Spouses gone wild! Why solo play is okay
Many couples find time apart is healthy -- and are setting up separate accounts to pay for it.
NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) - Sharon Greenwald, loving wife and mother, had reached her breaking point. She was fed up with shuttling kids around, the cold weather, the clutter of the business that she runs from home, the suffocating sameness of the suburbs.
So she made plans to get out of Dodge for a few days -- and onto the Vegas Strip. She booked a $595 plane ticket, two nights at the Venetian and restaurant reservations. Then the happily married Greenwald kissed her husband good-bye.
That's right. This was no romantic getaway but, rather, a weekend with her girlfriends.
"It was fantastic," says Greenwald, 42, who lives in my town outside New York City. "We ate. We walked around. We talked and talked and talked. And, of course, we talked about them" (the men in their lives).
Did her husband mind? Not a bit. A few months earlier he and two buddies had spent a few days golfing in Wisconsin.
Think of the Greenwalds' travel habits as a kind of parallel play: married couples deciding that, once in a while, it's okay to have hobbies and take trips separately. The trend is increasing as the last baby boomers finally enter the age of more autonomy for their kids and greater earning power for themselves.
But while many marriage experts encourage independent activity, it invariably raises financial questions, among others. When one spouse spends money on a weekend in Vegas, hockey tickets or a dinner with friends, does the other get an equivalent splurge?
More couples are maintaining separate bank accounts, and I believe one reason is to make parallel play easier. According to Raddon Financial Group, an Illinois research firm, in 2001 just 38 percent of married couples had separate checking accounts. By 2004 that number had jumped to 49 percent.
"These days, couples aren't as Velcroed at the hip as they used to be," says financial planner and life coach Pamela York Klainer, author of "How Much Is Enough?" "To some extent it's generational, but there's also an income component. As women have started to earn more, they're more willing to spend on spa weekends with female friends or expensive theater tickets. In the past it would have been dinner and a movie."
A Google search for "women's travel," in fact, yields more than 53 million hits. No equivalent men's industry has sprung up ("Men have been fishing with the boys since the beginning of time," Klainer notes), but the guys' camping trip idea has trickled down. A recent story in the New York Times Sunday Styles section chronicled the rise of "man dates" -- straight men going out to eat and talk without a sporting event or a smoky bar as the organizing principle.
It's all intriguing, but for couples the financial awkwardness can be tougher to overcome than any initial feelings of doubt about traveling solo.
Reassure each other: This is okay.
At first, parallel play can seem weird, particularly the part about separate bank accounts. Doesn't that threaten the "equal partners" notion of a marriage?
It doesn't have to. The trick is to talk about what a separation in finances and activities means -- namely, that it's a way to keep a relationship fresh while indulging an interest your spouse might not share.
Remind each other that taking a trip with friends or having a solo hobby is "not about philandering but about coming back rejuvenated to our spouses, our work and our kids," says Marybeth Bond, who runs Gutsytraveler.com, a travel site designed specifically for women.
Strike a balance.
You may agree that an annual camping weekend with the guys is fine; it doesn't eat up too much time or money. Just be sure to leave money in the budget for joint vacations too.
Open separate accounts.
Ruth Hayden, a Minneapolis financial consultant who teaches money courses for couples, is disappointed that only half of all married couples maintain separate checking accounts. She believes they all should. (For the record, I agree.)
"I need to have the ability to pick up a cup of coffee without it impacting you," she says. "You need to have the ability to pick up a cup of coffee without it impacting me."
There are two tactical ways to approach the separate-accounts method, Hayden notes. The first is for you and your spouse to have your paychecks deposited directly into a joint account, then move a prenegotiated sum into each of your individual accounts. The second is to have your paychecks deposited into the individual accounts, then move a percentage into the joint pool. Either one works, but considering that covering your monthly nut -- mortgage, groceries and so forth -- is more important than poker night, the former might be easier to manage.
As for the negotiated sum, the amounts don't necessarily have to be equal. Things can get difficult when one spouse's wants are more expensive. If one of you prefers to rough it while the other likes five-star spas, you might agree that a 60-40 split is okay.
"The key is to think about the trade-offs," says Hayden. "What is it going to take not only to keep each of you happy individually but to make for a happy relationship?"
Neither banking system addresses the fact that very few couples earn equal paychecks. Frankly, that shouldn't matter. If one spouse is the sole or majority earner, does that mean he or she should be able to dine on steak and caviar with the gang while the other orders takeout with a friend? Of course not.
Editor-at-large Jean Chatzky appears regularly on NBC's "Today." Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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