Topher Payne: The delicate matter of knowing you’re not the breadwinner

Of the two, sex would appear to be the greater taboo, but I’m not sure that’s the case. Whether it provokes intrigue or revulsion, everybody finds sex absolutely fascinating.

We gossip with friends, have halting conversations with lovers about things that could be different, watch actors pretend to do it in movies … for a supposedly taboo topic, we spend an inordinate amount of time talking about it.

I’ve gotten emails from strangers who read my column asking about my personal lubricant preferences, and I’ve responded without hesitation. But if someone sent me an inquiry about my household budget, I would be scandalized.

Money is personal. It’s the cold, hard facts of your life. How much you have in savings proves whether you truly think about the future. Your personal debt reveals how thoughtless you are. Plenty of people over the years learned my erogenous zones. Nobody knows my FICO score. Money, my friends, is the true taboo.

Preppy makes a lot more money than I do. Like, a lot. I don’t know the actual amount. I’ve been told several times, but my brain can’t process the idea of someone being paid enough to cover the bills each month. In reality, he is compensated fairly for the work he does, and it’s likely comparable to what a lot of people in their early thirties earn. I honestly have no idea, because I don’t know what any of my friends make, either.

Preppy’s reasonable middle-class income dwarfs my own inconsistent income, making my contributions to the household negligible at best. I make enough to take care of myself, if I needed to. But he makes enough to take care of US, which I could not do.

You ever take a kid out for ice cream, and they pay for it themselves? You know the expression of pride they have feeling so grown-up? Okay, that’s me when I’m able to make the car payment. But I’m 32 damn years old, so it’s not quite so adorable when I do it.

So much of our self-image is inextricably linked to earnings: We put it right out there and call it a person’s Net Worth. So that’s why I don’t talk about it. It’s not a lack of awareness on my part of how our household works. I am acutely aware.

But when I reflect on it, I get stuck on the idea of being “worth less,” which is one hit of the spacebar removed from being “worthless.” This is irrational, but unavoidable. I’m left feeling I should do more crunches if I’m gonna try and sell myself as a trophy husband.

I think that’s why couples steer clear of sex and money on the list of daily topics. We reside in a culture that speaks in absolutes on both topics: More is good, less is bad. But in building a life with another person, you find there’s a great deal more nuance to consider. What you need, and what you can give, is in a constant state of flux.

The individual contributions are less important than the result you create together, and there are times when you’re simply not equipped to shoulder what is arguably your share. In those moments, the simplest solution is likely the most effective: Shut up. Be grateful. Try to be ready when it’s your turn.


Topher Payne is an Atlanta-based playwright, and the author of the book “Necessary Luxuries: Notes on a Semi-Fabulous Life.” Find out more at