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Balancing Unequal Incomes in a Relationship

   Posted On: April 29, 2016  |    Posted In: Love and Money  |     Posted by: Broke Millennial®

There’s banking when you’re married, banking when you’re single, but what about that awkward gray area when you’re single in the eyes of the law but you’re in a long-term, committed relationship? How exactly do you balance the books when one of you out earns the other by a significant amount?

This question has been on my mind a lot lately.

11695966_10153188079031137_7623772260791663767_nPeach and I aren’t married nor are we are even living together*, but our finances are still intertwined in a unique way because we are dealing with drastically different budgets. Peach is a high school history teacher with student loan debt, while I have a full-time job plus freelance income and no debt. Even discounting the debt, there’s several tens-of-thousands of dollars between our annual incomes.

Our income and net worth disparity isn’t an issue for us day-to-day. I’m not a big spender and relatively low maintenance about what constitutes a fun night out. Peach is the same. We’re both relatively frugal and save to travel and indulge in an occasional expensive experience. We go Dutch on most dates or just alternate picking up the bill. And because we aren’t living together, none of our expenses are linked, except maybe Mosby – but I cover the cost for him 95 percent of the time.

Then a unique opportunity presented itself and for the first time our financial situations were the source of tension.

The invitation

A few weeks ago a good friend asked if Joe and I wanted to join her and her boyfriend and other friends in Vegas over Fourth of July weekend. My friend’s boyfriend is no stranger to Vegas and actually could get us deeply discounted rooms, even on a holiday weekend. She figured we could keep the trip relatively affordable on a $500 budget for four days – assuming we didn’t fancy ourselves gamblers (which we don’t). This would be my first trip to Vegas and I relished the idea of going with some friends who knew the ins-and-outs of the casinos and general merriment to be had.

The problem arose because this budget didn’t include airfare. Flying across the country on a holiday weekend isn’t exactly thrifty. But I had some frequent flyer miles to burn, but not enough to accommodate Peach in addition to other trips I have planned in 2016 and early 2017. I could also afford the trip if I needed to pay for it out of pocket because I specifically save for travel and usually have around $4,000 earmarked for trips at any given time.

We’re talking professional guest/bridal party status.

When I first pitched the idea to Peach I’m about 90 percent sure he thought I was pulling a belated April Fools joke. We’d just been talking about how we were going to handle attending seven weddings this year and here I was throwing Vegas into our calendar? Peach, being the kind soul he is, didn’t immediately shut down the idea. He indulged my current travel fantasy for a bit before gently trying to bring me down to earth by redirecting my focus to the aforementioned seven weddings, the two bachelor parties, one bachelorette party and bridal shower, as well as a couple of previously booked trips we had to handle.

When what’s mine isn’t yours…

Then, I started to get defensive (in my head)…

I had already budgeted for all those trips and still had money left over to blow on a trip to Vegas if I wanted. Sure, Peach wasn’t asking me not to go, but my mind started to spiral with rebuttals anyway. Why shouldn’t I get to go if I wanted to go? He didn’t have to come if he felt it was too big a budget buster. After all, we’re not married. I can do what I want with my money. Sure, we’d talked about having a relaxing Fourth of July at home in NYC – but those plans weren’t set in stone.

As my brain stopped yelling in indignation, I recognized that I’d want him there with me to enjoy the experience together – especially with it being more of a couples’ trip.

If we were married…

The odd part of all this posturing is that I knew this conversation would be so much easier if we were married. If we were married then our money would be joint and it wouldn’t seem emasculating or slightly outrageous for me to pay for a trip, because again, it’s a joint pot. If we were married, then we’d have 100 percent transparency about our budgets and spending habits to see if we could mutually afford the trip. Currently, we’re pretty open in communication but there isn’t access to each other’s funds or regularly updates about our individual bank accounts.

13072778_10153767820061137_4997090207511301795_oBeing long-time partners who don’t share our finances does make certain aspects of life just a little more complicated, particularly because our incomes and net worths aren’t equally matched. I also hate to say it, but it’s seemingly a bit more awkward when the woman is the higher earner. It wouldn’t be strange if I was a man talking about taking my girlfriend on vacation, but somehow it can be emasculating if a woman pays for her boyfriend to come along.

Peach does an incredible job of being progressive about our current income disparities and doesn’t begrudge me for out earning him nor does he get defensive if I pick up a bill here and there. Then again, it’s likely this disparity in income may not last forever. You never know what the future will hold for either of us and therefore it’s important we don’t allow money to set up some sort of power structure in the relationship.

I respect that he chose a profession that’s incredibly important, but isn’t compensated the way he deserves. I respect we come from different backgrounds and the choices I made about college meant I graduated debt free and he ended up with student loans. I respect that we find value in different things and aren’t always going to see eye-to-eye on when and how to spend money. And right now, I have to respect that it just makes more sense for us to save our money (and take some down time between weddings) and do Vegas another time.

How Peach and I avoid constant arguments over money

  • We’re open about our individual financial situations and our current and future money goals.
  • Neither one of us is a spender – which means there isn’t tension about someone not keeping up.
  • We set budgets for most things we do like gift giving at Christmas and how much to spend on a vacation, so there isn’t unevenness.
  • We talk about finances quite a bit – more than the average couple I’d guess – so we’re on the same page.
  • I’m willing to pay a bit more if I want to do something for which his monthly budget cannot cover.
  • Peach is man enough not to be uncomfortable with the fact I out earn him and I’m now announcing it for the world to know.
  • We speak honestly about how we think money should be handled in a marriage, which gives us a framework for how our incomes will be used in the future.
  • I constantly appreciate and reflect on all the non-financial ways Peach helps bring happiness and balance into my life. He’s a stabilizing force and our different backgrounds do help keep me in check when I get a little too amped up about the importance of the almighty dollar.


*We’re living together now and engaged! But we are still keeping finances separate until after our wedding in September 2018.

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35 responses to “Balancing Unequal Incomes in a Relationship

  1. Loved this article, Erin. One of the hardest things on a serious relationship (especially marriage) can be finances, and most couples will never learn all of the important bullet points you listed. I really think being open and talking about finances all the time can be truly healthy for a relationship. I know it has in mine.
    Thanks for sharing with us!

    1. Thanks, Anna! Open communication about money really does help prevent plenty of fights. Not to say we don’t have our disagreements over money, but it isn’t a painful/taboo topic.

  2. I loved this piece! …For so many reasons. With all the great advice and anecdotes, it all comes down to the simplest solution: set a budget and follow it.

    Even if/when you and Peach move to a combined account, you’ll have the same conversations, which is the best and healthiest thing to do to stay informed and on the same page.

    This article reminded me of you bridesmaids articles and the importance of being able to say “no” if it doesn’t fit into your budget. Such a simple solution, but often viewed as a last result.

    1. I think Peach and I will eventually combine accounts because I have a “one pot” mentality about money in a marriage. But that’s assuming we get married! 😛 I won’t do a joint account before we’re legally yolked.

  3. Great article! Sometimes it’s a bit weird for my hubs and I even though we are married and have 100% joint finances. I have been the breadwinner while he’s been in medical school, but I know that will likely change as he starts practicing medicine.

    1. That’s certainly such an interesting perspective too, when one spouse supports the other to ultimately lead to a really lucrative career. Such a power shift that will eventually happen (financially speaking), so I’m sure that creates interesting conversations as well. I know the two of you are totally open with talking money though, so it won’t be an issue!

  4. Hey Erin, My only question is how do you know he would have felt emasculated if you had offered it as a gift? I and many women I know out earn our respective others. For some, it was a blessing as some men transitioned to be stay at home dads, but my husband is pretty progressive, I know that gifting him a trip would have been really appreciated by him. Maybe this is something you know. I was just curious.

    1. Hi Tina – Thanks for stopping by! I think part of it is that while I earn a good living, a trip with a $800 – $1000 price tag per person is a pretty lavish gift (the $500 budget doesn’t factor in airfare). I do believe that being married vs being in a serious relationship is a bit different because Peach and I do plan to have a joint mentality about money in a marriage so it wouldn’t be a “me taking him on a trip” factor so much as we’d be working together towards financial goals and he could also provide non-financial help in the home or carrying for (hypothetical, future) children. Right now, we don’t even live together nor do we have children. Would he ultimately accept a trip to Vegas? Sure! But I do know it would bother him a bit if he couldn’t really afford to pay for it, which with our massive wedding schedule, it doesn’t fit into his budget.

  5. From a males POV, and to point to the non-emasculated way … the party who can afford always offers and pays if they are within means when finding out the other is not able to come to the party. The entire affair then gets credited to the “quid pro quo” bank … a favor to be returned at a future date. There should, in a r/s, be that trust.

    1. Thanks for sharing your POV! I’m not familiar with “r/s”, but I do understand the gist of your comment. There is certainly a quid pro quo element to a lot of our relationship dynamic as we don’t nickel and dime each other about going out to meals or who picks up the check for various date nights or who paid for groceries to cook meals if we eat at each other’s places. That would be exhausting! I guess there is just a line in the sand (for us at least) about what feels too lavish for the other person to be paying for at this point without help or at least an idea of when it will be reciprocated. This may also be because we aren’t engaged/married, so there isn’t really a date in mind for when we’ll be banking jointly.

  6. It ain’t easier after you marry the guy 😀

    For few years I was the big income earner. Husband was also jobless and started a new small company, but for 3 years at least my web design business paid for it all.

    Now he’s getting some better months than I do (we have a 2 year old and I take care of her most of the time, while also trying to juggle web design and a freelancing course) and started to throw in some nasty comments about how he bought this and that.

    Of course he’s not that shallow, but likes to pull my leash, which of course drives me nuts.

    For me, the best solution is to still earn enough money so that we’re at least equals. 😀

  7. We are lucky that we have reasonably similar incomes, but we do have somewhat disparate net worths. That will be interesting if we want to buy a house some day, but is otherwise mostly not a big deal. The part that bugs me about our disparate net worths is that mine is mostly higher because my parents could afford to pay for my college education and his couldn’t, rather than being higher because of decisions we each made.

    1. I understand why that bothers you, but at the same time, it probably means you have similar financial values if that’s the only reason for the disparate net worths. That, in my book, is an awesome thing! Being on the same page about how to handle money takes a ton of the stress out of a relationship.

  8. I have a shared google spreadsheet with my SO, even though we make about the same right now. Surprisingly, we recently found out that most of his workmates do not do this!

    I think the shared spreadsheets forces more conversations, if you’re uncomfortable having them and stops the resentment from building. I was able to bring up our out of control grocery budget (since I’m paying off loans, he isn’t as much), and it became very easy to just start shopping cheaper. Same goes for our vacations, too.

    Thanks for posting about these hard conversations!

    1. Thanks for stopping by! It’s great to hear you’re both so financially naked with each other. And I too get surprised when more people are like this. Peach and I started sharing our net worths about 8 months ago, which makes it easier to talk about potential game plans for a life together in the future.

  9. A “Broke Millenial” who earmarks $4000 for travel LOL.

    Poor broke baby. Life really suuuuucks when you have more money for travel than millions of people in this country have in their bank accounts (for those who have bank accounts.)

    My heart truly breaks for your plight.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Andrew. I’m guessing it’s your first visit based on this comment, so you probably don’t know that “Broke Millennial” is just a moniker used to open up conversation for my fellow millennial peers and I’m not actually/never been broke. This blog is over 3 years old and has chronicled a journey to building a healthy net worth and prioritizing personal financial goals (like travel). Thanks for your sympathies!

  10. Glad you wrote about this topic because I am in the same boat with being the female breadwinner! I earn over 100k more than my fiance and he has debt and I do no longer (as of today hehe!). He also has a job that he loves and is way more rewarding than mine but pays very little comparatively. Even though we are not married yet, we have had joint finances since we started living together three years ago. It’s the easiest way for us. I like to travel a lot so I pay for all of our flights, hotels, meals etc. when traveling. He is way more into working out so he pays for gym equipment for our house. We split the mortgage with me paying the majority. It hasn’t become an issue for us since we view everything as our money but admittedly it can get demoralizing for him from time to time and sometimes I wonder what it would be like to not be the female breadwinner. Most recently I get anxiety about retirement because I am saving for two. Overall though, I am glad that at least one of us has a job that is rewarding/something we are passionate about it (his job) and we are still doing great. Sorry for the novel!

    1. CONGRATS on no debt and I love this comment so no need to apologize!

      I do sometimes wonder if living together would shift the dynamic a bit because it would take us to a next level of seriousness. However, we’re both resigning our leases for another year (his rent is cheaper than it would be if he moved in with me/we got a new place) so it’s at least a year away.

      Thank you for sharing that you both cover what you value and that it can get a little frustration for both of you from time to time. I do sometimes wonder if having a baby one day in the future will shift my perspective about being a female breadwinner. I guess you can’t really know of you want to be a stay at home spouse until that little one is in the picture. So to think that it’s never really option (mostly because of the lifestyle I want to live and not so much that Peach couldn’t support a family if it was needed) get’s a bit demoralizing.

  11. I’m in a relatively long-term relationship and my SO and I are completely financially transparent. Since I’m not exactly conventional with my goal to retire in my 30’s, being open about my goals and finances just make sense for us. And isn’t money the #1 reason couples fight/break-up? So I figure getting on the same page about money is huge for a successful relationship. One less thing to argue about 🙂

  12. My wife and I came across this situation. While I do out earn her, she still makes a significant amount. Towards the beginning of our marriage, and the beginning of paying off our debt I could tell that it did bother her.
    We did have arguments in the beginning when it came to money, but I really believe the underlying issue was the discrepancies between our pay.
    We are in a great place now. A year or so ago we sat down together and I told her that there isn’t “my” money or “her” money everything is ours and we couldn’t survive and thrive towards paying off our debt if we weren’t in this together . Plus while she did make less, I was the person that primarily brought most of the debt into the marriage.
    Being open about finances has been a blessing in our relationship. I now know we are on the same page and she now knows that she works just as hard (if not harder) at her job and we are equal when it comes to everything!!

  13. Interesting perspective! My husband and I actually earn the exact same salary, so this isn’t an issue for us. To be completely honest, there is some jealousy on my side though because he has less debt than I do (which is only because his parents helped him pay for college).

  14. My husband and I have been married for 10 years (our anniversary is today), but we lived together for a couple of years before we were married. Right now, he makes a lot of income and I am essentially a FT student and SAHM who brings in a little bit of PT income. Our money is in one big pot and he takes care of the big bills, I take care of a few things, like food, that I can with my tiny income. Before we were married, we divided up expenses proportionally. He always has earned much more than me, and at the time he made 2/3 of the household income and I made 1/3. I paid 1/3 of the rent and he paid 2/3. AT least that was the theory. I found out several months after giving him checks for rent that he piled them in a drawer and refused to cash them, because he felt a man should take care of his family and he considered me his family even though we weren’t engaged yet. Very sweet, and one of the reasons I married him. I ended up buying our groceries instead, which is a division of labor that lasts to this day.

  15. It’s always tough to negotiate these realities in the context of a long-term (but not married) relationship, but I’m so grateful we’re able to have an open dialogue about it. Not that it’s always smooth sailing, but at least it’s all out there!

  16. You address some really important points here. Being in a relationship with someone who has a radically different income than you can pose so many challenges. You give some great advice on how to overcome these barriers and, better yet, how to go about avoiding them. Awesome post! Thanks so much for sharing!

  17. Great tips. My wife and I have been together 10 years or so, including time dating. One thing that’s helped us a lot is referring to income and money as “ours” rather tgan talking about individual’s.

  18. Before my partner and I moved in together, I thought we had our financial stuff down pat. We talked a lot about money because we’re both money conscious. We shared the same goal of buying a house and that helped unite us in saving our monies to make this goal a reality.

    And then we bought the house and moved in together… Then we found out we had different money goals after buying the house. We had combined most of our monies before moving in and that worked beautifully back then. Now it’s not working as well… I’ve decided to create separation in our finances to give each of us space and freedom to pursue our differing goals now.

    I guess as a couple, we have to adjust as we go along to make both of us happy. I never want money to cause tension in our relationship. I think we’re making the right choice to create this separation for the time being. But I was taken aback by how drastically our goals changed… That’s why communication is so important! I don’t regret combining our finances in the beginning – we did learn a lot about our spending habits and revealed what’s most important to each partner.

  19. I’ve never been in a relationship with unequal earnings, but I’m on my way to significantly out-earning my wife. We’ve prepared to handle that in largely the same way you do, with the added benefit of me covering certain things to enable her to save more aggressively pre-tax.

    But by far the most important thing is the communication you seem to have opened up about finance, goals, and cooperation. That’s huge, and says a lot of good things for your relationship! Too many of the divorcing couples coming to me daily don’t even know whether their significant other is saving for retirement at all, and I think it has a lot to do with some of the breakups!

  20. I really enjoyed this article. Thank you for providing your perspective. I am in a similar situation where I am outearning my boyfriend. It always seems to be a sore point in our relationship. I do sense that he is leaning on me financially as I contribute more to dinners, dates, vacations, and activities. Sometimes it brings me resentment. But then I think about how compatible we are and the fact that he brings happiness, and joy to my life. He grew up with a different household background with values that aren’t tied to the $ as much. I appreciate the article, and will improve my communications. Thanks!

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