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Married Women Keep a Tradition Alive: A Bank Account That’s All Their Own

September 13, 1995

Vicky Nisman works hard for her money. Some of it she hides from her husband.

Ms. Nisman, a 54-year-old Boston massage therapist, works six days a week; instead of pooling all her earnings with her spouse, she puts thousands in a secret bank account she keeps with her daughter from a previous marriage. ``Even if you have the most wonderful husband in the world, you can be very good to him, but you must always think about yourself and your kids first,″ says Ms. Nisman, a former nurse.

Women may have redefined their roles at home and in the work force, but one tradition lives on: Even in peaceful marriages where money doesn’t seem to be a major issue, women want their own bank accounts. Even women with salaries large enough to support themselves if need be, and whose husbands put all their money into a domestic pool, want money that is theirs and only theirs.

Many women claim a secret, or at least separate, account is actually good for a marriage _ a way to avoid battles about the most fought-about issue in marriage. ``There are times when I want to buy something that my husband feels is foolish, so rather than fight, I can go ahead and buy it with this money,″ says Lucille Corrier, a partner in a New York marketing and consulting firm who has a $10,000 private bank account. ``It also helps me feel I have control over my life and adds to my self-esteem, because if the day comes when I am alone _ if my husband predeceases me _ I will have to manage my money, anyway. I don’t want to lose touch.″

Her husband declined to comment.

But some people believe secret accounts are simply a symptom of some other problem in a marriage. ``Money is an arena in which many hidden issues are played out, unbeknownst to the couple,″ says Howard Markman, the director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies in Denver. ``These issues usually involve power, control, status and trust.″

In a recent survey of 1,000 professional women by Working Woman magazine, 13 percent said they hid money from their husbands. Of those, 43 percent agreed with the statement: ``I think every woman should have money of her own tucked away″; 30 percent said they used the money for purchases they didn’t want to be questioned about and a quarter said they did it in case an emergency came up.

Asked whether she keeps a secret nest egg, Phyllis Harvin, a New York administrative assistant, snaps: ``Get real, honey! Doesn’t every woman?″

Ms. Harvin started her ``little piggy bank,″ as she calls it, three years ago. She says her husband, like his father before him, is ``cheap.″ So like her mother before her, Ms. Harvin keeps a hidden stockpile, accumulated by skimming off part of what he gives her for their joint monthly expenses. How much has she accumulated over the years? ``Enough,″ she says.

Husbands, not surprisingly, have mixed feelings about this. Men have long set up secret accounts to pay for expenses they didn’t want their wives to know about, which may be why they can be suspicious of the motives of women who do the same thing.

David Salembier, 50, headmaster of a private school in Bergen County, N.J., says he tells his three daughters that ``it’s very important that they are independent and can earn a living for themselves.″ But he stops short of endorsing private accounts, saying it could undermine a marriage before it starts.

Mr. Salembier’s wife of 14 years, Leslie, a 41-year-old teacher, smiles as her husband gives his point of view. Out of her husband’s earshot, she confides: ``I have $15,000 in stocks and bonds he doesn’t know about.″

Brad Marthens, 35, owner of the Atlantic Inn on Block Island, R.I., and a husband for nine years, says he would be unhappy about the dishonesty inherent in a secret account. ``We have a very honest relationship,″ he says. ``We hear about a lot of couples with separate accounts, and we always thought that kind of odd.″

But family therapist Anna Beth Benningfield says each person in a couple should have his or her own money and that it shouldn’t have to be secret. Women with secret accounts may be preparing for providing for themselves and their kids if they ever leave their husbands, she says. ``Hiding money is often associated with two phenomena in marriage. One is a female who is feeling powerless or distrustful so that she is accumulating funds to protect herself, or she doesn’t trust that her husband is being honest,″ says Ms. Benningfield. ``It’s always related to the balance of power and the balance of trust in a relationship.″

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