In our series Not A Trophy Wife, we ask women how they feel when they earn far less than their significant other. We've chatted with a literature professor struggling with debt while her girlfriend saves for retirement, a woman who gave up her career in Thailand for her husband, and a marketing analyst dating an investment banker.
Today, we interview a 38-year-old stay-at-home mother who quit a $95,000-a-year job to move across the country with her husband who makes $500,000.
So how did you two meet?
"My sister introduced us 12 years ago — we've been married for almost six years. My sister randomly met him at a bar, and she knows what type of person I need. My ex-boyfriend before my husband was a professor, and he was 10 years older than me. My sister always said he had a stick up his ass, so she said I needed to date someone funny. She did a little interview with my husband when she met him, like, how old are you, what school did you go to, and then set us up. We just hit it off."
What were you doing when you met?
"I was working part-time in grad school. I was studying a totally non-functional degree — I mastered in philosophy, because I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, honestly. Grad school was limbo for me, where I didn't want to work yet, and I didn't want to leave school yet. So when I met him, I was working 15 hours a week making around $10 an hour while in school.
What was your husband doing when you first met?
"He was a financial analyst — he had just finished his MBA program a year before. Before he got his MBA, he was in investment banking for a couple of years in London and in Hong Kong. He got laid off, so then he went to business school. They gave him a severance package that paid for business school, a new car, and his living arrangements. But when we started dating he said he took a massive pay-cut, so I wasn't sure what that meant. I thought he was making $80,000 or something — but we never really talked about it. There was just an understanding where he paid for everything. He knew I was a student."
Did that ever change?
"Well, the company I was working for offered me a full-time job, and I left grad school about a year into it. I was just like, this grad school thing isn't going to get me a job, and even if I taught part-time at any college, it would be a grind. So I started working full-time, making $30,000 a year. Then we moved in together, and he basically said, 'Look, I know you don't make much at your job. I'll take care of everything, and you can just do $500 a month for rent.'"
When did you find out how much he actually makes?
"When we got engaged. I found out he was making $225,000. We were at Nordstrom and they were convincing us to apply for a card to get points, and when he filled out the application I saw it said $225,000. I didn't talk to him about it, though — I never brought it up. I don't know why. I think I felt embarrassed. I didn't want him asking me how much I made, since my salary was significantly less than his."
Can you tell me a little bit more about why you felt embarrassed?
"You know, all his friends are high powered, super ambitious, with great jobs, and they all went to private universities and came from some money. I felt out of my element for a long time. I grew up a navy brat, so not much money at all, and I went to San Diego State, which is a very average school in California, and I didn't think it stood up against Kellogg, or Harvard Business School, where his friends went. I felt really insecure about my background compared to them.
"Plus, his friends' wives or girlfriends were doctors, and then there was me. I was lost — I didn't know what I wanted to do. It took me a while to really get comfortable in his group. Even after we got engaged I was still very insecure about it. But it was all self-induced. It eventually changed after meeting all his friends and realizing how very down-to-earth they are. There were a few snobs, but we don’t hang out with them."
That's interesting — it seems like you were doing well for yourself though.
"Eventually I was making about $95,000. I worked at that company for a while, about three years, and I left to go to another company and they doubled my salary. Then my old boss left, and the first place I worked asked me to come back."
Why did you leave that job?
"After we got married, my husband said, 'Hey, my company wants me to open up an office in San Francisco. Are you game?' So that's how we ended up in San Francisco. By the time we left to go to San Francisco, he was making almost $300,000 — and now it's almost $500,000.
"When we moved, he told me, 'You can do whatever you want. You don’t have to go back to what you’re doing, you can work part-time and volunteer.' We also wanted to try for kids, and we both knew that I wouldn’t work if we had children. When we were dating, I told him I didn’t want someone else to raise my child, and he didn’t want that either. His mom stayed home and raised him until he was in kindergarten, so he wanted the same thing. We decided to start trying to have kids after we moved, but it turned out to be a long process. We started trying and within a year, nothing. We went to a doctor, and they basically told us that we would have to use some kind of medical intervention. We did an IUI, we did about six of those for the first six-seven months, and that didn’t work, so we jumped into IVF. We did that three times until we got our little girl."
Were you working during that time, too?
"I was in limbo, basically. I would sometimes work part-time or volunteer, but it was tough. I didn’t have my own money, or what I envisioned as me having my own money. It was very different those first six months going from making an income and being independent to relying on my husband. It took a while for me to come to terms with that and have really open discussions about money. We finally had a discussion about how to handle it. It was so bizarre talking about money only after we got married — you really should talk about this beforehand. But we finally talked about what we wanted, how we should start saving together, where all our money is going, that sort of thing. This all happened half a year after getting married."
Tell me about the results of that discussion.
"I had one credit card, and he told me to put everything on that, and every month our accounts would automatically pay it off. Before I had our daughter, I set the limit of about $1,500 a month; now it's about $2,500. I'm on all the financial accounts, but I still have my personal checking account.
"Usually, I'm pretty good about sticking to my budget. If there's a massive purchase I'm going to make, I talk to him about it. And I do most of the shopping — once in a blue moon, he'll want a new TV or something, and he'll ask me what I think. I always say yes, we should get what he wants, because he barely spends. But anytime that happens, he does massive amounts of research before he makes a big purchase, and I would have months of knowing that it's going to happen."
Has your relationship to money changed since meeting your husband?
"In the beginning, I just avoided it. I didn't want to talk about it. I didn't even broach it. I don't know why. I felt like it was very personal, which is bizarre because you're, like, sleeping with this person. How much more personal and intimate can you be? But I think a lot of it had to do with being embarrassed about not making a lot, and then further into the relationship, being embarrassed because we've never talked about it before.
"He'd offer to help pay my credit card bill, and I'd say, 'No, it's none of your business. It has nothing to do with you.' That changed when we got married — he took all my credit cards and paid them off. It was like $15,000. Like, 'Here, I'm writing this check, now let's never carry a balance.' He's crazy about that. He doesn't want to pay interest to these companies — not even a dollar."
Do you spend money differently?
"Yes. It's good and bad. I realized before my husband entered the picture, it was like, Do I have enough money for the grocery store? What's the balance in my account? What can I get? Now, it's sad to say, but I don't think too hard about it. Because I know it’s there. I do use Mint to make sure I'm within my budget, but I don't worry too much if I go over. And sometimes, I want to slap myself. I see friends in different situations who say, 'We can't get that because it will put us over budget.' Whereas I'll walk into Whole Foods and think, oh this is on sale and my daughter will love it, let's buy 10 boxes. I'm lucky, and I know that's not how most people's lives work, and I also feel really guilty. Because that's not how I grew up, that's not how my sister or brother operate. I have family members who think I have the greatest life ever: 'You're so lucky, your husband makes so much money, you don't ever have to worry about money.' But even if you make money, you always worry about it. It's just different."
What do you mean?
"My sister, her family, they do well enough for themselves, but they're worrying about college tuition for their kid and trying to save for that. For us, we already have that money, but our worry is about the volatility of what my husband does. If the market goes south, he won't be making as much. It's not like, 'Oh no, we're going to be starving.' But we just bought a loft before our daughter was born, and we have an obscene mortgage payment and property taxes. So we worry if we could afford this house if something bad happens? Should we move out of the city where it’s cheaper? We're definitely saving for our daughter's preschool because this city is crazy expensive."
Do you think you'll ever go back to work?
"Well, we're working on number two. Maybe I'd get a part-time job when they're in kindergarten. I imagine them being involved in a lot of activities. I could get a job and pay for a nanny, but it doesn't make any sense. If I started working, then the money after taxes would just go to a caretaker, and that doesn't feel good to me to pay someone to watch my kid. Unless I was making a lot of money like my husband, where only a small portion of my paycheck would go to the nanny. Even like, half of my paycheck, or a quarter. But if it's over 50%? No, that just doesn't feel right.
"I've also been out of the workforce for so long, so I keep thinking, What can I do?"
Did you always want to be a stay-at-home mom?
"When I was younger, I didn't think I wanted kids. At least, I thought I would be independent, not get married and have kids, but it changed when I got older. By the time I met my husband, I knew I wanted to have a family, and if I was able, stay at home.
"I thought it would be fantastic, and I thought I would love it, but it's nowhere near what you imagine it to be. It's 24/7, and it's like no one appreciates you, and I don't think the other half would ever understand what you do unless they do it as well. As much as they try to empathize.
"You know, my daughter just turned 16 months, and she's everywhere. It's non-stop — and you can't just half pay attention. You have to be 100% on top of it. Anything can happen — they're crazy little monsters. They're screaming, pushing chairs, and there's only so much you can baby-proof. We live in an industrial loft, so it's not easy. Sometimes, I just want to talk to another person without babbling and saying no constantly. I really miss adult interaction, and the breaks you get when you work. You get 15-minute breaks, and a real hour lunch break. Those don't exist for me anymore."
Do you ever feel any guilt?
"It's hard. When you stay home with a child, you're not working, and you feel like you're not contributing, even though you're doing massive amounts of contributing by raising a child. I've been taught that you're a woman, it's the 2000s, you have to take care of yourself, get an education. And that's great — I'm going to push that on my daughter. But when she's ready, and it's time for a family and slowing down, I would love it if she didn't have to choose between a career and having kids. I could watch her children for her. Because if I had that opportunity, I would totally do that."