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.
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.