ScoreCard Research Abbigail Kriebs - The Penny Hoarder

It’s safe to say that talking about your finances -- early and often -- with your significant other is a great way to avoid fights about money later on in life.

But what if talking about money is a fight?

Odds are that in most relationships, one partner makes more than the other, and sometimes that difference can be significant. So how should a couple handle their income inequality?

A lot of factors play into this decision, such as whether or not you are married, have children or are in school. And with even fewer clear-cut answers, what happens if one of you has more debt than other?

While there’s no right way to manage your money when one person makes more than the other, here’s a look at how to talk about the situation, plus how several real-life couples handle their finances.

How Does the Difference in Income Make You Both Feel?

The first step is always admitting there’s a problem. If an income disparity is a tricky subject in your household, maybe it’s because you haven’t actually talked it through yet.

Making less than your significant other can come with a big ol’ ball of guilt, feelings of inadequacy and even self-denial if you feel like you can’t spend money you didn’t earn.

Making more than your significant other can come with its own concerns.

It might be the need to always have the last say in how the money is spent, or maybe that you constantly feel like your partner won’t accept the financial help you are gladly willing to give and that you hate to see him or her struggling when there is no need.

So ask each other how your disparate incomes make you feel. Be candid and open to what your partner has to say, and consider your options moving forward. Here are a few ways couples have made vastly different incomes work for them.

Joint Accounts

My husband makes twice what I make -- and it used to be three times as much. While I was still finishing up college, he made all of our household income.

We’ve always solved our income disparity by treating it like it doesn’t exist.

It might sound a little head-in-the-sand, but we married young and never knew a time where our money wasn’t his and hers: We’ve always had a joint account and we’ve always decided together how we would spend what was in it.

Our joint-account-for-everything approach is pretty traditional: It’s what both sets of our parents did, and I suspect our grandparents as well. In fact, when we were newly married, we were shocked to learn that some married friends had separate accounts at all!

We make it work by talking about all of our spending decisions together when we make our budget each month. We know where our money is going to go before we spend it, so there’s no need to fight about it after the fact. If a big unexpected expense pops up, we address it together.

We also plan for each of us to have some fun money each month to spend without question, which I think is a key strategy for making everyone feel like they can splurge a little, guilt free.

We’re married and have no children yet, so this approach works pretty well. We have already discussed -- and did so in the very early years of our marriage -- that if and when we have children, I would be the stay-at-home parent.

My husband’s job as a line technician for the local utility company pays more, holds the better benefits and is also extremely unpredictable: He can get held over after work at a moment’s notice, and often gets called in the middle of the night to come in and fix things. While my full-time gig at an ad agency is great, it’s not on the same level as his steady, recession-proof career.

Once children enter the mix, one parent will need to be as flexible as possible, and in my case, that means being unemployed or able to work from home.

Our decision to handle our accounts in a joint fashion from the beginning will help make this transition a smoother one -- the money will continue to be “ours” even when I’m not contributing any.

It’s also a reason I started my own freelance business on the side. I won’t have to go from full salary to zero salary; there will be a little cushion in the process.

Separate but Equal

Some friends of ours go a different route: They have a joint account where they each contribute half of the expenses necessary to pay their rent, utilities, etc. -- and then they’re on their own for individual expenses like their car insurance and big-ticket items they want to purchase.

In fact, I’ve known several of these couples -- even two friends who lived together with no romance involved.

Contributing to a joint account made it easiest to pay bills in a timely fashion, but still allowed them to have complete autonomy in their finances. It was a win-win for them, and I suspect many couples take advantage of this easy-to-calculate way to manage their finances together, yet separately.

Separate but Proportional

Dozens of people around the Internet swear by the proportion rule: If one person makes 60% of the household income, they contribute for 60% of the expenses.

The other person contributes the other 40%, which is proportionately fair considering their lesser income. Then, each individual can spend the rest of their income as they wish.

If the difference between your incomes is so drastic that even this doesn’t seem fair, consider rolling in household chores as part of the equation. Do you make only 10% of your total income as a couple, but do 90% of the housework? Seems like a balanced equation to me.

What About When There’s No Choice?

Kelly Gurnett faces a different situation altogether: being the sole earner in a relationship where the other person is physically unable to hold a full-time job. Her husband has been out of work for more than two years now, and he’s still waiting on disability benefits to kick in. In the meantime, Kelly’s income is what’s on the table.

“As much as I'd like to say that ‘love conquers all’ and ‘money is just a number,’” Kelly says, “when only one person is working and the responsibility to carry the household expenses lies entirely on one person's shoulders, it's difficult, and it can cause some friction.”

So how do Kelly and her husband make it work? Transparency, open communication, and a lot of give and take.

“Every week, we sit down with our household budget and discuss what's coming due and how we're going to pay for it. It helps take some of the stress off of me just to know my husband is in on our finances and I don't have to make all the decisions by myself,” says Kelly.

When the idea gets a little tough to handle, Kelly also reminds herself of what her husband does bring to the relationship: patience, love and a consistently upbeat attitude even though he is a lot of pain on a daily basis.

“It's a good kick in the butt that humbles me and reminds me a marriage is about a lot more than just money; it's about partnership and support and each person doing what they can, whatever that winds up looking like.”

The Bottom Line

Overall? Each system seems to work best when you emphasize the team, no matter which financial arrangement you decide works best for you.

And when those feelings of inadequacy rush in, making you feel “less than” because your paychecks are smaller, or like you are carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders by being the bigger earner?

Remember: You didn’t begin a relationship with your partner because of the money they do or don’t make. There’s probably a solution out there that works for you. Keep trying until you find it.

Your Turn: Have you managed a significant difference in income in your relationship? Share your strategies in the comments!

Abbigail Kriebs loves words, food and photography, probably in that order. She’s a Midwestern gal who somehow became a city-dweller and is slowly writing her way back to her roots at Inkwells & Images.

A couple of years ago, my husband and I were in limbo.

We were trying to sell a house that wouldn’t sell and paying off student loans on an education that promised a higher-paying job but didn’t deliver.

Our savings weren’t growing, even though we both had full-time jobs. We felt like we were hurtling along in life, but never getting anywhere.

A friend was leading a class on budgeting, so we signed up -- more as a favor than anything else.

I mean, we weren’t frivolous with our money! We weren’t smothered under debt! We weren’t like other couples fighting about money.

But we weren’t talking about money, either.

And since finances influence every other area of life, we weren’t talking about our jobs or our goals. They were kind of there, kind of fuzzy and not at all the driving force behind our decisions.

That budgeting class changed how we thought about money -- and ultimately how we related to one another.

Being forced to sit down and talk about our financial situations brought life into better focus. Often, our conversation spilled outward from money into how things were going at work, what struggles we were facing, revealing our insecurities and helping us listen to the other person more deeply.

How to Avoid Fighting About Money

It’s not news that most fights in a relationship have something to do with money. At least 70% of couples fight about their finances -- more than household chores, sex and snoring -- according to a Time, Inc. study.

Most of these fights happen because the people in the relationship aren’t on the same page. Maybe you’re working off different budgets (or no budget), or you have different attitudes toward money.

Talking about money early and often in a relationship can help you make sure you’re working together, rather than against one another, and prevent future fights.

And creating a shared budget can help ensure you’re working toward the same goals and bring you closer as a couple.

Here’s how to talk to your significant other about money, and how to create a budget that works for both of you.

Make Sure You’re Not Tired, Hungry or Rushed

It may sound silly, but it’s not. If you try to sit down and sort out money problems when you are any in of these three situations, you are doomed to fail.

It’s important to give yourselves the time you need, especially the first few months you sit down to talk. Don’t start the discussion when one of you is going to have to run off to work, or right before bed.

Plan time for your discussion when you know you will both be at your peak of attention: You’ve had a good night’s sleep and a recent snack, and you have at least an hour of uninterrupted time where you can both be fully present (turn off those cell phones!) to discuss your situation.

My husband and I often spend some time on Sunday afternoon chatting through our budget. We have nowhere to be and have usually eaten lunch together, so we make a pot of coffee and start talking.

Be Honest

Whether you realize it or not, you were each raised with certain attitudes toward money.

The way your parents organized their finances probably had an impact on you. One of you may be more of a spender, and the other might like to keep almost everything “for a rainy day.”

My husband and I grew up with vastly different influences regarding money. His mom has an accounting background and balances her checkbook to the penny.

You would think this would have made him a stellar budgeter, but when he left home, he wanted nothing more to do with line items and category balances. While he's not a spender, he doesn’t feel the need to pre-plan where his money goes -- he just doesn’t overspend.

If my parents budgeted, I never knew it. They weren’t savers and didn’t have a retirement plan. I don’t think I ever heard the word “budget” before meeting my in-laws.

Oddly enough, as an adult I became extremely careful with my money -- I saw the issues my parents went through, and I never wanted to be an over-spender. By nature, I am also a rule-follower, so having a budget just makes sense to me: I like to have established, external guidelines for how I use my money.

To balance my desire to have guidelines and his desire to keep things as simple as possible, we have a bit of a hybrid system: We budget for the things we have to pay for (rent, insurance, etc.) and then decide on an amount for all the fun stuff each month (eating out, vacations, etc.).

Then we take out the money we can spend on those things, spend it however we want that month, and when the money's gone, it’s gone -- if we run out of “fun money” on the 12th, it’s leftovers and Netflix for the rest of the month.

As is the case in most relationships, we don’t always see eye-to-eye. But sitting down to talk through our budget each month creates a dialogue where we can be honest about what we want to do with our money.

The more honest you are with each other about your spending habits, the easier it will to avoid hurt feelings, now and in the future, and the more realistically you will be able to craft your budget so it works for you and not against you.

Discuss Your Goals

And not just financial goals: What is most important to you in life?

Ask yourselves the question: “What do I want life to look like?” Dream big, and then try to discern the underlying values beneath those dreams.

If you wish you could spend every day at the beach, soaking up the sun, maybe your priority should be to plan vacations each year that let you do that -- or better yet, create a life that you don’t want to escape from as often.

Make plans to buy a house with a killer underground pool or start working toward a job that allows you to relocate somewhere near the coast.

When I asked my husband that question, he said he would love to buy a farm and work full time on the land.

The capital investment to buy a farm is too high for us, but what we could do was purchase a few acres of land in the country where we could build a house and he could spend weekends puttering around on an old tractor, turning logs into lumber and getting out of the city where we work all week. It was the perfect compromise.

Another budget discussion we had one day led me to becoming an entrepreneur. Life-changing? I’d say.

Decide what’s important to you: paying off a debt, taking that vacation or going to every rock concert within driving distance. Those goals will drive your decisions of how to spend your money -- together.

The Nuts and Bolts of Budgeting

Getting the discussion started above is the first step, but how does it really work on a day-to-day basis? How do you figure it all out together?

Here are some practical strategies to help you start a budget with your significant other:

Take Stock of the Numbers

Gather your past few months of statements, bills, pay stubs and other financial documents. You’ll want to see where your money has been going to get an idea of where it needs to go in the future. Make sure to account for:

Your Income

How much do you bring in each month? Note the combined total of your income from your jobs or businesses.

If one person makes significantly more than the other, talk honestly about how to handle it. My husband has always made more money than me, and we have always found it easiest to pool all of our resources and spend them together, equally.

It may not work for everyone, and each couple should figure out what works for them. I really like the reward system that Money Crashers highlights, where if the couple mutually comes in under budget for the month, they each get a percentage of the savings to spend on themselves!

Your Obligations

Obligations include rent, car payments, student loans, utilities, life insurance, phone bill, retirement contributions, even saving for a down payment.

These are the costs you have already committed to paying each month, and they likely come with a contract, either formal (like rent) or informal (a monthly promise to pay for the water you use).

Your Living Expenses

This is anything that doesn’t have a monthly payment, but that you need to buy anyway: groceries, gas for the car and things like pet supplies, gifts and household goods like shampoo and sandwich bags.

Bills like rent and utilities are easy to manage, since they only come up once per month.

Divide longer-term bills like car insurance into one-month chunks so you make sure you are putting away enough money each month to be ready when the bill comes due.

Expenses like gas or groceries are a little harder because you purchase these several times each month, and not always in the same amount each time. Figure out what you typically spend on these purchases and use that number as a starting point for your first month of budgeting.

Allocate What’s Left After Your Necessary Expenses

What magic number is left of your income after all of your expenses above?

That’s what you get to spend on the fun stuff, from eating out and going to concerts to saving for a vacation. You need to both be on the same page about how you’re going to save and spend this money.

It’s important to decide on a "no-questions-asked" allowance for each of you. Whether you can afford $10 each per month or $300 each per month, everyone needs a little money to spend on themselves -- if not, you’ll likely end up with a “my-budget’s-too-strict” craving and splurge on something you shouldn’t.

And then you’ll feel guilty because you “failed,” and it’s a downhill spiral from there. It’s good to build in some fun money for each person to spend or save as they please.

This first month of budgeting, make sure to allocate every single dollar of your paychecks: Money has a way of spending itself if you don’t have a plan for it.

Try Your Plan and Reevaluate

Try out this new budget for two weeks, then discuss what's working and what's not. Maybe you underestimated how much gas you would need that month and you’ve already overspent.

Readjust by pulling some money from a category where you haven’t spent as much, like groceries.

Give it another two weeks and reevaluate. This is your chance to go over the first month’s plan and see where it worked well, and where it fell short. Then, plan out the next month’s budget with your new knowledge about your spending habits.

To make sure you remember to do reevaluate and plan out your next month’s budget, put it on the calendar! It’ll feel like a date, I promise.

Be Patient and Keep Trying

It’s going to take a few months to find a process that works best for the two of you.

If this is your first time budgeting from scratch, you will probably forget something in your initial budget (for us, it was haircuts!) and will need to add it in later and re-allocate some funds accordingly.

You will also need to shift money around sometimes, like when you overspend on gifts because Mother’s Day, your best friend’s birthday, a baby shower and a wedding all land in the same month.

That’s OK! You can borrow $20 from the grocery fund and plan to eat more leftovers this month. Then start budgeting an extra $5 each month so that next year you’ve got a little extra padding in your gift fund this time of year.

Budgeting is about making your financial decisions reinforce your life goals.

If at any point the two feel disconnected, take a step back and ask yourselves that question: “What do I want life to look like?” The answer will tell you how to better spend your money now.

How Making a Budget Changed Our Relationship

Our budget meeting each month has turned into an informal monthly check-in of where we are in life and how we’re feeling.

It gives us a chance to course correct quickly when something is off, and it helps remind us that we’re doing OK when things are going well.

Having a monthly budget we agree on and that reflects our goals changed our relationship. I have a feeling it will do the same for you.

Your Turn: Have you started a budget with your significant other? How do you talk about money? We’d love to hear your strategies in the comments!

Abbigail Kriebs loves words, food and photography, probably in that order. She’s a Midwestern gal who somehow became a city-dweller and is slowly writing her way back to her roots at Inkwells & Images.