Before a couple decides to take their relationship to the next level by sharing their finances with one another, there are a few crucial things they should take into account. While it’s important to know each other’s annual income and retirement plans, it may be more even important to have awareness of each other’s socioeconomic backgrounds.
Jessi Streib, an assistant professor at Duke University, interviewed college-educated men and women who had married partners from different class backgrounds for her book The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages. She told Quartz that social class backgrounds shaped her subjects so much, they had more in common with strangers than they did with their own husbands and wives. Most notably, she found that spouses who come from working-class families wanted to go with the flow in regards to money, work, and parenting, whereas spouses from middle-class families closely monitored and planned their resources.
When people enter a partnership, they’re not just bringing themselves to the table—they’re bringing everything they’ve learned and experienced before their partners came along. For instance, if your partner grew up with a nanny and maid while you grew up with a stay-at-home mom and chore chart, you’ll likely make very different parenting decisions.
According to sociologists Robert Mare and Kate Choi, people tend to marry those who have a similar income, occupation, and educational level. But partners from different socioeconomic backgrounds face the unique challenge of reconciling their predisposed choices when it comes to money. “I found that the financial stability of the spouses’ childhoods shaped their marriages in many ways, contributing to clashes about leisure time, home maintenance and even how to talk through their feelings,” Streib wrote in The Washington Post. Studies show that money is already the main subject of most arguments between couples. If that’s the case, then how does money shape the lifestyles of couples across different social classes? To find out, we connected with several spouses with contrasting socioeconomic backgrounds. See what they had to say below.
“My siblings and I went to public schools. We didn’t have heaps of money, but we had enough.”
I spent my childhood in the United Kingdom (although I’m a dual New Zealand citizen) with a pretty “normal” middle-class family. Both of my parents had university educations. My dad was a school teacher, my mum worked part-time in a community college, [and] my siblings and I went to public schools. We didn’t have heaps of money, but we had enough. My husband is from a small village in Nepal.
Both of his parents are illiterate and farmers. He and his four siblings all went to school but were the first generation in his family to do so. His younger sister has since been to college, but neither my husband nor his older siblings went to college. I don’t think they even had electricity in his village when he was a kid, in the early 1990s. Although my husband values education, it’s more of an abstract concept. He loves that our daughter goes to preschool and learns lots of stuff, but he doesn’t read to her himself. Not because he can’t (He can! He’s literate in Nepali.) but because he just fundamentally doesn’t understand why reading to kids is important.
— Ellen who is married to Robert*, New Zealand
“My parents could afford to take my brother and me on really nice vacations.”
I think my parents did do a good job of raising me to know that the things we enjoyed were exceptions, not the rule, and they also didn’t raise me to expect my partner (or myself) to meet those same socioeconomic status levels. For instance, my parents could afford to take my brother and me on really nice vacations, since my dad worked for a big law firm. My husband and I both work for ourselves and so I can’t imagine spending all that money on airfare, a hotel, lift tickets, and gear. Forget it.
– Claire who is married to Steve, Illinois
“I buy everything on sale, whenever possible, and he gets whatever it is that he wants…”
I am from a drug-infested hood in NYC and a survivor of the foster care system. My husband is from extremely posh and lovely Southern England, [where] he went to a fancy boarding school. [Because of this] we have extremely different views related to lifestyle. For example, as two people with two cats, I feel like we should live in a one-bedroom apartment, [but] we don’t. We live in a three-story, three-bedroom, two-bathroom house. To him, that’s normal. To me, that’s insane. I believe that when credit is used, it should be paid off right away, and that carrying debt, or running up debt, will absolutely lead to homelessness and death. He believes that debt is good because it shows responsibility on the credit reports.
I buy everything on sale, whenever possible, and he gets whatever it is that he wants, whenever he wants to get it. As far as chores go, we both stay on top of that. But, if we need a new vacuum, he wants the fancy robot, and I want a dust buster, because it’s cheaper. He buys organic hand soaps and I get whatever is in the Dollar Store. I get the store brand of turkey and he wants Butterball, so I sometimes lie and tell him it’s soap from Whole Foods and a Butterball turkey.
– Lara who is married to Matty, NYC
“We mostly agree on where we’ll put our money for ‘big ticket’ items…”
My family put a premium on education. We went to a private prep school and all the children in my family attended college. Three of us have graduate degrees. All of my siblings have professional careers and are very successful. My husband’s family was not poor, but there was not a lot of extra money [going around]. Neither of his parents attended college, and my husband was the only one of his siblings to go to college. He’s an engineer.
Growing up so differently has shaped our relationship in how we view money. My husband is extremely conservative. He’s very successful in his career, but also very careful with how we spend. I’m a bit conservative with money as well, but not as careful as my husband. We mostly agree on where we’ll put our money for “big ticket” items, but because we married late in life, it took me awhile to get used to having to run things by my husband with regard to spending. Also, my tendency is to splurge on items like travel, which I think is important for cultural awareness for our son, whereas my husband isn’t as interested in exploring the world.
– Hannah* who is married to Allen*
“He’s really living day-to-day while I’m planning long-term.”
I was taught that nearly all debt is bad, but Kevin was taught that debt—especially credit card debt—is a normal part of life. So early in our relationship we had to work to navigate small purchases, especially because at that time, I was in graduate school and we didn’t have much. Right now I have a lot of student loans, but I also have quite a bit of savings.
He has comparatively little debt, but he also has no savings at all. I’m worried about what that’s going to mean [for our] retirement or if we decide to buy an asset like a house. He’s really living day-to-day while I’m planning long-term. I know he wishes that we had more fun and relaxed a little [more] on the debt management, [but] I’m worried I’ll end up responsible for both our financial futures.
– Kirstin who is in a partnership with Kevin, Vermont
“…He thinks the silver baby cups and all my monogrammed things are ridiculous…”
My husband grew up in a working-class town, and I grew up upper-middle class. We are sort of in “the creative class” now, but he thinks the silver baby cups and all my monogrammed things are ridiculous. And I sometimes have trouble making conversation at holiday [gatherings] with all of his electrician, auto body repair, and hairdresser relatives. He is against having anyone else clean our house, but my family always had someone else clean the house. I almost always want to hire someone for yard work, for example, and he will do it or figure out how to do it instead of hiring someone.
– Andrea who is married to Troy, Colorado