When spouses walk the fine line between allowance and financial abuse

By Lizann Lightfoot

We may joke about the commissary being crazy busy on payday, but the real reason for the long lines is no laughing matter: Some families are only able to shop for groceries on a payday. Many military families are in strained financial situations, especially if they married young and the spouse has never held a full-time job.

Since the military is paid every two weeks, some couples take drastic measures to make the money last. They may wait a few days before buying groceries. In a military town, social events are planned around the payday calendar. If you want to go out to lunch or host a LuLaRoe party, you do it on a payday weekend. Otherwise, everyone will cancel because, as some might say, “my husband says we can’t spend any more money from this paycheck.”

New moms are often hit the hardest. Not only are they temporarily unable to work when a baby is born, but their partner does not always understand the ways that having a baby will affect the household budget. I know moms who hide cash on payday so it would be available the following week.

What did they buy with their secret stash? Diapers and baby formula.

When one mom confessed to this during a play date, I was surprised how many other women present laughed in agreement. “Oh yes,” they all said with nods, “I have done that too. If I don’t hide some of his money, I would run out of diapers!”

When moms have to hide “his” money to buy diapers, something is clearly wrong with the household budget.

Is military income his, hers, or ours?

There are numerous reasons military couples have financial struggles. Service members often marry young, so that they will not be separated by long distances. Some move into their first home before either spouse has a college degree. The military lifestyle does not make it easy for a military spouse to get a full-time job because of frequent deployments, PCS moves, and out-of-state licensing challenges. For these reasons, many military families survive on just the service member’s salary. This can put the military spouse in a precarious situation: The financial set-up that made sense at the beginning of marriage may no longer be fair after a PCS or a few children have changed their financial reality.

When a service member marries, they assume financial responsibility for their dependents. Regardless of their employment status, a military spouse should still have an equal voice in the family’s financial choices. Yes, there are plenty of cases where military wives have spent money on something extravagant and unnecessary–like a name-brand purse. However, there are just as many cases where a wife has quietly gone without some essential–like food or diapers–because her husband didn’t “give her enough.”

Controlling how all money is spent and withholding money or giving an allowance to a partner are two indicators of financial abuse.

In a one-income military household, who controls the budget?

Ideally, both spouses should agree to a household budget and work on it together. Whether that happens through a joint bank account, separate bank accounts, or an allowance system, it should be a mutual agreement between the spouses. Both spouses should have a solid understanding of the bills and finances so that one spouse can smoothly take over financial management when the other spouse deploys. Neither spouse should get the “leftovers” when their partner is done spending. If an unemployed spouse is forced into an allowance system where they can’t provide for basic needs, then the situation can quickly cross the line into control and even domestic abuse.

What can military spouses do if they have no control over the household budget?

Sharing financial responsibilities is a step towards gaining equal financial footing with their spouse. They could start by making the regular monthly bill payments or categorizing credit card purchases.

Next, the couple should take a budgeting class together. Free budget classes are typically available at your base family services center or through the Navy/Marine Corps Relief Society. Classes like Budget for Baby will be particularly useful to new parents. You can also learn from financial experts like Dave Ramsey, who are respected and legitimate in their field. Ramsey recommends a cash envelope system for young couples to help them get a grasp on household expenses. This way, each person becomes more aware of the regular household expenses and where they each need to reduce spending.

If the financial situation crosses into abuse–where the service member denies basic needs such as food or lodging to the dependent spouse or children–then the spouse may seek legal support. The service member’s chain of command and the base legal office can assist in setting up payday allotments if necessary so that basic needs are met. There are also emergency food pantries located on most military bases if families have no groceries between paydays.

Just because you have no income does not mean you have no say in your family’s budget. If both spouses cooperate, one military income can support a family.

Lizann Lightfoot is an associate editor at Military One Click and a Marine Corps spouse. She can be reached at