The Economics of Marriage: For Love <em>and</em> Money
Life + Leisure

The Economics of Marriage: For Love <em>and</em> Money

Saul Herrera/iStockphoto

If every marriage is its own little economy, as Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson posit in a new book, Spousanomics – “a business of two with a finite number of resources that need to be allocated correctly” – is it any wonder that in today’s fiscal frenzy, about half of them end up busting apart?

If that represents the darker side of things — a healthy dose of skepticism is clearly in order when trying to apply hard-and-fast economic principles to the squishier domestic landscape. Co-author Jenny Anderson, a New York Times reporter who won a Gerald Loeb Award in 2008 for her breaking-news coverage of Merrill Lynch, told The Fiscal Times that she had this same skepticism when she and her co-author, Paula Szuchman, a Page One editor at the Wall Street Journal, first conceived of this book.

“Most economists we spoke to early on said, ‘Sounds like a great idea — go with God,’” said Anderson, chuckling. “Some definitely said, ‘Human relationships are so irrational, there’s nothing we could possibly apply from economics.’”

But behavioral economists saw the potential and confirmed the authors’ instinct that a no-nonsense, solutions-based application could indeed work with marriage — and in fact, why hadn’t anyone done this before? The concept could even help make some marriages more productive and, hence, happier. The behavioral economists “dispel the classical economic notion that we’re all rational, self-maximizing creatures,” says Anderson. “We don’t constantly weigh the costs and benefits of our actions every 30 seconds and come up with optimal solutions. We don’t always save enough for retirement, or exercise enough, or eat well, or all the other things that are clearly rational in order to live healthier and longer lives.” 

After more than three years of work and interviews with hundreds of couples across the country — as well as economists, psychologists, researchers and other experts — the authors have concluded that boosting “precious resources and allocating them more intelligently” can lead to “a better return” on the investment in marriage. Jenny Anderson explained more in an interview with The Fiscal Times. Here are excerpts:

The Fiscal Times (TFT): The financial crisis of 2008 helped inspire this book, you say. How?

Jenny Anderson (JA): Everywhere we looked we saw parallels. Paula and I were both recently married at the time and figuring out what our marriages were going to be like. And I had been covering the situation at Merrill Lynch. ‘Moral hazard’ was being talked about, as was ‘too big to fail’ and Uncle Sam as insurance for Citigroup and Lehman Brothers — and whether that was good or bad. Those concepts sounded a lot like marriage, frankly. Was marriage an insurance policy to take each other for granted? Why is it that married people exercised less than single people? Why were our single friends suddenly saying, ‘Now you don’t have to get dressed up or have perfect outfits anymore’? I thought, Wait a second. If behavioral economics could be applied to the price of a cup of coffee and whether or not to sign up for a 401(k), commitment devices and marriage could go together, too.

10 Signs of a Marriage Market Failure, from Spousanomics:

  • Burned-out kitchen light bulbs that go unreplaced for six weeks.
  • Military push-ups sound better than sex.
  • A bottle of wine. Per person. Per night.
  • A raised bump in the middle of the bed and sheets that haven’t been washed since the last obligatory lovemaking session, seven months ago.
  • Indecision, especially around what to have for dinner, what to do Friday night, or whether to go to bed at 9:30 or 9:45.
  • Love handles.
  • Eagerness to go to the dentist — on a Saturday.
  • Another dive into The Brothers Karamazov to fend off romantic advances.
  • Newfound interest in woodworking.
  • Soul death.

From Spousanomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes by Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson. Copyright 2011 by Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson. Excerpted by permission of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

TFT: Economies are dynamic relationships, much like marriages are, you say.

JA: Years ago people married out of economic necessity. Today, you marry for hope and for want and for other hedonistic purposes — not for necessity. But a ton of work goes into making a marriage last. I don’t just mean the work of the relationship, but the physical work. People who have been married for awhile know this well.

TFT: The point, then, for those not yet married or in the early years of their marriage?

JA: Be willing to change your expectations over time, and innovate in the face of a changing economy or a changing relationship. Things really do change. Your definition of a good Saturday will be much different after you have three kids, for example, than when you were single or newly married. You’ll be in shock that having twenty minutes to yourself will seem downright luxurious.

TFT: You created a survey that 1,000 people across the country answered about the highs and lows of married life. When the day-to-day household workload is more or less equally divided between spouses, should one assume those marriages are more successful than others?

JA: It can work for some people — and when it does, I respect that. But we actually discovered a different alternative. When married partners do what they’re relatively better at, they tend to care more about it. They trade off the rest. That happens in the more successful marriages, in our experience. Couples who split things 50-50 actually end up discussing it more and keeping track of it all — and end up fighting about it more, too.

TFT:  So from an efficiency standpoint, 50-50 doesn’t work.

JA: A system of comparative advantage might be better. Whether you go with the fairness mechanism that underlies that — which might be a 60-40 division, or 70-30, at different points in your marriage — that’s up to each couple. The luxury of outsourcing the household cleaning — that could be a dozen tasks that are no longer at issue, though most Americans can’t afford that. Some components are hard to value, but if you actually sit down and go through them, things like washing the dishes, child care, and cooking healthy meals are all quite valuable.

Related Links:
Applying Economics to Marriage (The Washington Post)
Marriage Economics (Technorati)