Creating Fairness in the Financial Arrangement

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:00 PM
262 Dwinelle (Dwinelle Hall)
Marta Olcoń-Kubicka, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw, Poland; Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw, Poland
Based on ethnographic research conducted in 24 middle-class households in Warsaw, this paper analyzes three modes of fairness reflected in the financial arrangements created by young (up to 35-year-old), heterosexual couples living together.

Focused on the household and use of domestic money, this paper develops a micro-sociological perspective on the social meanings of money in order to understand what kind of expectations, discourses, ideologies, and logics are mobilized when it comes to money control and management on everyday basis. Basing on the insights proposed by culturally and relationally oriented sociology of money (Zelizer 2012, Wherry 2012), practice theory (Schatzki 1996, Knorr-Cetina, Schatzki, Savigny 2001) and lay normativity approach (Sayer 2003, 2005) this paper is focused on the way in which young double-earner heterosexual couples organize their economic resources by pooling them, keeping them separate, or using some kind of mixed system. After investigating the practices of establishing the financial arrangements the paper examines three modes of fairness reflected in the financial arrangement: (1) a ‘half and half’ mode, (2) a ‘more or less egalitarian’ mode, and (3) a ‘common pot’ mode.

As the study shows, the financial arrangement comprises not only the set of everyday practices such as earning, spending and saving money, paying the bills, doing the shopping, budgeting, and talking about money, but also the rules governing it and the meaning shared by both partners around these practices. As such, the arrangement is something more than a simple way of managing and controlling the household money: it embraces a number of issues from economic to purely emotional ones. In the process of creating, negotiating and establishing an arrangement young couples are constrained by different convictions and expectations and activate non-economic intentions and emotions that are deeply connected with the sense of morality. By establishing certain type of the arrangement couples take into account the valuation of money as well as of the relationship they are engaged in. As such, the arrangement involves not only a management system, but also a definition of the relationship, its valuation, and a moral judgement of the arrangement as ‘right’ or ’wrong’. By analyzing how young couples justify their way of enabling financial settlement and how they feel about it, the papers argues that the arrangement between partners works on moral logic and reflects the domestic order based on different notions of justice and fairness.

The modes of fairness reflected in the form of the financial arrangement are only temporary grounded and are subject to change in the face of life events and turning points. Working with evidence gathered among young Poles, this paper focuses on three types of life events that introduce new circumstances into household: (1) beginnings of cohabitation, when a couple has to work out in practice a set of informal arrangements regarding household production, consumption, and financial activities; (2) co-signing a mortgage, which puts the couple in shared debt and anchors them through homeownership in long-term temporalities of the financial markets, and (3) pregnancy or birth of the child into a household, which poses a question of parental leave and childcare. Due to our research approach based on several (3-5) visits in the participant’s homes in the course of longitudinal study (over 18 months) not only could we observe the emergence of the modes of fairness in the making, but also to pinpoint the other key moments of its change. Such a research perspective showed the processual and mutable nature of modes of fairness due to objective external factors such as getting married, buying a flat or renovating it, loosing a job or being promoted resulting in the increase of income disparity. As the study shows, each of these factors brings about new set of rights, duties and obligations for both partners. As the result, the fairness is dynamic: couples change their expectations and convictions regarding the ‘right’ financial arrangement according to changing external conditions.

In consequence, the practices of handling money in the household undergo the several transitions. For instance, the system of mutual exchanges fluctuates: when one partner purchases the groceries, the other one instead of making a direct transfer “pays back” by buying gas. In the process of mental accounting partners resign from direct and exact calculations between them or ignore small numbers. Money becomes less calculable:  ‘borrowing’ moves to ‘helping out’ or ‘giving’, and the couple moves from purposive pooling into greater jointness of money. As for some couples the process of shifting from one arrangement form into another one goes smoothly (‘it came about naturally’) others were struggling over the financial rules that would govern the household, as they were facing the challenges such as formal ownership of the assets, excessive consumption, or growing income disparity.

After investigating the shifts from one arrangement form into another the paper analyzes the principles that lie behind these forms by reconstructing the discourses and justifications that are mobilized while keeping the half and half principle or moving towards merging finances. As the ‘half and half’ mode is based on pursuit of equality and independence, the ‘more or less egalitarian’ mode seeks for balance and equivalence, whereas the ‘common pot’ mode entails trust, commitment and mutually shared obligations. In each of these fairness modes the orientation towards well-being and good life is noticeable. However, the confrontation of the discourses about money and relationships with the practices themselves shows the disparity between claims and practices. For instance, as the predominant discourse among dual earner couples underlines the idea of the partnership and equality and its importance in the relationship, the practice shows that couples tacitly assume the role of male as a main breadwinner in the household. In order to achieve the sense of having a good life together couples have to resort to blurring practices of handling money that would hide the inequalities between them.