How to talk about money when one partner earns more
Couples who don't talk about finances may pay the price.
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Talking about money with your partner can be hard enough. But when there’s a noticeable difference between your respective incomes, it can ratchet up tension in the relationship. For one, it could create an unequal power dynamic, or stir up feelings of inferiority for the lesser-earning partner.
“The person who is earning more usually is the one making financial decisions or having their opinions be more heavily weighted than the person earning less,” says Lindsay Bryan-Podvin, a financial therapist and founder of Mind Money Balance. “This often creates an unhealthy dynamic where the person is earning more takes on a parenting role in the relationship.”
Such was the case for Bethany McCamish and her partner. In 2019, McCamish quit teaching to pursue a freelance career—which can come with a sometimes unpredictable income. While the money McCamish earns from her business has steadily grown, her partner’s pay as an engineer ends up being 40% higher.
Because they split their shared living expenses down the middle, McCamish was constantly fretting about not having enough money every month. Her partner, on the other hand, always appeared to have plenty of disposable income.
McCamish says she developed a complex of being “bad with money.” Then she had a lightbulb moment: “We were living a lifestyle that was way under the means of my partner, but right at the end of my funds,” says McCamish, who is the founder of His and Her Fi Post. “It made me the spender and him the saver simply because we didn’t equitably split expenses.”
McCamish’s story is a common one. It turns out that the majority of couples in the U.S. are dealing with a considerable salary gap. Here’s how you can navigate finances when you and your partner take home drastically different paychecks.
When conflict arises, deal with it head on
It may seem easier to sweep conflicts under the rug, but being honest can save you a lot of trouble. When you’re not honest, it could lead to resentment and problems down the road. Here’s a few pointers for when tensions flare up.
Be aware of and discuss potential resentment and power dynamics. If you’re the one earning less, you could feel as if your partner is lording over you in subtle ways. You might also feel inferior, and don’t measure up to their material success. Conversely, if you’re earning more, you may experience a tinge of resentment because you feel as if you’re carrying your partner financially.
Start by coming from a place of compassion, and see where the other person is coming from. “Don’t devalue what the person brings to the table,” McCamish says. “You each have a different perspective, and it needs to be listened to. If you make more, it doesn’t give you more of a say over where the money goes.”
Be mindful of assumptions. There’s a handful of underlying preconceived notions that might surface. For instance, the higher earner should always contribute more financially, whereas the person earning less is simply unmotivated or being lazy.
To undo these inaccurate assumptions, come from a place of understanding. Case in point: Instead of being accusatory, McCamish and her partner made a conscious effort to change their language around money, particularly when talking about purchases. “We asked questions like ‘Should we plan for this in the future?’ rather than ‘Why did you buy that?’ ” she says.
Discuss other ways you contribute to the relationship. If there's a difference in your salaries, think about what each partner brings to your shared life that’s beyond money. “Remember that each partner makes different contributions to the relationship,” Bryan-Podvin says. “One partner might be bringing in money and keeping each person insured, where the other takes on more emotional labor or caregiving.”
Set financial goals, and tackle them together
Whether it’s saving for travel or a down payment on your first house, here’s a few ways couples with different salaries can go about saving for a shared goal.
Go on money dates. Carve out time specifically to talk about money and home in on a specific topic, suggests Bryan-Podvin. “Constantly talking in circles about money isn't productive,” she says. “Rather, saying to your partner, ‘Let's talk about our credit card debt later this week,’ is more impactful.”
Devise a plan. You’ll boost the odds of accomplishing a shared financial goal if it lines up with a life goal. For example, McCamish and her partner want to travel more and one day buy a home. To hit their goal, they’ve cut back on spending to free up some more of their cash flow. They’re also working toward paying off student loan debt.
Suss out expectations. To start, factor in debt and other financial obligations you have that are outside of the relationship. Then, figure out who is responsible for what. Will each partner be accountable for squashing their own debt, or will it be a shared conquest?
Look beyond today, and discuss your future
When disagreements and tensions crop up because of differences in your relationship to money, look toward the big picture. Discussing your shared goals can help remind you why you’re together in the first place, salary disparities aside.
To iron out any ill feelings, Bryan-Podvin recommends talking about your differences in salary from the get-go, and focus on what you’re both working toward. “Remember that when you are partnered or married, the goals should come back to the couple, instead of each of you as individuals,” says Bryan-Podvin. “The person earning more should not get a bigger vote on what the money is used for.”
Focus on the strengths of the relationship. Remind each other what you love about the other person, and the strengths of your relationship, says Bryan-Podvin. “It can be easy to get caught up in the financial and day-to-day minutiae, but it's better to zoom out when focusing on financial and relationship goals,” she says.
Picture your retirement. Talk about how you plan on saving for retirement. When would you like to retire by, and what lifestyle do you anticipate enjoying together?
They key is—you guessed it—to communicate. By talking about expectations, insecurities, fears, and concerns, you can navigate shared goals when you earn different salaries. In turn, it’ll lead to a stronger relationship. At the end of the day, it ultimately boils down to your strengths and working toward a commingled existence.