Dear Penny: Is My Huge Paycheck Scaring Away the Men I Date?

A woman flaunts money against a yellow background.
Getty Images
Dear Penny,

I read a recent article you wrote about disclosing debt to a partner. I have kind of the opposite problem.

As a single girl in her late 20s, I make a more-than-decent living in an area where cost of living is relatively low. I’m making significantly more than the average person here, especially at my age.

As I'm getting more serious dating, I'm finding that people of my generation are very upfront about their financial situations, and many of the men I'm dating are thrown by even the implication of the money I earn. 

With millennial-age individuals being more and more casual about discussing their financial status, at what point are you meant to disclose your income in a relationship? 

– K.

Dear K.,

Pretend you’re having the salary talk with a guy you’re dating. You go into the conversation expecting that you’ll be the higher earner. But then the man surprises you. How would you feel if he reveals he earns three or four times more than you do?

My gut reaction to reading your letter was to say good riddance to any man who can’t handle being with a woman who outearns him. That’s advice I’ll stand by, for the most part.

But I also did a gut check. And I’ve got to admit: As a single woman, I think I’d be thrown off kilter at first if I discovered I was dating someone whose salary was triple my own. So before we talk about when to disclose salary, let’s talk about how someone might feel upon discovering their paycheck is way smaller than their potential partner’s.

One thing I’d worry about here is the likelihood that we have vastly different lifestyles. I can afford to pay my way for a vacation that’s in line with my own standards. But what if he’s used to flying around the world first-class? I’d have to either stay home or (shudder) ask him to pay part of my way. Either option would bruise my fragile little ego.

But perhaps more importantly, it would disrupt the narrative I have about myself. I like to think of myself as a successful woman. But if I’m using salary as a success metric — a mistake a lot of people make — I’m quantifiably less successful. Will someone really see me as an equal if it takes me four hours to earn what they’d make in one?

Maybe these sound like silly concerns, but some people find it very distressing to date outside of their tax bracket. Often the higher earner simply can’t stand that the price of being with someone they love is paying more than 50%.

Yet there are plenty of happy couples who have very different incomes. They recognize that being equals is about both people contributing love and energy, even if one partner pays more of the bills.

It’s hard to get to that point if you focus heavily on money too soon. Focus on getting to know the person. On that note, try to plan dates early on that don’t require much money.

As you get to know someone, you’ll often find that you naturally get to know their finances. You don’t need to exchange W-2s to get a sense of where someone is at. You can start out by talking in terms of general goals, like something you’re saving up for.

The time to have more concrete conversations about money, including salary, is when you’re starting to make longer-term plans. I’m not talking about waiting until you’re ready to move in together. But when you’re thinking about things like holiday plans and vacations, or really anything that might involve making a budget, it’s a sign that it’s time to talk specifics. Ideally, by the time you have this conversation, neither person will be shocked by what they hear.

You say that people your age are pretty upfront about their financial situations. Listen closely to what they do tell you, even if it’s not directly about salary. A lot of people don’t have pristine finances in their 20s. That’s OK. What you’re listening for is whether they’re taking action to get to a better place.

Really, salary alone tells you very little about someone’s financial health. I spent eight months with a guy who earned six figures. Guess what? When the AC broke in his house, he could still barely cobble together $1,400.

Keep in mind that being too upfront about anything, including money, is a red flag early on. It’s perfectly reasonable and responsible for someone to mention early on that they’re on a budget because they’re paying off debt. But if they’re telling you about all money woes, along with family and past relationship drama? Run. The same goes if they probe you for TMI too soon.

Get to know the person behind the paycheck before you disclose your actual paychecks. When you find a true partner, a salary discrepancy isn’t such a big deal.

Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected].