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Harrop: Spending behind your mate's back

Published: Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

A little infidelity, a little cheating, is OK in a marriage – or even protective of it – if the sneaking is just about money. Note the emphasis on “little.”

Take handbags. Some time back, The Wall Street Journal reported on a woman who kept a secret stash of cash so she could buy very expensive handbags without disclosing the prices to her husband.

“He just wouldn’t understand,” was her explanation. And he probably wouldn’t have.

In my experience, men think paying more than $100 for a handbag is extravagant, and besides, how many do you need?

They certainly can’t wrap their minds around “it” handbags costing thousands (nor, frankly, can I), which this woman felt she had to have.

Her husband, meanwhile, might well have been collecting the latest in cameras, computer stuff, TV screens, sound systems and other nonessentials of life. He would have his rationales.

I know a man who marvels at the money his wife spends on clothes but saw nothing extreme in his buying a second car, a roadster. The car is transportation, he insists. Right. Like an $85 bottle of aged balsamic vinegar is food.

They don’t fight over it. He has his bank account and credit card. She has her bank account and credit card. Never the twain need meet.

I know this discussion will disgust some of you for its cynicism and passive acceptance of consumerism running amok. Also, it seems to ignore the plight of financially struggling families for whom discretionary income is close to nil.

Make moral judgments if you wish, but there remains the right to blow one’s own money in whatever (legal) direction one chooses. Furthermore, low-income people also need some luxury for relief, even if it’s a $3 cup of coffee at Starbucks.

Many therapists and advice columnists reject my view that couples should not work on what is, in effect, a rift in values. But there is an alternative to flogging old resentments and harming a relationship. It is to look the other way. A recent study at San Francisco State University found that older couples in long-lasting marriages handled conflicts over money by changing the subject.

If hiding some purchases keeps the peace, is that so awful? Those engaged in the practice don’t think so and offer their strategies.

Mail-order boxes can be delivered to the office. Others limit their luxuries to experiences that leave no trace. No one need know you had a hot-rock massage.

But back to the word “little.” There have been cases of spouses quietly invading their 401(k) retirement plans to cover heat-of-passion big spending. That’s very bad. There must be some meeting of the minds on certain goals, retirement being one of them.

A happy medium might be to reach an accord on covering the basic costs of living – and saving. After that, everyone is on his or her own.

The notion that leaving room for mild financial dalliance promotes healthy relationships is shared by no less an expert than Dr. Phil.

“Everyone should have some financial freedom,” he wrote. “Whether $5 or $500, discretionary income is a must for any partnership. If you want to run it through a shredder, it ought to be your right to do so.”

Clearly, when a mate sneaks off to buy a shiny new thing the other half sees no point in, there’s an alternative to “fight or flight.” It’s “ignore.”

• Froma Harrop is a member of the Providence Journal editorial board. Follow her on Twitter @fromaharrop.

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