Making a Living: How Young Couples in Warsaw Start and Practice a Household
Many conventional notions of the household reify it as a functional, bounded, and stable unit, often endowed with “preferences” and “strategies.” In contrast, this paper treats the household as an ongoing process, not a ready-made thing, and attends to householdING, in which individual desires and deeds converge and diverge, some resources are pooled while other are kept separate, and the very virtues and futures of living together are continuously negotiated and, at times, questioned. Seen from that perspective, the household is a fragile accomplishment and we should not take its existence for granted, but rather ask: how does a household come to be and how is it sustained through time? Moreover, while many studies on the household treat this category as a binary—either the household obtains or it does not—a processual notion of householdING emphasizes that it might manifest itself in varied and fluctuating degrees or stages of commonality and autonomy, and that cohabiting individuals themselves might mobilize “the household” as a frame for some activities, but not some others.
In order to understand these complexities, this research offers an ethnographic study of everyday practices of handling money and financial instruments among cohabiting couples. Based on multiple home visits, interviews, observations, and financial diaries, this paper tracks the domestic uses of money and finance among young middle-class couples in Warsaw. We argue that these intimate transactions not so much happen IN the household, as they are constitutive of it, and so the main point of the paper is to show how the household is done, or enacted, in everyday monetary and financial practices at home and beyond. To observe this, we have focused on 8 couples who have recently moved in together and had to negotiate workable arrangements regarding the control and management of money, and on 8 couples who have been living together longer, but recently took out long-term mortgages to finance new apartments and had to consider their shared future and mobilize their social ties to secure the down payment. All under the age of 35, our interlocutors belong to Poland’s first postsocialist generation, who grew up after the social and economic reforms of 1989 and are now going on their own in social and economic realities that would be unrecognizable to their parents in their youth. As they form households, they navigate new forms of money, including credit cards, consumer loans, and adjustable-rate mortgages; they draw on monetary imaginaries that have less to do with social memory and more with what Beckert calls “fictional expectations;” and they work together notions of emotional and financial independence from their parents with ideals of emotional and financial mutuality with their partners or spouses.
How does householdING work in practice? Our analysis proceeds from observations of routines and habits of money management that are established and largely transparent to individuals as well as from descriptions of unprecedented situations where actions have to be negotiated and justified. We will reconstruct the process of householdING as a recurring set of practices that are orchestrated (planned or coordinated), relatively stabilized, and include a combination of embodied actions, like shopping or getting fuel for the car, and mental processes of accounting, earmarking and otherwise assigning meaning or moral valence to distinct kinds of money and expenditures. These practices are socio-technical in that they unfold through materialities of designed things and technologies like notes, coins, wallets, credit cards, online accounts, Excel spreadsheets, adjustable-rate mortgage contracts, etc. They are often concerned with drawing boundaries: between the household and other households, or between “my money,” “your money,” “our money,” and “their money.” This boundary-drawing is justified in moral terms, which regulate not only ongoing management of money, but also broader visions of the good life that orient practices. As Viviana Zelizer has shown, intimate transactions that use money and finance in domestic settings, are always operations on social ties, or put differently cases of “relational work” of matching social relationships to appropriate media or making certain amounts and forms of money available for specific relational events like pregnancy or marriage. In the case of Poland’s young households, a special case of this process are relationships with parents, who often participate in acquiring housing or car and provide care and resources when the couple has a baby.
The paper will identify and analyze three sets of practices of householdING:
(1) Coupling, or intimate pair dynamic, in which young couples use money and finance to try out and achieve a negotiated vision of the good life together. Ethnographic descriptions include pooling and separating money, creating savings and going in debt for shared future. We argue that both present “fairness” in the household and future “good life together” are achieved through efforts of managing and moralizing the deferrals between monetary transactions. We thus propose to see householdingas a manipulation of shared time using money and finance.
(2) Managing ties with parents, in-laws, and extended family, in which some forms of intergenerational transfers are cut, but some others sustain the young household as a semi-autonomous domain. Ethnographic descriptions include wedding preparations, which include expectations of cash gifts to be converted, dowry-like, to mortgage down payment. We argue that “going on one’s own” entails not severing flows of money, but forms of creative accounting in which parental support is reinterpreted or misrecognized.
(3) Using software (Excel and online banking) in order to render the household visible, manageable, equitable, and liquid. Based on descriptions of domestic uses of spreadsheets and sub-accounts as tools for archiving, calculating, projecting, and transforming household money, we argue that the household as an economic and moral process is a socio-technical accomplishment, in which properties of the software orient and modify everyday practice.