How to Handle Income Inequality in a Relationship

When my husband and I first met, I was a graduate student working about 15 hours/week and living as frugally as I could. He was an art student who also worked full-time at the front desk of a hotel. I kid you not, when we met I thought my husband was rich. He lived in a 1-bedroom apartment — by himself, with laundry in unit! He even had cable TV. Seriously, what more could you want? I was living in an apartment near my school with a roommate, uneven floors, and laundry a parking lot away. To me, he was the paragon of adult living.

Needless to say, my husband paid for more of our dates when we first got together. Then, about five months into our relationship, my husband left his job at the hotel, and I got my first full-time job with a full-time paycheck. Suddenly the financial roles in our relationship shifted. And navigating those changes wasn’t always easy.

Did you know income inequality in a marriage is actually one of the major causes of divorce? Income inequality can come from lots of places: one partner with a clear ‘primary breadwinner’ salary; one partner staying home with kids, a disability, or job loss; even one partner having significantly more debt than the other. There are already so many emotions and expectations that come with money. Throw in an imbalance and it can be pretty dangerous if you’re not honest and intentional about addressing it together. If you have income inequality — large or small — in your relationship, these steps can guide a conversation that will get you on the same page:

·      Acknowledge the Cause of the Differential: Does the income inequality come from an intentional choice, like having one partner stay home to care for family or one partner’s pursuit of higher education? Or, is it an unintentional consequence of a disability, job loss, the gender wage gap, or one partner’s work in an underpaid industry? Does one partner have a lot of debt or other additional expenses weighing them down? Or, on the upside, does one partner bring more money to the relationship from an inheritance, significant savings, or a side business?

Tip: This can be a tough conversation. Don’t skip this step — it will help you build up empathy for one another. Alleviate some of the tension by setting the mood: take a walk in a local park, enjoy a glass of wine on the couch, or sit on the porch with your favorite picnic dinner.

·      Admit Your Feelings: Be brave! This is the time to be honest about any tension this income disparity creates. You might feel grateful, inferior, apathetic, guilty, anxious, resentful, or nothing at all — it’s all valid. As you share, refrain from judging yourself or your partner. Instead, listen closely. If things get tense, take a breath and ask your partner a meaningful question or repeat back what you’ve heard to make sure you understand. Likely, if it’s causing tension for you, it’s causing tension for your partner, too.

Tip: Tread lightly here. It’s important to get all of the feelings out into the open without judgement. If you dismiss your partner’s perspective,  they are more likely to be guarded about how they are really feeling. And it’s possible your partner may even be tempted to hide their financial situation — positive or negative — from you.

·      Explore Your Roles: Name how your partner contributes to the relationship and invite your partner to do the same for you. Explore both the tangible contributions (like helping around the house or running errands) and the intangible contributions (like a listening ear, patience, or sense of humor). If there are ways you feel you contribute to the relationship that your partner left out, add those in to the conversation at the end.

Tip: It’s not uncommon to feel the partner on the lesser end of the income inequality should compensate by taking on a bigger role in the house. But if the inequality is caused by something out of his/her control and this partner is also working full-time, this can build up resentment over time. Consider dividing up household tasks based on hours worked, not hourly rate. Don’t try to make up for the lack of 00s in a paycheck with housework.

·      Choose Your Money Management Approach:  It can be dangerous to view your partner’s money as “ours” but your own as “mine” — that’s not fair. Identify what portion is yours, mine, or ours.  My husband and I have chosen to deem all money that comes into our life as “ours,” whether it’s a paycheck, an inheritance, or something else entirely. We also see all of our debts as shared. You might decide to have entirely separate finances where you each contribute to the bills equally. Another approach, which I think might be more fitting if there’s significant income inequality, is having separate accounts but contributing proportionally to the bills according to each of your incomes.

Tip: If you choose to have separate accounts, it can get a little tricky when one partner wants to spend money on a shared expense, like a vacation, that the other person doesn’t value or can’t afford.  If you can’t afford to treat your partner and it’s something they can’t afford to pay for themselves, then you may need to wait. 

·      Name What You Need: Vulnerable conversations are important. How will you address the feelings you shared earlier? What actions need to be taken to create a more sustainable system for you both? Ask your spouse to help hold you accountable.

Tip: It can be helpful to get the emotions of this situation out on the table. But change comes with action, not venting. Make sure you create a solid list of to-dos to make your system work, and set a deadline for getting these items accomplished. Then, put a date on the calendar about one month out to check back in to see how things are working.

 One of the best ways to keep the lines of communication open, whether you struggle with income inequality or not, is to establish a regular time to talk about your finances. Not sure where to begin? Join my Date Night Club, I’ll give you the starters you need to have a fruitful and (dare I say) fun conversation about money.

 During this week’s Facebook and Instagram Live at 8pm (Central) on Thursday, June 27, I’ll be digging into the ways you and your partner contribute to your relationship outside of finances. See you then!