Finances are a significant source of stress for individuals and couples alike, and the topic becomes even more sensitive in a relationship where one person’s income is higher than the other’s. It might seem that having a partner with a high income would make life less stressful, not more, but it can quickly become a source of shame and insecurity if it’s not handled correctly.
“Finances are the top stressor in relationships and one of the top causes of divorce,” says Adam Kol, a couples financial counselor. “It isn’t a common topic of conversation growing up for most of us, so we have our own complex relationships with money. Then when you try to bring a partner into the mix, it becomes exponentially more complex.”
5 tips for finding equal ground on unequal pay
Communication is key
Openly discussing your income situation can help get your stress out in the open and eliminate any shame you feel around earning more or less than your partner.
“Don’t let it be an elephant in the room,” Kol says. “Just say, ‘Hey, can we talk about this income disparity, how we feel about it and how we want to tackle it and achieve our financial goals?’”
As the lower-income earner, it’s easy to feel like your partner resents you for contributing less financially to the household. But in Kol’s experience, that’s not usually the case. More often than not, the higher earner actually wants to help out. By sharing your insecurities with your partner, you might find that you’re creating a problem where there really isn’t one.
Change the narrative around making less
Being the lower-income earner in a relationship can be difficult and can bring up feelings of shame, stress and insecurity. But by changing the story you tell yourself about your circumstance, you can reduce those negative feelings.
“If you’re the lower-income earner, I would encourage you to reflect on the narratives that you attach to that,” Kol says. It’s possible you’ve seen messages in movies, television or even your own life that say that someone who earns less is somehow less important. Identifying the negative narrative that you’re falling victim to can help you overcome it.
Acknowledge non-monetary contributions
When you compare what each partner brings to the relationship, it’s easy to focus primarily on monetary contributions. The reality is that they are the easiest to quantify, but they certainly aren’t the only ones that contribute to a healthy and happy household.
In 2021, for instance, women still do the majority of unpaid household work while earning an average of 82 cents for each dollar a man makes. You may not be able to count loads of laundry or swipes of the broom in a bank account, but chores and family upkeep are emotional currency. It’s important that you and your partner place just as much value on those non-monetary contributions as the monetary ones.
And don’t forget to think outside the box. If you’re using credit cards with perks for your daily spending, you may be able to contribute to household expenses or use miles to pay for a couples vacation.
Find a budgeting system that works
No matter your income, it’s essential that you and your partner find a budgeting system that fits your situation. And while this step is important for all couples, it might be even more so for those with large income disparities.
“There are two approaches I’d recommend,” Kol says. “One is to just combine all the income in one pot. At that point, it’s not ‘I earned it,’ or ‘My partner earned it.’ It’s just, ‘We earned it.’”
The other approach Kol recommends is a percentage-based budget, where each partner contributes a percentage that’s equal to the percentage of the household income they earn.
“Let’s say your partner earns three times as much as you do,” Kol says. “Maybe they put in 75% of the money needed to cover the shared expenses, and you put in 25%.”
Regardless, there’s no right way to handle it. A 2021 study from Zeta, a fintech platform geared toward people in relationships, found that roughly the same percentage of couples keep their finances separate as those who fully combine them.
No matter what approach you choose, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The sooner you implement a strategy — even if it doesn’t entirely pan out — the sooner you can adjust and find the right system for you. “Try something that seems reasonable, see how it goes, check-in after a few weeks or months, and then tweak or overhaul it as needed,” Kol says.
Enlist the help of a professional
If it feels like you and your partner have tried to overcome your income disparity on your own and it’s still creating a wedge and causing feelings of stress or insecurity, it might be time to look for professional help.
A couples counselor can help you and your partner address the issues stemming from the difference in your take home pay. A financial coach or financial counselor can do the same, while also helping to address some of the more tangible roadblocks, such as finding the right budgeting system or finding the best way to divide up expenses in your relationship.
“Sometimes having a third party there gives you a structure, helps build mutual accountability, and gives you a space to air your thoughts and feelings,” Kol says. “And a person with the right skillset can also really help you deepen your understanding of yourself, see where your partner is coming from, work through some of these obstacles, and get you to a place where you’ve strengthened both the relationship and the finances.”