Financial Dependence and Independence, Part One: Primal Issues

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Money can be a harder subject for couples to negotiate than their sex life or even child raising. This first of a two-part look at financial dependence and independence outlines three reasons why money seems to touch on such primal issues for us.

In previous posts, I wrote about dependence and independence. (See “From Dependence to Independence to Interdependence, Part 1” and “Accepting Our Dependence”.) In the comments there was discussion about how this applied to financial dependence and independence, and I said that I should perhaps write something about this. A reader has since written and asked me if I had ever done this, and I confessed I hadn’t. This two-part post makes up for the omission: here are my thoughts on financial dependence and independence.

In the committed romantic relationships I’ve been in, and the ones that I’ve known closely, money has been a very difficult subject. It has often been a harder subject for the couple to negotiate than their sex life or even child raising. This seems quite strange.

After all, money is only paper or coins assigned value by fiat — these days most of our money is just electronic blips, it is not even as real as the paper and coin. It is, after all, just a convention between people, organisations, and governments about how things will be treated. Money is no longer gold or diamonds — it doesn’t have ‘real’ intrinsic value of its own. The value of the Australian dollar (I live in Australia) can fall by one percent overnight, but the people, assets, and productivity of Australia haven’t.

And yet money seems to hook quite primal issues for us, about security and independence. Why could this be?

Lifestyle and Money

Firstly I think it is because of the conventions that governments adopt, in such things as taxation scales and arrangements. A couple’s lifestyle can be impacted severely by where their money comes from (earnings, capital gains and so on) and who earns it; whether the same household income is earned by one or two people can lead to quite different rates of tax.

If a father wishes to care for his children full-time, this will usually have an impact on the mother and the income she needs to earn. She may have to earn a lot more than her husband’s previous income for the household income to be the same. For couples who wish to share the childcare equitably, there is a different set of problems.

In this way particular financial arrangements encourage particular lifestyles and values. And so the discussion about money that a couple engages in is loaded with values; so it is not too surprising that the discussion can be intense.

Value and Money

Secondly the values encouraged by the social conventions around money may conflict with the couple’s agreed values (or even the values of most people in a society).

What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. — Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan

People are paid differently for different kinds of work. Usually people believe that childcare is amongst the most important and valuable work that is done. Yet this attracts little payment for parents who do it (and usually low pay for those who work in childcare centres). Others are paid millions for dressing up and pretending to be someone else in front of a camera. The difference between how much most people value something and the price or payment it attracts can be vast.

This means that couples with little money can be pressured into compromising their values a good deal. This being common doesn’t make it any more pleasant for those involved.

Dependence on Money

Thirdly, we are very dependent on money.

People in Australia are so dependent on money. — Greg Manning

Greg Manning, a friend of mine, said this on returning to Australia, after living with the poor in India (and poor in India is very poor). It was Greg’s observation that the poor in India relied more on family and friendship than people in Australia.

I have never lived in India, but I am struck by how much of a role money has in our own culture. There are many newspapers and magazines devoted to money — not beautiful objects (and their price), not how satisfying different jobs are (and how much they earn), though there are these too, but devoted to money itself. This I find quite striking.

In part two of this post, I’ll take a look at the view that how we make money and how much money we make can have a big effect on how much we can live our values — and what this means for the values and desires of individual couples within society.

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