How Can I Keep Our Household Wage Gap From Ruining Our Relationship?
Shannon McNay — It's Complicated
Dear It’s Complicated: I’m currently in a serious relationship in which I earn significantly less income than my partner. How do I manage splitting expenses and handle my mixed emotions about our household wage gap?
It’s complicated, but not insurmountable: We all have personal finance questions that are also relationship issues, family issues, job issues, and this is mine. Even as a personal finance writer, it took me years to learn how to balance my worth in our relationship with our unequal incomes. So, to launch our new “It’s Complicated” Q&A series, I thought I’d share how I answered my own major money dilemma. If you have a financial conundrum best answered with a mix of personal finance expertise and advice column empathy, send it in to firstname.lastname@example.org, subject line: It’s Complicated.
When I was a 20-something struggling to get by in New York, I lived with four other young women in a cramped apartment. We all had good jobs, but that rent still hurt. Inevitably, every month, one of my roommates would make a comment like, “I wish I could just marry a rich banker and never have to struggle again.”
Not exactly the most feminist phrase to utter, but the struggle was real. Of course, none of us would ever give up on love or career, but it was nice to fantasize about being able to easily afford an apartment that always had working heat and hot water and never ruined our day with issues like flooding radiators or broken locks on the front door.
During that time, I was focused on making it as a writer and hopefully meeting someone I could fall in love with, a real-life partner. I never considered wealth as a dating prerequisite, and could never have anticipated that one day I’d be living out a minor version of my roommates’ lighthearted quips, or the anxiety being the lower-income earner in a relationship would bring.
When my husband and I started dating, we bonded over a mutual loved of spending our weekends working on projects. The difference was, his projects were coding websites while mine were writing novels. The financial discrepancy between our passion projects didn’t become noticeable until we got serious.
I still remember sitting in the very coffee shop where we first met, discussing moving in together. He pulled up a few ads for apartments on his laptop and I had two immediate reactions: First, amazement at the beauty of the listings he was pulling up; second, ulcer-inducing anxiety at the rental range he was searching.
“There’s no way I can afford half of that rent,” I told him. “Can we look for something cheaper?”
Nonplussed, he suggested that I could pay one-third of the rent, that not everything had to be split half and half. But that didn’t ease my mind. He and I met in our late 20s and I’d gotten very used to my independence. I didn’t have much, but everything I had I worked my tail off for. How could I let this person just hand me something that I didn’t believe was rightfully mine?
In my husband’s case, our wage discrepancy was difficult for him too—but not because I couldn’t contribute as much. It was difficult for him because it bothered me. I let my insecurity about the gap pit me against him instead of working together on a solution.
I didn’t want to pay less than half, so I told him we had to go for cheaper apartments. The same went for groceries and everything else. But I didn’t understand then that I was asking him to change his own quality of life to accommodate my insecurity.
The lesson is: There are two sides to every story. If you have a partner who earns more and wants to pay more than half of your joint financial responsibilities, don’t immediately disregard the idea out of pride. If they’re willing to do so to create a better quality of life for both of you, be open to it.
The fact that I would likely never earn what my husband could bothered me for the first few years of our relationship. Whereas I never cared about money before—as long as I earned enough to set some aside each month—I started feeling ashamed and stressed about my comparatively skimpy income.
Then one day my husband was accepted into a startup incubator, a dream he’d had for years. To do it, he had to quit his job and earn minimum wage while he built a company. Suddenly, I had the opportunity to be the primary breadwinner while he followed his bliss. As soon as I had the chance to support us, I realized why my husband was ok with helping me—because he knew I’d do the same for him.
Since then, our incomes have fluctuated as we’ve started companies and failed, moved across the country multiple times, changed jobs, and so on. If you’re in a relationship for the long haul, there will be give and take for the whole of your lives together. So try not to focus on discrepancies today because the tables could easily flip later. What’s important isn’t who earns what, but that you’re on the same page with your goals and approaching them as a team. When you view your decisions as things that affect your household and not that affect you or your partner alone, the idea of who earns what becomes less important.
When my husband and I look at our finances now, we look at the sum amount. Instead of my salary or his, we combine the two and set our goals from there. This has made it a lot easier for me to feel like an equal member of our household, even when my income makes me feel less than equal.
Speaking of feeling equal, remember that a lot more goes into building a life together than money. There’s pets and childcare, household chores, and family obligations. You shouldn’t look at your contributions just based on income. For example, my husband and I switch off on housework depending on who’s under more stress at work. This reinforces our teamwork and reminds us of all the contributions we make to our household.
Nothing can be solved overnight, nor are the answers the same for every couple. It took my husband and me years to work this all out and I’m sure we’ll never really be done. The point is, it may be complicated, but the more you talk about it together, the sooner you’ll figure it out.
Are you wrestling with money matters? You can reach us at email@example.com, subject line: It’s Complicated. Not all financial questions come with black and white answers—let us help you deal when it gets complicated.