The Economics of the Marital Distribution of Labor and Assets

by Darwin on January 6, 2011

The following is a Guest Post. If interested in guest posting at Darwin’s Money, feel free to contact me.

My Personal Perspective on the Topic

My wife and I are just your typical, late twenty-something married professionals.  We live in the northeastern United States.  As members of Generation Y are known to do, we put-off full-fledged adulthood as long as we could by attending graduate/professional school directly following college.  We have been married now for nearly three years and have put off a family or a house due to our oppressive student loans.
When we were married those three short years ago, we thought we had everything figured out.  We promised that when it came to distributing household chores our marriage would be different from that of our grandparents, and, to a lesser degree, that of our parents.  In short, we promised that we would both be equally responsible for all household chores, and when the time came, the responsibilities that arose with raising a family.  When we were first married and we were both simply hardworking students, this goal was easy to maintain.  Then, we graduated from graduate/professional school and joined the workforce.  That was when things began to change.
My wife works for a school district and therefore has off in the summer.  I work as a professional in a field known for its long and tedious work-week.  She works about 185 days each year compared to my approximately 245.  She works about seven hours each day compared to my daily average of eleven or twelve.  To be sure, she has a stressful job dealing with children all day, and when she is at work I know she is working hard.  However, when I come home the last thing I want to do is clean the dishes or do some laundry.  So, despite our protestations years earlier before we got married, my wife began finding herself playing Harriet to my Ozzie.
Economic Factors Affecting the Marital Distribution of Labor

Leaving aside issues of gender, although there are clearly some issues at play which do affect such an analysis (such as men work, on average more hours per week than women, women are still on average, underpaid, etc), and looking at this issue from a gender neutral role, this is a problem that likely occurs to some extent in every marriage.  How do we value each party’s role and their accomplishments/functions performed within the marriage?  Should someone be given a credit against chores if they have to work an additional three hours each day?  If that is the case, how do we quantify the amount of credit performed if the type of work performed is highly dissimilar?  What if the person who works less hours has to do them during more difficult work hours or under more difficult working conditions?
For instance, what if spouse #1 works only six hours a day but in an intense, grueling and demanding job?  Spouse #1 might be totally wiped out after his/her six hours are up.  Would it be unfair to give spouse #2 a credit for time served if their eight hour a day job was conversely very easy?  Perhaps more importantly, who determines difficulty?  To some people sitting around in an office for eight hours a day would be far more torturous than shoveling snow or pouring concrete for ten hours.  Humans are highly skilled at thinking their job is more difficult than anybody else’s.
Thus, how does valuation come into play?  Do we consider the subjective or objective value of each partner’s contributions?  Can a spouse argue their extra time at work is more valuable than the other spouse’s contributions around the house or vice versa?  What standard would be used for valuation?  or the going rate for the services rendered?  How do you value something that is priceless like the way only your spouse can truly entertain/spend quality time with a pet or your children?  What if one partner begins to stay late at “work” in order to shirk their duties around the house and surf the internet?  To be sure, most spouses would be more than happy to pick up the slack at home if it allowed the other spouse more time at work to catch a big promotion or to save their job.  So, clearly opportunity cost comes into play in the analysis as well.
Additionally, should we consider basic economic principles such as supply and demand?  To be sure, in most instances it would be tough to hire someone else to complete a W-2 employees workday (and not get fired), whereas most household chores could be farmed out at a fairly cheap rate.  (The economic principle of “scarcity” comes into play here.)
What of marginal utility?  Should it be taken into account how doing the dishes for the 10th day in a row is likely much worse than the first day the task was performed?  That point being acknowledged; what about how much easier it is to perform a task that you regularly undertake?  Should an analysis take into account that one spouse knows the precise formula for how to vacuum your house in an efficient and thorough manner?
Moreover, do we consider differentiations in time versus results?  Should a spouse who can adequately wash a car or mow the lawn in one-half the time as the other spouse be penalized for their efficiency?  How do you balance the results attained against time taken to complete a task?  Finally, should one partner’s preferences be taken into consideration?  In short, how can you find a proper equilibrium  so as to satisfactorily and fairly run a household together?  Some would argue that in the final analysis the emphasis should be on results rather than time spent, but as Gordon Gekko says in Wall Street 2: “is there any commodity in this world that is more finite or important than time?”  There are also areas of overlap between work and play.  For instance, the time I spend working on my blog, currently brings in a minute amount of money, and has the potential to one day bring in perhaps a decent amount of money.  Does the time I spend building the blog factor into the equation at all or does it only count as a hobby?  I know how my wife would answer that question….
The Economics of the Distribution of Resources/Assets Obtained

Even if you can properly formulate a plan as to the distribution of marital labor; once you get beyond all of that, how do you fairly distribute the resources obtained?  If there is only money for one newer car in the budget, how do you determine who receives the new car?  Or do you conversely both suffer through with lousy cars until you can afford an upgrade for both partners of the marriage?
We are friends with a couple who are similarly situated to my wife and me, albeit more successful professionally. Both are hardworking young professionals.  The husband did not go to professional school, but worked to put his wife through law school.  Now that she has graduated, she is earning a solid six-figure salary working in big-law, whereas the husband continues to work at his previous job, earning (I assume) about 1/3 to 1/2 of what his wife currently makes.  They recently purchased the wife a brand new luxury (think German-made) car but the Husband has continued to drive his old American-built Sedan.  How do we distribute the money in a marriage?
I personally do not believe that the amount each party earns should be taken into account if finances are agreed to be commingled, but in a world of prenuptial agreements and  a trend toward more economic independence in a marriage, perhaps I am wrong.  If one partner has more expensive taste in clubs, hobbies or items, than perhaps they should be provided a more substantial portion of the marital assets.  For me, there are many clubs, memberships, etc., that  I am involved in which sometimes blur the line between professional responsibilities and having fun.
In Conclusion

To be sure, these are very personal decisions.  Like in most negotiation games, the likely victor (if there is to be one at all) is the stronger party.  That is the reason why mediation is said to very often not produce a fair result in a divorce setting: it is argued that the stronger side (generally the more domineering side during the course of the marriage) will continue in this role and therefore be advantaged in the negotiation process. Of course the goal is (or at least arguably should be) for spouses to be each other’s equals and for the aggregate workload and responsibilities of married couples to be held in equipoise.  But at some point, if it becomes clear that one party is expected to spend 30% more time at work than their spouse, does that mean the other party should make it up by spending 30% more time maintaining the house?  Isn’t that only fair, or am I just trying to get out of doing the dishes?
Let me know how you handle the “economics” of the Distribution of Labor and Assets in your household.  Have you found an effective system?  Do you barter like my wife and I try to do?  Do you plan in advance the distribution of labor and assets or do you figure it out as you go?
Please comment.

WRITER’S BIO
BROKEPROFESSIONALS.COM is a blog and an online community created/run solely by me- a Twenty-Something married professional with no children (other than a dog!) who lives and works in New Jersey.  The site focuses on personal finance and personal/professional development for professionals.  I write in particular for the over-educated and the overpaid, and I try to write with (I hope) a sense of humor.  Most other Bloggers in the field of Personal Finance discuss their “Goal of obtaining one million dollars” or their “journey to financial independence and freedom”,  at www.brokeprofessionals.com, I have a net worth of NEGATIVE ($110,000.00) thanks to my wife and my student loans, so my goal is just to be broke.   Please visit my site to join me on my long journey to broke.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Well Heeled Blog January 6, 2011 at 10:49 pm

This is a really interesting topic… I don’t have any good answers, except for the lines of communication to be open at all times, and for each partner to “check in” to see if the current situation is satisfactory to both. The worst thing that can happen, I think, is for things to slide into “default”. That’s a one-way ticket to resentment-ville.

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Evan January 7, 2011 at 12:57 am

Just find what works for you! Over thinking and trying to convince your teacher wife that her job is less stressful then your job will only get you into trouble lol. Teachers are usually unreasonable when it comes to this.

Can I guess your profession? From the hours and words used (big law and shirk) it either HAS to be finance or law…..

As for my personal situation things kind of just fell into place (as I believe most marriages do). The Wife handles the house, she works from there and is home most of the time…but I handle ALL the finances mostly b/c I am a control freak when it comes to the,

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Sustainable PF January 7, 2011 at 1:02 am

Fantastic topic.
In addition to time valuations we often have to look at strategic and operational chores. What do I mean by this? Simply put, day to day vs long term stuff.
I tend to put a lot of time into our finances and planning our future. The physical labour is nil, aside from typing, but the mental part of this contribution is endless hours. Mrs. SPF is much more operational as she is better at that stuff than I am, and acknowledges I am better at the strategic stuff.
Thing is, at times she feels i’m just sitting at the PC when she’s working her butt off. She knows I spend many more hours on our PF future than she does in her tasks (and I do tasks that she disdains – like kitty litter, garbage, and i’m the one who does 75% of the reno work in our home – which takes hours daily).
Such an interesting topic – i’ll come back to check out the other responses for sure.
You may have got a viral here darwin 😉
SPR

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Broke Professional January 7, 2011 at 8:57 am

Darwin- Thanks again for publishing my guest post. I really appreciate it. You are a class act and your blogs are almost intiminatingly well written. Well-Heeled, thanks for commenting here and on my site. I agree completely with what your saying, I guess that is part of what makes marriage tough: knowing how to compromise when there are so many factors to consider.
Evan- You may or not be close about my job, although others have sworn I am everything from a doctor/dentist to an architect. I’m just going to continue letting everyone believe whatever they want to believe. I also agree that things generally fall into place, although for us there has been an adjustment since our situations have changed from students to young professionals.
Thanks again Darwin.

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