I’m a worrier. It’s my least attractive trait and something I wish I could shake. Worrying comes so naturally to me that my husband, Peter McMahon, says that if I'm not worried about something, then I worry that I've forgotten what I was supposed to be worried about. It's his gentle way of telling me everything is okay. One of my constant worries has always been about money. This is an irrational fear because I have never been in a position of not having enough money to pay the bills (though it was close when I was just starting out in my career as a young staffer on Capitol Hill). I'm the kind of person who pays bills in advance and never wants to have any debts. I was always worried that next month, maybe all of my money would be gone. Growing up, my parents both worked and made a decent living — we weren't wearing Guess jeans, but life was comfortable. But, watching their interactions about the family's finances made me realize I never wanted to have to ask permission to buy something I needed or wanted, especially if I was working and contributing to the household. I wanted to make enough of my own money to be independent. Thanks to decades of work by women who came before me, my options in the job market were seemingly limitless by the time I started my career.
I wanted to make enough of my own money to be independent.
What I never imagined is that one day, I’d make more money than my husband. It didn’t start out that way, but my career led me in great directions, and that’s what happened. This is increasingly the case for many couples today. And, the way Peter and I handle this reversal of traditional roles can be a good model for others. I first met Peter when we were assigned to sit next to each other on a flight from Denver to Chicago. In those two hours, I fell for his British accent, wisdom, jokes, and his blue eyes (sigh). Eight months later, despite all the practical reasons not to leave my promising career in political communications in Washington, D.C., I moved to England to live with Peter, even though he was 18 years older than me. I didn’t have a visa to work, so I was totally financially dependent on him — and I was actually worry-free about it. We just fell in love and ran with it. We eloped a few months later and honeymooned in Greece. I was 25 years old, and it was the first time I felt like a grown-up. Less than a year later, we decided to move to San Diego, because who wouldn’t want to live in the most perfect climate in America? I liked the U.K., but I didn’t want to stay there and neither did he. Roles reversed: Peter was starting a business in international sales and marketing for American medical device manufacturers, and I was the primary breadwinner, though I was pretty much bringing home crumbs. We didn’t have much to spare, but we lived near a beach with our puppy, and life was good.
While I was happy at home, I was bored at work (this is a repeated pattern in my life). I missed working in policy and politics, and I didn’t see a way to get ahead in San Diego. I told friends back east that I wanted to come back to work in the Bush Administration. Three weeks later, terrorists killed 3,000 Americans on 9/11, and a month after that, I was working as a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice. I had never even met President George W. Bush when I started the job. In 2002, I moved over to the White House and served as the communications director for the Council on Environmental Quality and then, in 2005, as the deputy press secretary. In 2007, President Bush named me the first Republican woman to serve as the White House Press Secretary, and that promotion busted my career path wide open. The experience I gained in that job, plus the national media exposure, led to many opportunities after the White House. I started my own communications firm, signed up with a speakers bureau, joined Fox News as a contributor, and eventually wrote a bestselling book. And just like that, I had achieved the goal my teenage self had set: I could buy what I wanted and needed. And yet, I still worried about money. A lot. It threatened to consume me, and I needed to figure out a way to put it out of my mind. Years before, I had read an article suggesting that if money is a concern in your relationship, you should give up trying to control and instead let your partner handle all the finances. That would take a real leap of faith for a worrier like me. But, it would put my husband in charge of one of the most important aspects of any marriage, and it would show him that I fully trusted him. So we tried it, and after a few months of near-panic about whether the bills were being paid on time and whether we had enough to spare for emergencies, I started to be able to let go of those worries. Peter and I share one checking account, and our savings and investments are combined. He pays the bills, handles the taxes, and manages our independent health insurance coverage. We make joint decisions on charitable contributions, and he’s generous to others — and that makes me happy. He makes sure I have cash every week, so that I don’t have to go to the ATM, which is old-fashioned and drives my mom crazy (she’s the kind of person who always makes sure she has an extra $20 in her wallet, “just in case”). Of course, I still panic once in a while, thinking that maybe we aren’t saving enough to pay for our lifestyle in the future (we are practical about our age difference), so he prints out an updated spreadsheet and walks me through it. I can make suggestions and adjustments, and then I can stop worrying about money for a while. It’s true that I’m dependent on Peter — but I think that’s a good thing. I hate when his business takes him overseas, and I give him a hard time when he leaves me to manage the household alone. A few times, I've questioned whether his travel is really worth it since his income is less than mine. This is so wrong. Running his own company gives him a lot of flexibility to support me, but I shouldn’t take advantage of that. Sometimes, though, I send him a pictures of the dishwasher after he’s been gone a week; the only thing in it will be spoons, wine glasses, and coffee mugs, because when he’s not home I only eat out of jars, have tea in the morning, and drink wine at night. “Eat something, for crying out loud!” he'll beg.
It’s true that I’m dependent on Peter — but I think that’s a good thing.
When I was asked to write this piece, I wondered how Peter would feel about it. It’s no secret that I make more money than he does, but would he want me to write an article on the topic for others to read? I realized I hadn’t even asked him how he felt about our arrangement. Here’s what he said: I consider myself blessed... Not only is my wife wonderful, but...she is also successful, from which we both benefit. If the man is the higher earner, does this reduce the woman’s achievements? Does this make a stay-home-mother inadequate and a failure? Why should it work one way and not the other? A marriage is supposed to be a team effort, and on that basis, I encourage the woman I love to achieve all she wants to in life. When we met, neither of us could have known that her career would grow as much as it did. It has been a joy to watch and see her skills and intelligence rewarded as she earned her success. And as she is the person responsible for the lion’s share of our income, it is my responsibility in the partnership to support her in every way I can. So I deal with the finances so she doesn’t have to, and travel with her when possible. One of the biggest causes of marital strife is financial worry. If this can be alleviated or eliminated, it doesn’t matter which spouse is the higher earner. I decided to quote him in full, because he captures it perfectly (just imagine him saying it in his lovely British accent). This leaves me with a thought that still worries me all the time: What if I had missed that flight to Chicago?