is the briefest of nano seconds in which you entertain visions of your internal changing room dilemmas (It’s too much money. I love it. Are you sure it’s not in the sale? It will be perfect for Saturday night. I’ve already spent money on clothes this month. It’s cheaper than a whole outfit and will go with loads of other things. Sod it, I’m going to get it!); the conversation at the till (“No, don’t email the receipt, my husband will see it”); the ripped-off tags in the car (must remember to empty the ashtray); the hiding it under an old cardigan in the wardrobe (mustn’t forget it’s there!); the delay in getting dressed just now until he was out of the room…

But, in the end, there’s nothing for it, you’re going to have to answer:

“What, this old thing?”

Do you ever hide purchases from your partner?

I have been asking participants in my ‘Women save, men invest’ workshop if they ever hide purchases from their partners and I can report that (from an admittedly small sample to date) around half have answered that they do. Now, I am going to hold my hand up here and say that I am not one of those women. But I think the reasons why I don’t are the same as the reasons those who do, do. Confused? Let me explain.

When I went on maternity leave from my job in the City back in 2003, I had no intention of going back. The birth of our first daughter and a move out of London sealed that resolve and there began a period in my life when, for the first time ever, I was not ‘earning’. I’d like to say that I took a feminist stance at this point and demanded a salary for my services to home and children (estimates of the income you would need to pay someone to perform all the duties of a stay-at-home parent range from £10,000 a year to £150,000 – take your pick!). But what I actually did was to demand that I be the one who had control of our finances because I recognised that, without it, I would be as much of a nightmare to live with as a control freak without, well, control.

Everything from nappies to car services

So it was that my earning partner’s salary was paid into our joint account and an onward transaction for his personal expenses was set up from there. Everything from nappies to car services to holidays to my nights out – even birthday presents for my husband – came out of the joint account and I was the one in control of it. I may not have been earning, but I didn’t have to ask for anything.  And that felt important at a time in my life when so much else had been turned upside down.

I should really point out here that I didn’t meet a great deal of resistance from my husband. He has always taken the view that, as long as there is enough money for him not to worry about choosing the premium brand of orange juice in the supermarket because that’s the one he happens to like, then everything in the world is good. The duty of looking after the pennies so the pounds would look after themselves fell at my feet – along with everything else that didn’t belong under the banner of ‘earning the money’.

Creativity with the truth

And an interesting thing happened. Every now and then we would need to discuss the purchase of ‘big stuff’. A new car when the family expanded again. New furniture for the ever-changing bedrooms as the children got bigger. So far, so equitable. But then it came to new hi-fi for his…. hmmm, for his what? More finely tuned hearing? Increasing appreciation of musical sound quality? Who knows what it was for but I know that when it came to items that were very definitely on the ‘want-to-have’ rather than the ‘must-have’ list, I would discover at a later point that there had been some ‘creativity’ with the truth about their cost. In the same way as my willing workshop participants have owned up to hiding purchases from their partners, so I was having the wool pulled over my eyes (and sometimes ears) by my partner.

I recognise fully that this is a question of both control and responsibility – and that the two go hand in hand. My situation is probably not that common: historically, of course, the men – with their superior earning power – have more often been the ones to retain control of the money that they bring to the household. They have had a sense of responsibility to ‘provide’ for the family and, with that, has come the need to control what goes out.

Why have a dog and bark yourself?

Whilst you could argue that that has left the women without a sense of control – and perhaps feeling they have had to resort to subversive measures to have any kind of spending freedom – the reality is possibly less sinister than that. If someone is willing and able to take on a household job such as looking after the finances, the ‘spare’ partner will probably benefit from a loosening of responsibility in that area and so happily consider it a problem that doesn’t concern them. They hide their spending because it’s not their job to worry about whether or not they have overspent – it’s easier just to pretend it isn’t happening and let someone else deal with the consequences. Why have a dog and bark yourself?

I’m no good with money

After all, it can be boring worrying about money. I imagine lots of people (not just women) are only too willing to hand over the reins – especially when there are the pressures of a young family to care for. And, of course, money (or the lack of it) can lead to anxiety or lack of confidence – ‘I’m no good with money’ is an all-too familiar phrase amongst women. So sometimes it can be easier to bury our heads in the sand than face up to it all.

I think the way forward is to recognise that actually we should lean on each other a bit more. Admit to your partner that you are scared of your finances and ask for help understanding it so that you can shoulder more of the responsibility. Or, if you are the one in control, maybe ask for help with it all so that you don’t have to carry it on your own.

Sharing the responsibility for our lifetime finances

A young woman just starting out in the world recently told me she often reverts back to her Mum to ask whether she thinks a ‘large’ purchase is sensible. Similarly, retired clients might look to their financial adviser for ‘permission’ to spend their money. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this. In fact, if you ask me, sharing the responsibility for our lifetime finances with our partners or anyone willing to help can only be a positive. And surely, it’s a darn sight better than hiding new clothes at the back of the wardrobe only to be told the devastating news at the end of the month that, because of your profligate overspending, there now isn’t enough money in the account for that essential new item of stereo hardware…

24 October 2019