Finances: a sticky point in our marriage

August 18th, 2020 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 4 comments

I love your program and rarely miss a podcast.  We have a bit of a conundrum in our marriage and would like to avoid pitfalls and are wondering what you recommend.

I’ve (Jennifer) worked in the business world for many years now and have worked my way up to management positions.  Years ago, I read your book Thou Shall Prosper and it has really helped me to keep my career on track.  I started out working from home when our children were small so that I could take care of them and so we could afford to buy groceries.

My husband is in law enforcement, a career that notoriously doesn’t pay very well.  He does well for where we live, but as the second-in-command of his office, he is at the top of what he can possibly earn, especially in this current political climate where departments are making cutbacks and now his department’s pay has been cut even more by our commissioners.  He’s got 4 more years until retirement and would like to stick it out that long so that he doesn’t lose his pension, which by law, 10% of his earnings go into.  He’s worked his way up to an administrative position and that has been a very welcome change for our family as far as his work schedule is concerned.  We both work full time and we homeschool (we have one child left at home), so him being more available has been a tremendous help.

Our conundrum is that I now out-earn him by a considerable amount. I have always handled the family finances, so it’s not something that he regularly worries about as this is not the “department” he deals with on a regular basis, however, when we do discuss finances, it’s clearly difficult for him to be in such a position.  It’s okay as long as it’s not really discussed.

How can we best keep this issue from becoming a problem?  We don’t have high expenses…we don’t have any debt besides our home and we live within our means.  We are finally at a place where buying groceries, having a vehicle in good running order, and buying fuel to get to work are not a concern.  We do live in a low-wage/high-cost-of-living area of the country.  My additional earnings have really lifted the financial burden for our family and now we make ends meet much more easily.   

Additionally, as a second career, my husband plans on earning his helicopter pilot’s license in his spare time over the next few years prior to retirement from law enforcement, an expensive venture. This will provide him with another career and far less stress once he leaves law enforcement.  My income will make the necessary education possible while he pursues this.  Getting this license and his first responder and search and rescue training will enable him to continue to provide a valuable service to the community in a different capacity.

Anyway, how shall we best handle this?  Avoiding discussing finances isn’t a good option.  It doesn’t seem reasonable for me to quit and go to a lower paying job when I’d be investing the same amount of time away from my family.  After I got my last raise, I dreaded going home and telling him about it…in fact, it took me several weeks to mention it because I don’t want him to feel insufficient.  I don’t bring my earnings to light, but he does.  I feel like my contribution is no greater than his…we’re both just working to take care of our family.  How do we avoid this becoming a serious issue?

Blessings,

Jennifer F.

Dear Jennifer,

Double congratulations to you; first for writing so lucidly on a sensitive topic and second for being so competent at your business that you have merited promotions and raises.  And, no, you absolutely should not even think about quitting your work and taking a lower-paying job or doing something way below your level of performance. Let us also tell you at the outset of what will necessarily be a bit of a gloomy letter, that we have reasons for believing that you are going to succeed in making your marriage continue to work well and perhaps even improve it.

But the problem you raise is a very real one. Unlike for women’s sense of femininity, a  man’s sense of masculine identity is closely tied to his earning. It is not tied just to an objective figure but it is comparative. In other words, how is he earning compared to others?  When he compares his earnings to other men, the resulting spur to ambition is usually quite healthy.  When he compares his earnings to his wife’s we have an entirely different and less positive dynamic.  What is more, a marriage suffers significantly higher stress when the wife out-earns the husband and the likelihood of divorce rises meteorically. We are very familiar with the literature on this subject, such as the three-year-old study done by Organization Science and widely discussed at Harvard. Seven years earlier, Forbes magazine picked up on the business implications of the work done by the Journal of Family Issues relating divorce to higher-earning wives. Recently, the American Economic Association probed the Stockholm University study trying to understand why marriages are imperiled when the wife wins raises and promotions but not when the husband does.

Nonetheless, we emphasize that our own knowledge and understanding of this matter comes not from countless studies but chiefly from Scripture and ancient Jewish wisdom. We smile reading the numerous articles and we note that though they have correctly identified the phenomenon, their varied prescriptions are way off. They range from, “Well, hubby just has to get more ‘woke’ and be happy that the ‘wage-gap’ is now on the other foot,” to, “Perhaps if he helps more with the laundry, the income difference will be less obvious.”  In other words, none of the studies with which we are familiar (and that is most of them) have the slightest idea of what to do about the problem.

And unfortunately, we’re not a whole lot better.  We feel a bit like the doctor whose sedentary and self-indulgent patient insists on living a lifestyle of gourmand gluttony, but complains when he puts on weight and demands that his doctor does something about it.  Society insists on creating tax and other incentives that lead to the end of traditional marriage and promotes ideas that compromise women by making them want to emulate men and emasculate men, yet citizens are shocked, yes shocked, to discover that their choices threaten the viability of marriage and imperil its durability.

It’s a mistake to believe that the passage of time will help people adapt to new enlightened ways of equality or that, “men must become more feminized” or, “women must become more assertive ” and then it will be fine as we all live happily ever after. No, long before that, our sick society will stagger its way to terminal decline while we struggle to cope with the consequences of collapsed families. Every attempt to revolutionize patterns of human life has failed.

As in most games, in the ‘game of life,’ it is better to know the rules than to shake a defiant fist at the umpire.  It is better to understand that the way God created us (or how unaided materialistic evolution evolved us if you prefer) most women will lose respect, sometimes even without being aware of it, for a man not pulling his financial weight.

We apologize if you feel we’re reading too much into your letter but we get to read, study, and scrutinize a whole heap of great letters like yours every month.  We note that your letter is remarkably devoid of any words of personal praise for your husband. Is he a great father? A warm and attentive husband?  A really good man?  We don’t know. Forgive us, we can’t help asking ourselves if perhaps you have started losing just a little respect for your man. After all, in a six hundred word letter, there’s nary a word of warmth or appreciation for the guy with whom you built a family.  Your letter really could have been written about a roommate and it would read much the same.

What is more, we didn’t read of pride in his occupation. If the two of you tremendously value dedicating oneself to promote the welfare of the community, as both law enforcement and rescue workers do, then the money might be secondary to the feeling that the two of you are dedicated to a joint ideal. Instead, and of course, we could be misreading, but this sounds like your husband’s career decisions are his alone.

We credit your wifely wisdom in first spotting the potential problem and for being so sensitive to it.  We’re sure it was hard and a bit sad, not to be able to jointly celebrate your last raise.  We wish it had been your husband writing to ask us about what you rightly describe as your conundrum. If he had, one of the first things we’d have recommended is that he decline your gracious willingness to underwrite the tuition at helicopter flight school out of your income.  Being fully aware of the slightly added cost of interest, we nonetheless would strongly recommend that he takes out a loan to be repaid entirely from his earnings as a SAR pilot.  Accredited flight schools may be eligible for federal low-interest student loans. If that doesn’t work, Sallie Mae (Student Loan Marketing Association) has been making loans to students enrolled in flight school. In any event, whatever it takes, we are sure this avenue would be an excellent investment in your marriage. This would encourage him to deal with the economic reality of his job choice.

But your husband hasn’t asked us and we are sure that it would be a very bad idea for you to be the one to suggest that he takes out a loan to prepare for his next career. (Remaining where he is until his pension vests is a good plan unless he unexpectedly receives another job offer paying twice what you earn.)  Jennifer, we sincerely hope that you have a very wise family friend, perhaps your pastor, or maybe an older relative whom your husband thinks well of. (Male, needless to say.)  If there is such a person, show him your letter and this, our response, and ask if he can approach your husband and make the loan suggestion in a compellingly persuasive way. Obviously, you would have to have complete trust in this person.

You ask “How shall we best handle this?”  The “we” part is a bit tough because seldom does a husband feel more alone than when he worries about money. In fact, we are sure that you are wrong when you say that the financial income disparity between you is, “not something that he regularly worries about.”  We are certain that he is constantly concerned about it.   However, there are some things you can do to help mitigate the reality you find yourselves in. It sounds as if your earnings are actually needed on a regular basis to help, “make ends meet much more easily.”  But apparently there would have been enough surplus also to cover helicopter flight school.  Typically, to get FAA commercially rated and gain enough flight hours, at least 200 hours on a rotary-wing aircraft, that is to say, a helicopter, can take an employed person, say, two years and cost maybe fifty thousand dollars. If flight instruction will be covered by a loan, close to that sum ought now to be available from your earnings for saving towards, or investment into, something you both care about. Sharing that joint project will be so much better for the marriage than for you to pay for your husband’s flight instruction.

What else can you do, Jennifer?  Of course, we don’t know you and we stand at a distance, but from our understanding of these marriages, of which we’ve seen more than a few, we’re going to go out on a limb here and guess that manifestations of physical affection are less than ideal in both quantity and quality.  That too is typically a casualty of what we call MIDS-marital income disparity syndrome. What makes it so problematic is that it causes the condition to cascade with each cycle of resentment and withdrawal feeding on the previous. As ancient Jewish wisdom puts it in Aramaic: “Dai lechacimah beremizah”–To the wise, just a hint is sufficient. Only you can mend this and the consequences of its repair will be wonderful and widespread.

We urge you to search your heart and find a group of women whose husbands uphold our communities through their work (military, police, firefighter wives etc.) and who take pride in that sacrifice. The families of these men often make sacrifices so that their husbands can serve and you are doing the same. You should feel pride in and respect for both you and your husband and that feeling should be conveyed to your children as well. We don’t suggest showing fake interest in what your husband faces, but we do encourage you to recognize his role in keeping society safe.

Finally, find opportunities to ask for his advice.  There will be those readers who bristle at the idea of a woman deliberately feeding her husband’s ego by asking for his advice. They are wrong.  All civilized interactions, whether personal, business or even diplomatic are lubricated by certain conventions.  We ask, “How are you?” not because we desire a detailed catalog of current diseases being endured but because we want the person to feel we care about them. A man might tell a woman, “I think you’re beautiful” and an ambassador might address the local despot by saying, “With all respect, your highness.” Like a woman seeking opportunities to elicit her husband’s advice, these are all effective conventions for smooth interactions.

These dear Jennifer are some of our recommendations for avoiding the pitfalls in your marriage.  We do feel confident that you will succeed in doing far more than merely avoiding the pitfalls. Because of our evaluation of the sort of woman you are, we anticipate you carefully putting into place each of the many golden bricks of marriage that will together knit themselves into an impregnable fortress of love, respect and tranquility.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Daniel & Susan Lapin

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4 comments

Jennifer says:

Oh my goodness…I feel like I’ve terribly mis-represented our marriage and owe you more explanation. I tend to be very factual so forgive me for not giving a better idea of the bigger picture; I didn’t mean to sound so cold… I highly encouraged my husband to become a law enforcement officer to fulfill that life-long dream (he wasn’t a cop when we were first married). I’m very involved with the families in our department and very, very much in support of his career choice. I’m am extremely proud of the work he does and we are part of a large and very pro-law-enforcement community amongst our friends, family, and church. I am also very much encouraging him to fulfill this dream of becoming a helicopter pilot, which will enable him to continue his service in a different capacity. Yes, it does require a lot of work on both our parts, but if that’s how I can support him, then I’m happy to do it. You’re correct — it isn’t cheap at all; it will absolutely be a stretch to afford this pilot school and we’re diligently working toward saving up for it but will have to take on debt to finance the rest. He will pursue the pilot’s license in his time off during these last few years while also working for the sheriff’s office so that we can afford to pay for it. Then, when it comes time to retire, he’ll move from his current work into that new line of work without a break; otherwise we probably couldn’t afford it.

And just so this doesn’t go without being said…my husband is absolutely a wonderful dad to our two kids! We are very proud to have our oldest son also going into community service as a new Marine, very much with his dad’s and my support! He’s a very loving father to our teenage daughter as well. He has raised our children with strong values and morals and a strong work ethic. I have the highest respect for my husband and that’s one of the reasons I work…I went back to work full-time (since I only worked part-time at home before that) at his request and the contribution really has helped financially. And to address the other issue you brought up…we have had “bedroom” issues in the past due to health issues that I’ve had, but addressing those medical problems has resolved those issues and things have been great in that area for quite some time (much longer than this wage issue has existed)…we’re quite active, I guess you could say. 😉

Thank you so much for your time and your response!

Sincerely,
Jennifer

Curtis and Leslie Hunter says:

We have been married for more than 31 years, and there were times when money (whose is it and thus who decides what to do with it) was an issue. We resolved those issues by accepting that our income belonged to us, and we chose how to disburse it for our shared goals. At times my income was higher, at time her income was higher, but we haven’t paid attention to that in decades.

To reiterate, we have a household income, and we have a budget based on our shared goals. Which individual brings in more money this year is irrelevant, as long as we are lifelong committed partners. The premise of his and her money went out the window long ago.

Pete Belford says:

IMHO opinion, and I speak from experience, that the husband need to get over himself a bit and understand that this marriage is a partnership. Her ability to earn what she does, is due to him being a wonderful husband and father. Something that society does not often put a high price on, but I am sure the wife does, and so does our heavenly father. If she were a single parent, or had a not so good husband it is unlikely her talents could shine so brightly.

Margret Thatcher had a husband. As one of the more powerful women in the world who lead with grace and dignity, he was not fuming in the corner, pouting because he was not more or as powerful.

Early in my marriage, my wife earned about 50% more than I. I had trouble getting over it but found that there were things I did well and things she did well. We instead focused on those thing and use the biblical principle of specialization to organize our lives. We have prospered, thankful to our provider, Rabbi Lapin, and other wise council and that has turned around a bit. I know earn about 20% more then my wife, but it really doesn’t matter. All we do is to continue to work together.

I would recommend him having a higher involvement in finances, going over net worth and budget on at least a monthly basis. Also to have yearly goal setting sessions with at least quarterly updates.

How many times I have heard about men (generally) want the wealthy beauty queens and when they get their hearts desire they cannot handle it. It gets stressful filled with envy. LOL! It seems like this lady is walking around egg shell. I am sorry!

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