Working women, stay-at-home mothers, and joint accounts

These days, many couples’ homes are run as two separate financial entities

A desire for access to the household finances is not exclusive to working women.

A desire for access to the household finances is not exclusive to working women.


In Emma Donoghue’s play on Dublin-born writer Maeve Brennan, Talk of the Town, scenes of the writer’s drink-fuelled, glamorous life in New York are interspersed with flashbacks to her more ascetic childhood in Ranelagh.

In one such memorable scene of life in 1920s Dublin, the writer’s father throws housekeeping money at his wife across the kitchen table, leaving her to scurry around to pick up the notes.

The scene was not unique in the Ireland of yesteryear, when men often held the purse strings, and women had to make the best of whatever allowances they were granted. Even 40 years ago, it was the norm for the bread-winner – generally male – to have a sole account and to manage all income and outgoings.

But in 1973, the lifting of the “marriage bar” (whereby women working in the civil service and other professions had been compelled to leave their jobs upon marrying) presented women with the opportunity to flourish in the workforce, and to generate an income they could control.

These days, many couples’ homes are run as two separate financial entities. Parties have their own incomes and bank accounts, but they use a joint account to pay bills.

A desire for access to the household finances is not exclusive to working women.

For stay-at-home mothers, for whom the economics of the home can get a little bit more complicated, the introduction of the joint account has been of huge significance in terms of ensuring equality.

This was true for Sheila O’Malley, who now works as a parenting adviser through Practical Parenting, but who took some time out of paid employment to mind her children when they were small. “I remember this conversation I had at the time with my husband when I was going to give up work for a couple of years,” she says.

“He almost choked on his lunch when I told him that I was only willing to do it on the basis that we had a joint account. He said, ‘But I’ve had my own account since I was 12’. But for me it was important.”

With a joint account, the husband’s earnings become the household’s earnings, and this can validate any purchases a woman wishes to make on her own behalf.

“So much of the time our sense of self comes from work. I’d often find that women come to parenting courses and their confidence has taken a knock because they just can’t go out and buy things themselves any more,” says O’Malley.

Of course, the example of a friend or relative who couldn’t leave an unhappy or potentially abusive marriage because they didn’t have the price of a solicitor is one that is to the fore of many women’s minds when they step back from the workforce, and highlights the importance of having your own money. “You can’t go if you haven’t got any money,” says O’Malley.

While women have not always had access to the entire household income, they have long been responsible for running the family budget – sometimes at their own expense.

Joint account or not, when two parents work, it’s often the female who feels obliged to bear the costs of childcare out of her pay packet.

Instead of the financial burden being shared equally, some women take the view that because they’re not staying at home to mind the children, they should be the ones paying for it.

Such an approach can disadvantage women when it comes to being able to save and provide for their own financial security, given the expense of childcare in Ireland.

A recent OECD survey indicated that childcare eats up 29 per cent of the after-tax income of a dual income-earning family and 52 per cent of a lone parent’s.

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