Control Your Own Money

My decision to divorce was the most agonizing decision I have ever made. Yet I was fortunate because I did not have the added struggle of how I would support my children nor wonder if I would have to depend financially on my ex for years to come. Ironically, he depended financially on me for the next five years via child support and alimony payments. As my attorney in our divorce settlement process said, “Alimony is the ransom that the happy pay to the devil.” While it was annoying to pay alimony to a well-employed former spouse, it was weirdly gratifying to know that I had worked hard enough and had the means to be useful to him in that way. My attorney’s words were full of truth.

After the divorce began and I started taking control of my own finances, I quickly realized that we had almost zero savings apart from our respective retirement accounts, which were also underfunded. My stepmom—or bonus mom, as I like to call her—came to visit for a few days to help me get my finances in order in preparation for the divorce mediation. A former partner at Arthur Andersen, then one of the Big 5 accounting firms, she knew her stuff and was profoundly helpful to me in determining my new budget, making sure I was saving enough for retirement, and figuring out how I could put money away to pay for my elder son’s current college expenses and the expenses that would arise when my younger son embarked on his college career five years down the road. When we sat down in the kitchen to go over things, she turned to me and asked, “How much do you have in savings right now”? I was mortified to say we had $4,301.79 in savings. I had been making over six figures for nine years, and together we’d been making over $200K a year for the last four years, and yet we had almost nothing to show for it. It is not only important to earn your own money—but to control it as well.

Here I was reminded immediately that I had given up almost all control of my financial situation to my ex. He had insisted that, “You make the money. I will manage it.” Looking back, even then I knew that this was a foolish way to operate. I allowed this situation of unequal control of the finances to continue for several reasons. None of them were well thought out or rational. All of them were social, cultural, or emotional.

First, Southern Baptist doctrine teaches that the man is the “head of the household,” and especially in the early years of my first marriage, both my spouse and, to a more limited extent, I took that seriously. Thus, if there was a decision to be made and we disagreed on what that decision should be, as the “head of the household” my then-spouse would be the “tiebreaker.” It’s a good way to keep the peace and not have ongoing conflict, after all, or at least that was the thinking in the faith of my youth. Years later, I realized that taking on that gendered mindset put me in a spot of vulnerability on several levels, including in my career, our parenting approaches, and even where we decided to live.

Second, the broad thinking in American culture is that women are terrible with money. Our husbands make it and then we spend it, or so the thinking goes. It is uncomfortable to admit this now, but with the strong gender hierarchy in which I was raised, I think I bought into some of that. In doing so, I probably also abdicated control because perhaps that also absolved me of responsibility if our financial situation went south. I find those thoughts ridiculous now, but they did not seem ridiculous at the time.

What I learned through that scary and embarrassing process is that there is little more exhilarating than knowing you can take care of your children, provide them with what they need, and sometimes be able to give them a few things they want. The peace, calm, and freedom that come from that are quite possibly unparalleled.

A Slippery Slope to Economic Abuse 

For some who find themselves lacking access to and control of their own money, this may stem from a male partner’s engagement in economic abuse, which is another form of intimate partner violence (i.e., domestic violence). Economic abuse “involves behaviors that control a woman’s ability to acquire, use and maintain economic resources, thus threatening her economic security and potential for self-sufficiency.” Economic abuse involves behaviors aimed at controlling what the other partner can and cannot do, and comes in three forms: economic control (when a partner monitors and tries to interfere with your ability to use financial or other resources in your life), employment/education sabotage (when your partner attempts to keep you from earning an income or accessing resources through employment or education), and economic exploitation (when a partner commits acts of fraud or other behavior that incurs debt on your behalf, depletes funds to undermine your financial stability, or engages in acts that ruin your credit).

Economic abuse and other forms of intimate partner violence often go hand in hand. For instance, economic abuse correlates highly with psychological and physical abuse. The correlation between sexual abuse and economic abuse is moderately high as well. Further, male partners who are abusive often use multiple types of violence—and keep in mind that economic abuse is a form of intimate partner violence—to try to control their partner. 

Thus, where there is smoke, there is probably fire. There is a cycle at play. Economic abuse creates economic dependency on the abuser and thus makes the target of the abuse more likely to be targeted with additional or more egregious abuse. What’s more, research consistently finds that economic dependence is often the primary obstacle standing in the way of an individual leaving an abusive or dysfunctional relationship.

Let me be clear: just because someone doesn’t have much say or influence over the finances in their romantic relationship does not necessarily mean they are experiencing economic abuse. Economic abuse requires an element of coercive control. Gender role expectations and stereotypes about women’s inability to manage (i.e., not spend) money are deeply ingrained in Western society. We fall into patterns of operating and subconsciously succumb to strict gender roles to make our partner happier or more secure. Or we give up influence over the financial decision-making in our relationship because we are exhausted from work and family demands and because our partner is willing and/or eager to take on that control or management. Or we unconsciously buy into the “women aren’t good at managing money” bullshit. These situations may not be economic abuse, but that does not make them wise or healthy.

A Few Tips To Controlling The Money You Make

  1. Develop financial literacy and an understanding of financial management. One suggestion for easy reading and a step-by-step process to getting started is the book I Will Make You Rich by Ramit Sethi. While the title is meant to grab your attention, the book has a dozen or more effective and relatively easy ways to gain control of your finances (including your spending and saving habits) and plan for a more secure (and maybe even “rich”) future. 
  2. Have separate bank accounts that only you control. This doesn’t mean only having separate accounts – you may have a shared checking account from which you jointly pay household expenses, etc. 
  3. Periodically check your credit score. Very often your bank will provide this. Another option is to sign up for Credit Karma, which will contact you when your credit score changes and thus can give you a heads up when unusual charges have hit an account and affected your score or a credit/loan account has hit your credit history (especially without your knowledge which is characteristic of economic abuse).
  4. If you’re not currently married but might consider doing so in the future, I strongly encourage you to consider a premarital agreement (PMA), even if you are not fabulously wealthy…yet. See my post on premartial agreements for more specifics.
  5. Set your own financial goals. Saving for a child’s college expenses, a big trip, or percentage of your paycheck you’re putting towards a retirement account or other investments.

Bottom line: You are responsible for your financial well-being. Do not abdicate that responsibility to a spouse or partner, whether because “men are better with money” or because a partner bullies you into giving up control or influence. Get educated about financial decision-making and management. Earn your own money and set aside an appropriate amount for emergencies. Fund your retirement account(s) to the highest level possible. Stand up for yourself and your children. Your future and theirs depend upon it.

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Merideth Thompson

Merideth Thompson, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and speaker, who empowers young women with the skills they need to live a happy, productive life. It is her goal to demystify dense academic studies and data for everyday people so that they can make informed decisions for themselves. 


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