Money and the making of the couple
As discussed in Chapter 4, almost all of couples had lived together before formalising their relationships, and some saw their entry into civil partnerships as signalling the ‘mature’ nature of the couple commitment.
Thus civil partnership could provide couples with the opportunity to review their financial affairs with a mind to ordering them in a ‘responsible’ manner. For the majority of our couples, meshing finances was something which was still a relatively new experience. Many had not settled on a preferred arrangement before their entry into civil partnerships, and several had not done so at the time of the interview. Because for many of the couples this was the first time that they had attempted legally to mesh their affairs, they were driven more by ideals, hopes and a desire to bond than by experience or caution. Almost none had gone through experiences of a legal separation from a previous long-term partner, and so they were not guarded about how they might manage their financial affairs in their current relationships (Burgoyne and Morison, 1997). Also, few seemed governed by strong principles about how money in couple relationships ‘should’ be organised. Expressly feminist concerns about the need to keep a degree of financial independence hardly surfaced at all in these narratives, and although some couples expressed the view that marriage should herald a specific form of money management and sharing, the majority seemed to adopt an entirely pragmatic approach. One of the small minority of couples who spoke of their civil partnership as signalling a particular financial arrangement was Annabel (124a), who felt it was wrong to have separate bank accounts:
I just, I don’t get it. If […] you’re married, especially if you’re married then […] you’re both earning for each other it’s not mine and yours, it’s together.
The theme of joint money (or ‘our’ money) was a common one, but it coexisted with a dizzying range of actual practices from a pooling system, where couples put everything into one joint account, to systems where there was a joint account with various separate accounts, and onto situations where there was no meshing of accounts at all but more an everyday virtual commitment to jointness combined with haphazard practices.
Entering into a civil partnership did seem to be a platform for combining aspects of couples’ finances, but it did not dictate precisely the form that this should take (Burgoyne et al., 2011). The most common arrangement was one where couples created a joint account to pay for utility bills, joint purchases and the rent or mortgage, while keeping separate accounts for personal spending and even for personal savings at times. This model appears to be becoming the most popular in the
UK (50 per cent of heterosexual couples use this; see Vogler and Pahl, 1994) and it does also seem to be an arrangement which is chosen by younger heterosexual couples (Vogler et al., 2006). This option is therefore not peculiar to same-sex couples but could be said to be an emergent norm for couple relationships of all sorts. That stated, a lot of couples did avoid financial jointness but not for purely principled reasons. What we discovered was that external circumstances rather than ‘choice’ often dictated the kind of arrangement couples entered into on marriage. The main external constraining factor for couples was debt.
Debt was a dominant framing reference for how our young couples regarded money, their relationship with it, and the practicalities of their financial arrangements. Because so many of the partner had accumulated debts (16 men and 20 women) prior to their civil partnership, it was this burden which tended to determine how they proceeded as a couple. But even where there were no actual debts (except mortgages) at the time of the interview, couples also framed debt as being the one thing which must be avoided. Talk of debt infused their narratives.
In some instances the debts had been incurred by ‘reckless’ spending on credit cards prior to finding a stable relationship (and we say more about this below), but in other cases debt came about through student loans (11 cases) and student living more generally. In instances where one person had all the debt, the other was reluctant to create a joint account because their income or savings would disappear into the black hole of the debt. In a few cases, individuals were advised strongly not to have a joint account and certainly not to have a joint credit card as the person with a good credit rating would lose their creditworthy status. Money management for these young couples was therefore shaped by the existence of prior debt in ways which, we suspect, would have been much more of a rarity for previous generations of couples:
I think partly, I mean due to the fact that I am in a good amount of debt and when we first met, I was in even more, because of that I’ve never really wanted to combine our finances just because that would mean that outgoings would, that I, I mean I don’t want him to be paying for my, for my debts at all so we’ve not ever combined finances in the way that [other couples do].
Debt is important to these relationships in another way because the existence of the financial burden, and in some cases just the memory of past debt, shaped how couples together would manage their finances on a day-to-day level. Put simply, the person who incurred the debt often gave up control of their financial affairs to the partner who had avoided debt. This tendency cut across issues of gender because the men who had debts were just as likely to relinquish control of their finances as the women. Equally, on the other side of the equation, women were just as likely as men to take control of their partners’ spending and saving practices where there had been debt. The existence of debt provides a very different lens through which to understand questions of equality in these relationships. For example, it might, at a superficial level, appear that ‘old’ gender roles re-assert themselves in these marriages because of the frequency with which one partner takes control over financial matters. However, putting debt and poor credit ratings into the equation creates a different picture, and points to the more complex and vital nature of power. These forms of ‘lost’ money have the potential to shift the operations of power (if we accept for the sake of argument that the person in control exercises more power) away from gender as a determining factor towards an appreciation that financial and loan systems created beyond the reach of couples can be highly deterministic. Put simply, the person carrying the debt into the relationship is in a weaker or potentially more vulnerable position when it comes to negotiating over money and how it should be managed.
However, this does raise the question of whether the debt carrier or the finance manager in the couple relationship has more power in their couple interactions. The situation is a complex one because the spectre of debt could be felt differently by different people. Relevant here, of course, was the level of resources a couple might have. However, it was not only the couples on low incomes who experienced debt. Among the men, Daniel (202a), Graham (204b), Cameron (213b), and Lucas (221a) and Todd (215b) were among the highest earners yet all experienced debt. Among the women, Juliet (107a), Caroline (112a), Fay (113a), Haliee (120b), Sara (121b) and Iris (122b) – who earned between £37,000 and £49,999 – all had debts. Acquiring or having debts was not related directly to social class position or income, but it seems likely that being able to resolve the problem of debt was experienced differently by low-earners, especially where the debt was caused by illness or unemployment.
It was clear that some of those who confessed eagerly to being, or wanting to be, in control of the money in their relationship were the ones who were most worried by debt and by the failure to pay bills and credit card charges. These were people who had been brought up to avoid debt at all costs or who, having experienced the terror of being in debt, were determined never to go back there. By contrast, some of those who relinquished control of financial matters could appear to be liberated by the arrangement. They were freed from the grind of consulting spreadsheets, checking receipts and moving money around to meet variable demands. As Stewart (205b) puts it:
I’ve got no head for figures at all which is quite funny with the type of job I do but I don’t; I don’t get involved in the finances, Jeremy takes care, takes care of the finances. […] I don’t really, I don’t really get involved with it at all, and there’s, I just don’t want to get involved with it, it you know, there’s not much left over at the end of the month so it makes me sort of angry because I really want, we want to buy more things for the house and spend more money on us, and going out for dinner more or doing things that will make us feel better but, you know it frustrates me a little bit sometimes. But that’s, I think that’s probably why I don’t even want to hear about the finances, I’ll just ask him, let’s go, can we afford this, can we afford that? And that’s about it, and that’s, that’s where it stops for me, I don’t want to hear anything about it anymore, I don’t want to get involved with him doing the finances or the paperwork at all, yeah.
Interestingly, in his interview, Stewart’s partner Jeremy (205a) said that if they were starting over again he would want to keep their finances separate. But this couple do demonstrate how hard it is to read off from actual arrangements to the nature of power relationships in same-sex couples. Pahl (1989) has argued in relation to heterosexual relationships that the control of money becomes a burden where there is very little of it to go round and where men can foist the responsibility of avoiding debt and keeping the household afloat onto women. However, this was not a discernible pattern among our couples. Jeremy and Stewart, for example, were both in full-time employment and Jeremy’s salary was equivalent to the average annual salary (around £28,000 p. a. for men in 2010; http://www. statistics. gov. uk/cci/nugget. asp? id=285) while Stewart earned slightly less than this. In other words, they were not poor and the burden that being in control of their joint finances generated for Jeremy was to do with the fact that Stewart absolved himself of all responsibility while wanting the pleasure of spending. This context reveals the importance of the meanings that individuals place on money and not just simply the quantity of money available. For example, we found very similar arrangements with the female couples, where one partner simply relinquished control over the finances and only wanted
to be told what she could spend. But we also found instances where this arrangement was defined as an unpleasant form of dependency rather than a release from responsibility. Jasmine (123a) and Phoebe (123b), for example, had just such an arrangement with Phoebe taking control of their finances. However, Jasmine (who was a postgraduate student at the time) fell seriously ill and could not contribute to the joint account for several months. Her parents helped out, but suddenly finding herself in the situation of being more dependent on Phoebe’s income was uncomfortable for her. Jasmine recounts:
Jasmine (123a): Yeah, it felt a bit, yeah, it did feel a bit, it was a bit
stressful for, I mean, both of us really, but for Phoebe in terms of the fact that all of a sudden her income was effectively halved. But I don’t think she cared, other than the fact that it made things a bit more difficult for us. But yeah, it did, it felt a bit weird for me, because, just because I wanted to be contributing and, yeah, I wanted to just say, ‘Oh, you know, it’s cold tonight, leave on the heating, it’s fine’. But I didn’t, sometimes I sort of thought, you know, ‘Oh, we should be saving money’, um, stuff like that.
Interviewer: And therefore you didn’t put the heating on?
Jasmine: Well [laughs], yeah. For as long as I could bear it, yeah.
So yeah, it’s kind of strange not contributing. […] And even now I don’t have, like I don’t contribute half and half really. Um, but I don’t feel so bad about that. I mean, I don’t really feel bad about that at all, because, um, because Phoebe earns more than me but that’s fine, because I’m, you know [studying].
Jasmine’s comments reveal that control and dependency are separate dimensions of financial arrangements between couples. It is important to note in this context that very few of the respondents were financially dependent upon their partners. As we have noted above, none of the men in the study had any parental responsibilities and there were only two instances (Jan [208a] and Diego [208b], and Benjamin [219a] and Leroy [219b]) where couples had huge differences of income levels (e. g. £25,000-£50,000). Typically if one was poor, both were poor. This latter point holds for the women too, but it is here that child-care responsibilities make an important difference. As noted, eight of the 25 female couples were raising children together necessitating reduced working hours for one (and sometimes both) mothers. Two women were, in addition, pregnant and anticipating a reduced income for at least a period of time. A further nine women had plans to adopt children or to get pregnant through donor insemination. This made these relationships quite different in character to the men’s relationships because either there had been a period of financial dependency or there was likely to be one. Moreover, a dependent child (or sometimes more than one) was part of the household and so financial management and spending regimes were influenced by this additional responsibility. We are not suggesting that motherhood necessarily creates financial dependency in women’s relationships, but it has the potential to do so where one parent is able to strengthen their position in employment while the other parent’s position weakens. This potential problem could, however, be overcome by decisions to alternate pregnancies, and it is clear that where feasible mothers had done this or were planning to do so. This is discussed in greater detail in Chapter 7; however, it should be noted here that none of the mothers suggested alternating motherhood for economic reasons even though the impact of such decisions would have financial consequences for the couple.