How Men Approach Money Differently Today Than Ever Before

November 1, 2019, 11:00 AM UTC
Image courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Emmy-nominated journalist Cleo Stiller has been talking about intimate subjects for awhile. As the Peabody Award finalist for her television show Sex.Right.Now., Stiller spoke mostly with women about taboo topics like virginity, cramps, and online dating trends. But in the year where more women ran for Congress than ever before, she wanted to dive deep into an unusual space for her: men. The result is Modern Manhood, a book that sheds light on all the gray areas out there, using conversations that real men and women are having with their friends, their dates, their family, and themselves. Each chapter explores a different facet of life; below is an excerpt from the Money chapter.

Image courtesy of Simon & Schuster
Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

At twenty-eight, fresh out of rehab and with legal charges pending, Brian quit his job and took a 50 percent pay cut to become a craftsman. It was the only way to get healthy, to move beyond the opioids and alcoholism that had fueled his life as a “successful,” six-figure-salary art director.

Brian was, in his words, a “short brown immigrant kid” who had “always been super sensitive.” At fourteen he turned to substances to cope with feelings of inadequacy. When he finally got clean, he met a woman who was a successful surgeon. She saw through all of his bullshit, valued him, and helped him rebuild a life.

“I can say with absolute confidence that without her support during those first few years I would have relapsed and OD’d,” Brian says.

She also made 6.5 times as much as he did and that didn’t matter to her. “I am not exaggerating when I say that how much money I made was utterly meaningless to her,” Brian says. “She always respected my work ethic, but as long as I continued to contribute to our home equally, both financially and domestically, she really couldn’t care less about how much more I made or saved.”

He remembers her repeatedly saying that she loved him for him, not because of a job. But the money thing bugged him.

When other men learned he was dating a surgeon who was making bank, he got mixed responses.

“A lot of guys [in general] were of the ‘Oh, dude, that’s so awesome that she’s a surgeon. You guys will live comfortably’ perspective, which could not possibly be further away from how I felt myself,” Brian says. “I never ever even remotely considered her as a means of financial support or security at any point. It stressed me out.”

Once she wanted to take a week off to go to Iceland. In his former job, Brian could have dropped everything and gone with her. But craftsman Brian? It would take major long-term planning to afford a trip like that.

They kept their finances separate, and Brian insisted on paying half of everything. Even though she didn’t care that he made less money, and most of his friends didn’t care, Brian started hustling to make more money. He picked up freelance work on the side, often working seventy-five hours a week “to try and bridge that gap.”

“Ironically, in doing so, it actually ended up being the catalyst that slowly broke apart our relationship,” Brian says. “I was so focused on trying to make more money that I stopped being a great partner. I was always working, and we grew apart over time.”

After three years, they broke up. He still regrets it. If he could go back, he’d do it all differently.

“I will always love her,” he says. “Because the first two years were amazing. Truly the best of my life. And I know it was me obsessing about making more money that drove us apart over time. As much as that hurts to admit.”

What if she makes more than you?

Men want to be providers.

That’s not me saying that. Well, I am also saying that, but it’s not just me. Pretty much every single man I interviewed for this book said it as well, and so did Dr. Helen Fisher, the biological anthropologist. But she also clarified this statement.

“I wouldn’t say ‘the provider,’ I would say ‘a provider,’” she says.

Dr. Fisher writes a lot about pair bonding, and she points out that only 3 percent of mammals pair up to rear their young. Humans are part of that 3 percent. “Monogamy evolved 4.4 million years ago, and, with that, males not only had to provide for them- selves, but they helped to provide for a female with the evolution of pair bonding.”

Dr. Fisher describes hunter-gatherer times as “dual income” because while the men hunted, the women gathered—thus making them both contributors. However, men came back with a kill only one out of four times. It was actually up to the women to provide in between. Because of that, meat was considered a luxury item.

“About 20 percent of the daily fare was meat provided by men. If they caught something big everybody might relax for three weeks as they all shared in it,” Dr. Fisher says. “But men were providers of the luxury items. Women were the providers of the daily fare, which were fruits and vegetables and berries and maybe even small mammals.”

This was how things worked for a couple of million years. Men hunted. Women gathered. A dual-income family was pretty much the only way to do it. Then some people decided to start planning what they would be gathering ahead of time. They planted crops and built farms, and from that sprouted agrarian societies. With this new normal, the dual-income norm shifted to one with men in the more central role, according to Dr. Fisher.

Men tended to move the rocks. Men tended to cut down the trees and till the land. Men sold the produce at the market—and brought back money. Women would pick, weed, prune, cook, and birth. They couldn’t roam to gather anymore, since someone had to look after the farm, so that’s when we evolved the idea that a woman’s place is in the home—and the idea that man is the “sole provider.”

“The idea of a principal provider emerges from agrarian past in the last ten thousand years—not the way the human males and females are built, not the way we lived for millions of years in hunter- gatherer society,” Dr. Fisher says.

This new norm held firm throughout the industrial revolution, until women started to enter the workforce. So now, instead of farms, we have these things called “jobs,” where we sit in rolling chairs at cubicles and click buttons on a computer until we get to go home. Then someone in a cubicle-with-actual-walls, usually called an office, gives us paper tender that we can trade for goods and services. This is called money.

“Money is the way we survive,” Dr. Fisher says. “The new survival mechanism is to have money.” Aside from the pay wage gap, money likes men and women equally—meaning the modern shift toward both men and women contributing financially to a household is actually reverting back to the dual-income partnership model.

Among married couples with children, 59 percent are dual-income. This is becoming the norm. Dr. Fisher maintains that it’s built into both men and women to want to provide—that it’s just human nature—and now a modern society where women participate in the workforce and even outearn male partners is returning to a norm where both sexes can do that.

“Right now, right in front of our eyes, we are shedding the concept of the sole provider,” Dr. Fisher says. “The double-income family is once again the rule.”

That brings us to today. A survey by A Woman’s Nation found that 63 percent of men are “very comfortable” with a partner who works. In fact, Dr. Fisher tells me that “over fifty percent of men want a partner who not only has a job, but has a career and is interested in her career.” But what if her career or salary tops yours? A lot of us still have a holdover idea that the man is supposed to be in the driver’s seat professionally, or at least financially. Although it killed him to admit it, Brian certainly wasn’t in the driver’s seat. If he were, he wouldn’t have blown up the best relationship of his life.

Let’s look at just how far along, statistically, we are with making the idea of “the provider” gender neutral. When it comes to gender and money, the prevailing issue of our time seems to be the gender pay gap. This, it goes without saying, is unacceptable. But though critically important, that snapshot doesn’t tell the whole story. Increasingly, men are on the decline financially. In 1950, 14 percent of men weren’t working. Today that number is 31 percent. The unemployment rate for men is slightly higher than for women. A portion of that is due to education: People with no high school diploma have almost three times the unemployment rate as those with a college degree. Since 2014, women have been earning more bachelor’s degrees than men. Women have been earning more master’s degrees than men in the United States since 1981, and as of 2017 women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four earned more than two-thirds of all master’s degrees. They earn 80 percent of all doctoral degrees.

This is part of the larger generational shift happening that we have to acknowledge.

“Our parents grew up in a totally different time, so some of the norms or conventional wisdom from their generation has seeped into our way of thinking even though they no longer make mathematical sense,” Priya Malani, the cofounder of Stash Wealth, tells me.

Malani is a financial expert who has been invited to speak at Cornell, Harvard, New York University, Yelp, Twitter, Cole Haan, IBM, Blue Apron, and more. She’s Refinery29’s resident financial expert. She spent most of her early career on Wall Street, where she quickly rose to the rank of vice president at Merrill Lynch, but came to realize that unless you have $10 million, no one is going to actually answer your questions about money. So she helped found Stash Wealth, “a financial planning firm for H.E.N.R.Y.s [High Earners, Not Rich Yet],” to help educate those in their twenties and thirties about making smart decisions with their money. (Full disclosure: I am trying my damnedest to be a H.E.N.R.Y. as a client of STASH myself.)

One of those generational holdovers she mentioned is the idea that you have to buy a house.

“We feel inadequate that we’re not buying, because it’s been very difficult for our generation to buy homes when we’re paying off student loans,” Malani says. “So, gosh, are we throwing money away by renting? We feel so guilty about this, but mathematically, it’s absolutely not true.”

She pointed to the work of Robert J. Shiller, who won the Nobel Prize in economic science in 2013. According to his research, in the past 126 years, housing prices outside big cities have risen 0.37 percent when controlled for inflation. “So basically they’ve not been an investment at all,” Malani says. “Again, this is outside of bubble markets.” But still!

Part of this generational shift has to do with college debt. In 2018, 69 percent of college students took out loans, and they graduated owing about $30,000 on average. Only 14 percent of their parents took out student loans. On the whole, Americans owe $1.56 trillion in student loan debt. That’s about half a trillion dollars more than our combined credit card debt. Millennials, specifically, graduated from college with a mountain of debt, just in time for the 2007–08 financial crisis to make sure there were no jobs available to help pay off that debt.

The nature of jobs has changed as well. The concept of the full-time job with benefits is evaporating. During President Obama’s administration, for example, 94 percent of the 10 million jobs created were part-time or contract. By 2014, one in three Americans was a freelancer. That’s about 42 million people.

“Millennials deserve more credit—both from themselves and from others—for their mindfulness when it comes to money and their lives,” Andrew Plepler, the global head of environmental, social, and governance at Bank of America, says. “Let’s not forget, many millennials entered the workforce during the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression. However, they seem to have weathered the storm quite admirably.”

Ultimately, the idea that you go to college, get a good job with benefits, and then buy a house is outdated. Despite all this, and despite millennials getting made fun of for eating avocado toast, young people are out there hustling and patching together a living—and particularly women.

It’s within this cultural context that I want to introduce you to a concept known as “financial feminism.”

“We are not going to be equal with men until we are financially equal,” Ellevest cofounder (and a renowned legend on Wall Street) Sallie Krawcheck says on the Forbes podcast Hiding in the Bathroom. (Someone give whoever named that podcast an award.)

All throughout my childhood, my mother wanted me to be financially literate and financially independent, and she really impressed this upon me, I think, because I’m a woman. I remember her giving me a copy of famed financial expert Suze Orman’s book Women & Money when I was sixteen, and I remember at the time being like, “Ugh, no.” But I got the message loud and clear—and I don’t think I’m the only one. Being a smart woman means having your own source of income—it’s an idea many of her generation imparted to their daughters.

Here’s an interesting fact: it wasn’t until 1974 that women were legally guaranteed the right to open a personal credit card. Before that, many banks required single women to bring along a man—a brother, a husband, a dad, whoever—with them to cosign for a line of credit. Even Hillary Clinton has a story about being denied a credit card in the seventies. She was told to use her husband’s instead.

Financial feminism is the idea that money is a key ingredient in the liberation of women. It’s a term I first heard when I became a fan of Farnoosh Torabi. Torabi is a personal financial expert, the host of the So Money podcast, and the former host of a primetime CNBC series called Follow the Leader. She also has written three books about personal nance, the latest of which is titled When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women.

“We have to think of ourselves first,” Torabi says. “It seems selfish, but you have to put your own oxygen mask on first and then you can take care of everybody else.”

Torabi’s new project, She Stacks, is a start-up aimed at financially empowering women through products and media content. Torabi’s cofounder, Kindra Meyer, explained the catalyst behind the company. “After the election, like many women, we broke down and broke through,” Meyer told the New Yorker in 2019.

“We came to this conclusion that until women are financially literate and empowered around money, we’ll never truly have equality.”

And here’s how this all comes back to #MeToo.

In 2018, financial guru Suze Orman came out of semiretirement to relaunch her famed book Women & Money.

“I started to realize the role that money plays in the #MeToo movement and everything,” she said on a panel hosted by Money magazine in 2018, with Torabi as a co-panelist. “It is fabulous that women now are finding their voice and they’re finally saying what’s happened to them. And there isn’t one of us, I’m positive, that it hasn’t happened to—especially at my age, it’s happened many times, but I had the power to say no.”

She had the power to say no because she was financially secure. In Orman’s opinion, it’s harder to reject the advances of your boss if you don’t have enough saved for next month’s rent. It’s difficult to ignore a meeting with the Harvey Weinsteins if you haven’t made it yet. In other words, money is a huge way the power imbalance is tipped to allow abuses to happen to women.

“The subtitle of the book is to be strong, smart, and secure,” Orman said. “It’s my way of trying to say, ‘Come on, ladies. This is the time that you now have a voice. Let’s have a financial voice.’”

For many women, this push toward financial feminism comes in subtle and not-so-subtle forms. But it still doesn’t smoothly fit in with traditional gender roles about finances. Torabi’s book When She Makes More offers tips to women who earn more than their male partners, which is something Farnoosh can speak to personally.

“When a woman makes more than her man, the rules are totally different,” writes Torabi. “The latest data shows that women under the age of 30 have higher median incomes than men in nearly every major city in the country. Of all married couples across all ages, 24% include a wife who earns more, versus a scant 6% in 1960.”

So in a sense, what we have happening in our culture at the moment is financial feminism butting up against some men’s desire to provide. I think this is where most of the tension is coming from in Brian’s story, and all the other men who told me about similar hang- ups. I had multiple men, who would otherwise describe themselves as forward-thinking and progressive, admit that they have a real issue not being the main breadwinner in a heterosexual relation- ship. And it surprised even them!

What do we do with that?

My mind always goes back to a Fight Club quote: “You are not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis.” It’s important to separate the idea of someone’s worth as a human being from their net worth.

Copyright © 2019 by Cleo Stiller. From the forthcoming book MODERN MANHOOD: Conversations About the Complicated World of Being a Good Man Today by Cleo Stiller to be published by Tiller Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.

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