Money, or the power to spend money, is a common concern for many feminists and for good reason. In most places, the person who earns the money determines how the money is spent, and in many places in the world, that means men control the finances. In good situations, this means that men ‘take responsibility’ for their family members and ensure for their wellbeing. When I was growing up, my father was the primary breadwinner of the house (my mother had a part time job that paid for extras, but made a very small amount compared to him), and he gave my mum a certain amount of money each week to spend on groceries while he paid the utilities and mortgage. It was probably the same system that my grandparents had used, and it seemed to work well for them. But all too often around the world, men spend their income on alcohol, gambling, other women, or other vices, leaving women and children in a perilous position. That’s why so many aid groups and initiatives focus on employment for women, because when women make their own money and control their own finances, family needs are much more likely to be met.
Women also tend to be more susceptible to financial abuse. My mother’s friend’s daughter was financially abused for years in that her husband forced her to turn all of her money over to him. He then controlled her coming and going and every aspect of her life by controlling her cash flow. She has very serious food allergies, and thus requires special, more expensive food, but by the time her family found out about what was happening to her, she was literally malnourished because her husband had refused to let her buy the food she needed. After that case, my mother was always adamant that women should take care of their own finances.
In Korea, however, money is much less a feminist concern than in many other countries around the world. Even though men are expected to be the primary breadwinner, and a great many women still hope to marry a man capable of financially taking care of them so they do not have to participate in the all-consuming pressure cooker that is the Korean workplace, the contemporary ‘traditional’ practice is for men to give their paycheque to the wife as soon as he gets it. This is one of the reasons, as I have mentioned before, married men will often refer to themselves as ‘ATMs.’
The wife gives the husband a particular allowance per month from his paycheque, or she closely monitors the amount he spends on her credit card (more on that later). The idea is that, since ‘salarymen’ or men who work for Korean companies, work so late, they rarely have time to go to the bank, run errands, or buy groceries. In addition, as women are still expected to do the lion’s share of running the household, they are culturally expected to make these purchases instead of men. Finally, because of the obsession with afterschool education at hagwons, (driven of course by mothers themselves), women contend that they need to manage the finances in order to find ways to scrape together the various education fees for their children. For the most part, there doesn’t seem to be a large amount of public debate surrounding women controlling finances. In part because it is probably seen as a private household matter, and in part because the reality of the salaryman is that he does not have any time to do the things that need to be done to keep the household in working order. However, that does not mean that there are no private concerns about this practice.
One time, when I was teaching business people, I had a late night class with a student who was about to get married, and it must be said, scared shitless about the whole ordeal. No matter what the topic of the day – interview skills, ethical dilemmas, beauty, military service, conditional sentences – he would always find some way to alert his conversational group partners to the fact that he was getting married as a way of soliciting advice from his older male classmates. One day, his worries turned to money, and the fact that he was about to lose all power over his bank account, paycheque, and what he believed to be life in general. I was sitting in on the various small group discussions in order to correct errors when one of the older students looked around to make sure none of the female students were listening, leaned closer to the soon-to-be-married student and myself, and started telling us (in hushed English) about how to set up a secret bank account and how to hide it from your wife. It was an interesting experience for me not only because I learned a whole lot about inner-family money conflicts, but also because somehow I was being excluded from the category of ‘female’ and allowed to ‘be a boy’ for a short time.
In another case that I know, which I hesitate to write about in too much detail here, a person I know gave his life savings, consisting of a couple tens of thousands of dollars to his Korean fiancée, who then held it basically ransom as a way to force him to marry him. Really, the money situation was the least of that couple’s worries, they had many issues (obviously), but being from a culture where until recently, men tended to be in charge of the money, it was interesting in those first few years in Korea to see the exact opposite situation. Another person I know was repeatedly unable to order lunch with us because he didn’t have enough allowance to buy his own meal. His wife cooked for him and made him coffee in the morning, but he didn’t have enough money to buy his own food.
Conversely, a Western male co-worker recently told me that long ago he gave his now Korean fiancée all of his money and somehow, ‘magically’ she got rid of his debts and helped him to start saving. He credits her alone for their financial health and ability to budget in ways he never imagined possible. Another friend, whose wife is in finance, was able to pay for a large chunk of their wedding though stock market earnings after she invested his money. He too praises his wife for their financial success. It’s such an interesting role reversal from Western culture where just a generation or two ago, women were told not to worry their pretty little heads with things like facts and figures.
Money has never been a thing Mr. Lee and I have wanted to discuss at length. Early on he knew I wanted to be a career woman, and that I intended to support myself rather than rely on a man, and I knew that he was a person with a decent income who spent responsibility. Neither of us actually even knew each other’s full financial situation until a few months ago, which sounds really dangerous, especially for the ever-prudent me, but it speaks to the general knowledge both of us had about each other’s character and the fact that we had successfully managed our own lives for quite some time before we met each other. Anyway, when we broke down our budget a few months ago to figure out how much we could spend on our house, furniture, and wedding extras, we finally discussed what we were going to do about household money.
It has always been a given that we would have our own bank accounts. Sometimes I joke with him that now that we are married he has to give me all his money so I can give him his small allowance back, but the truth is that he has always been deadly serious about not giving up control of his money in the same way that I would be if faced with a more ‘traditional’ Canadian way of financial control. I think he has seen far too many cases around him of people around him held hostage by wives who have too much financial control. Again, amazing how context can really change your perception on what is a feminist concern. For my part of course, I have always assumed I would have my own bank account and be able to manage my own money (and decide to combine it with my partner’s if need be), so we came to a very quick conclusion as to what to do with the bulk of our money. Therefore, strangely, although managing our individual paycheques is very abnormal in Korea, we were both completely on board with this idea from the start with absolutely no pre-discussion needed.
However, in Korea we have an added issue in that there is no such thing as a joint bank account, even for household items. Most of my friends in North America have dealt with money delegation by merging all or a significant portion of their assets into joint accounts (sometimes retaining individual accounts for ‘fun’ things or for credit purposes). That’s the modern North American way. Nevertheless, we do not have that option here in Korea. I’m not entirely sure why that is the case, although I do know that there are numerous situations where people have tried to cheat taxes by putting their own assets into family members’ names, so perhaps this is a banking concern in Korea? Whatever the reason, no matter what, unless we pay household bills by cash – which would put us at a tax disadvantage and mean that we would pay more for things as many store/cable/phone plan etc systems are built on giving discounts to holders of certain cards – we have to choose one person to put their name on account for household items.
After a little discussion, we decided to put the household account under Mr. Lee’s name. When it comes to money issues in international marriage, there is an added problem from many people because expats still have many disadvantages with banks. We can open bank accounts, but we are often denied credit cards or loans as ‘flight risks’ even when we have jobs that are more lucrative than the bank tellers denying such services, and are married to Koreans (thus showing ‘a commitment to Korea’). As a result, when it comes to joint expenses and joint purchases, the largest factor in terms of whose name goes on the lease, loan, or account, usually boils down to who is Korean instead of who is the power player in the house or even who makes the money. Such a radically different system here, but again, I’m learning that what is ‘traditional’ depends on whose tradition, and what is ‘normal’ completely depends on the context you are living in.
Anyway, so the account is in Mr. Lee’s name, but I have the credit card (as my schedule permits more household purchases). Strangely, nobody ever checks the signature or name on the credit card, and even if they do, stores seem to expect that accounts are shared within families. In fact, clerks usually process my credit card purchases before I actually finish signing my name because it’s longer than most Korean names.
We’re not sure if our system will work – it’s only been two weeks – but so far we’ve been able to merge our finances when we want to make purchases together while still retaining control over our own savings. We’re a strange Korean couple, and I think we’re also an abnormal contemporary Canadian couple, but hopefully neither one of us will ever hide money in order to buy a cup of coffee, and hopefully both of us can continue to increase our savings by separately controlling our money.
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