“And then there were the wife bonuses”

photo-335If one party in a relationship earns a paycheck, and the other doesn’t, how should financial decisions be made? When should either party need to consult the other, and when is that not necessary?

There are answers in the real world, and then there are answers, according to a recent essay in the New York Times, in the rarefied world of the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Anthropologist Wednesday Martin studied the women in her social world, largely “Glam SAHMs” married to men in lucrative lines of work. Amid the spinning classes and fundraising lunches, she explored the question of how resources are allocated, much like the distribution of “tubers and roots” among traditional tribes.

As you can imagine from that last line, this was a piece designed to get attention (for a forthcoming book, natch. Will Wednesday ever lunch again?) Even within the piece, though, the concept of “wife bonuses” was an eye-popper.

Martin noticed that toward the end of the year, some women were demurring on purchases. “I overheard someone who didn’t work say she would buy a table at an event once her bonus was set. A woman with a business degree but no job mentioned waiting for her ‘year-end’ to shop for clothing.”

She decided that women were being given a certain amount of capital each year to spend as they wished. The question was how that decision was being made.

I’ve been pondering this since reading the essay, and why at first my hackles were raised. While framed somewhat pejoratively (maybe Glam SAHMs have dark senses of humor) there’s nothing inherently problematic about a “wife bonus” if treated a certain way. Let’s say the breadwinner in our high-income family is expecting a $1 million bonus. About half goes to taxes in NYC. The couple devotes $400,000 to a family project: savings, perhaps, or renovating the house in the Hamptons. Then they each get $50,000 in walking around money to do with as they wish. She calls it a “wife bonus” but it’s really just her money in the way that a normal couple might agree that they don’t need to consult each other about purchases under $50, regardless of who earns what.

Martin insists, though, that “A wife bonus, I was told, might be … distributed on the basis of not only how well her husband’s fund had done but her own performance — how well she managed the home budget, whether the kids got into a ‘good’ school — the same way their husbands were rewarded at investment banks.” The idea of the breadwinner making this decision that his partner had performed well as a wife is a wee bit, um, Mad Men-esque. This is probably what made me squeamish.

But what if the negotiation came from the other direction? Access to capital is always a negotiation, and what if the non-breadwinning party started a discussion along these lines: “Hey, I’m working really hard here, managing our kids’ schedules and our complicated multi-house lives. I would like more money that is mine, that I don’t need to talk with you about.” Perhaps that’s a wife bonus, but it sounds less like a horrible anachronism.

If you are, or have been, in a breadwinner/homemaker relationship, how do your financial decisions get made? What steps are taken to make sure the homemaking party has his/her own money too?

If you like my blog, you might also like my next book, I Know How She Does It. Pre-order by June 2 and you can join my book club with perks including a signed book plate and access to two webinars around launch. Thanks for reading!

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