Public Perception of Money in Families

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Principal investigator:

Joanna Pepin

University of Maryland



Sample size: 4020

Field period: 05/13/2016-08/18/2016


Families are rapidly changing, navigating tension between ideals of family unity and values of individualism. How these changing times interact with progress towards gender equity is not well understood. This study investigated norms about income sharing within families. Respondents were asked to select a preferred income allocation strategy for a fictional couple with varied circumstances. A primary contribution of this study is to empirically investigate the mechanisms behind the ways couples use and share money. It seeks to identify when earnings are believed to be a source of power and when income is truly considered household money. Respondents were asked to evaluate how money should be arranged, their perception of fairness in hypothetical decision-making scenarios, how unexpected income should be treated, and to report opinions of individual rights to personal spending money.


Hypothesis/Research Questions:

I hypothesized higher-earners would be evaluated as having more rights to personal spending money but this would be conditional on marital and parental status, relationship duration, and the gender of the higher-earner.

Experimental Manipulations

Marital status
Parental status
Relationship duration
Relative earnings (by gender)

Outcome Variables:

Evaluations of bank account ownership
Ideal proportions of shared earnings
Perceptions of fairness in decision-making and expenses

Summary of Results

Findings showed that despite differences in fictional couples’ marital and parental statuses, the majority of respondents indicated all couples should ideally pursue some level of autonomy within their relationships. Respondents also believed higher-earning partners ought to hold back a greater absolute value of their income, potentially reproducing unequal labor market conditions within families. When women were presented as the primary earner, the ideal level of withholding income was slightly larger in magnitude than when men were shown as the primary earner. Higher relative earners within families were not regarded as entitled to the final word in decisions. Whether respondents considered earnings individually or community owned did not explain the lack of association between financial resources and decision-making clout. Findings showed a significant association between the fictional decider’s gender and perceptions of fairness.


Pepin, Joanna. 2017. “Normative Beliefs about Money in Families: Balancing Togetherness, Autonomy, and Equality.” Open Science Framework. May 8.

Pepin, Joanna. 2017. “If Family Decision-Making Power?” Open Science Framework. September 21.