Income gap in relationships: how do you work with this?
August 3, 2013 2:15 PM   Subscribe

I grew up lower/lower middle-class, and worked to support myself from my teens (now early 30s). I've never made a lot, but always managed to feel pretty stable and live without debt. Because of my family's money problems as a kid, financial independence has been really important for me. I decided to go back to grad school, and have taken out huge sums of money to do so. My partner, now graduated from grad school, is beginning a new, fancy job, which will place our incomes far, far apart. We're planning on a life together, and it won't be long until I am earning an income again (rather than living off of loans), but he'll still make more than me, and I'm really struggling with _not_ feeling like a charity for him in the interim. How do you deal with this?

Examples: if I pay the rent and bills, and the total is $75, my partner rounds up to $100, with the justification being that I end up paying for more stuff in the long run (e.g., gas for my car that he uses). Or: we have planned to take a trip to see his family. I had unexpected financial stuff come up and that cut into my travel budget. He has offered to pay the cost of my tickets. When we've talked about it, he is totally fine with paying more, and it really does seem to be my own hangups that are causing problems.

Other antecdata: I've never been the kind of person that lets people pay for me or buy me stuff. At most, I'll split things. But I feel viscerally uncomfortable with people buying me things: I somehow perceive it as being bought off. Or I feel the need to do more household work to make up for his overpaying me for, say, utilities.

An important note, I think, is that we are very well-aligned financial values-wise, so that bodes well for our compatibility. It's just the difference in incomes and his perceived charity, particularly in the present, that's really tough for me to deal with. Help?
posted by stillmoving to Human Relations (24 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
My ex was an attorney, and I have always worked for nonprofits, so he made considerably more than me. We divided our expenses aligned with the percentage we each brought in of our total income, so I paid a third of the total bills and he paid 2/3.

I never felt like a charity case; I was paying my fair share, keyword being fair. This arrangement was his idea, by the way - have you asked your partner how he feels about how you split your bills?
posted by deliciae at 2:19 PM on August 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

Suze Orman suggests that each person put the same percentage of their incomes towards shared bills, etc. Would that make you feel better in terms of regular expense?
posted by radioamy at 2:20 PM on August 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

My partner makes about double what I do, and pays most of our bills. I balance it out by doing things around the house, doing most of the cooking, etc. We consider each other family, so it's not a big deal.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 2:31 PM on August 3, 2013 [5 favorites]

I think that looking at it from your partner's point of view might help you.

If your positions were switched, how would you feel about money? Would you be tallying up the expenses, or would you want him to let you help him out a bit so he could be less stressed about money? Does what you'd want for him in this hypothetical align with what you'll accept for yourself in reality?
posted by Metasyntactic at 2:33 PM on August 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

This was and is me. My wife makes significantly more than I do, an I grew up pretty poor. Nothing resolves this completely for us/me, but something that helps is reframing how much the family unit makes.

When our household is making X a month and saving Y a month, it helps reign in that "omfg I'm such a moocher" feeling.

If the total merging of assets doesn't make total sense, I'd at least have a shared account or something that you can both contribute to, and plan on doing something with the cash together.
posted by furnace.heart at 2:36 PM on August 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

We do the same as deliciae- my higher-earning SO pays 60% of major bills, I pay 40%. We use Splitwise to divide things and settle up at the end of each month. We each put 10% of our income into a joint savings account.

I do feel bad about not contributing more to our household but I have a larger nest egg set aside that we will use toward a down payment on a house someday. My SO knows about it and we've discussed that it makes more sense to save that money for a house instead of dipping into it to for me to pay bills now.
posted by thewestinggame at 2:40 PM on August 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I did it as a percentage of income until I got married and then had children and became a primary caregiver to our kids. It didn't make sense after that, as it was all family income and we would have had to pay $40k a year to hire a nanny and I was also doing more than half of the cooking, cleaning, shopping and so on.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 2:43 PM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've never been the kind of person that lets people pay for me or buy me stuff. At most, I'll split things. But I feel viscerally uncomfortable with people buying me things: I somehow perceive it as being bought off. Or I feel the need to do more household work to make up for his overpaying me for, say, utilities.

i think you need to rethink this. when someone does something nice for you they are not buying you off they are expressing their love and care for you. my guess is this is a control thing for you and you don't want to feel like someone can pull the rug out from under you if they change their mind. you say you are planning a life with this person so i think you need to learn how to receive without feeling like everything has to be fair. love isn't fair--it just is. enjoy it.
posted by wildflower at 3:23 PM on August 3, 2013 [9 favorites]

I was a fulltime homemaker for two decades. My husband made what he made in part because of "who" he was and who he was had a lot to do with being a husband and father. If you are very intimately involved with someone, it is not really possible to determine how much of their income is somehow impacted by the existence of the relationship.

I have seen studies, etc. and thought about it a lot. My husband made as much as he did in part because I cooked and cleaned, paid bills and generally freed him up from having to focus on anything other than his job. He also had regular access to sex, a sounding board, and so on. He also had motivation to work hard ecause there were kids to feed.

Plus, a larger home for the family affords niceties a lot of single people just can't afford, whether in terms of time or money. Simply having a family makes homecooked fily meals make sense. A lot of single people live on microwave crap because cooking for one is such a nuisance. It definitely impacts quality of life.

In the military, he got additional pay/benefits for being married, free medical coverage for the family, etc. It was an old fashioned job in some sense which made our old fashioned marriage make more sense than having two careers.

I kind of think if you are a couple or family unit, you really can't divide it up. After I got divorced, the kids stayed with me. They learned to cook and clean while I worked a corporate job. They helped me keep it together so I could work at all and were on the treadmill too when I worked overtime. My income occurred in part because of their labor, not just mine.

"We are one" and all that.

So, I feel income is "family income" and that's that. But that's just how I feel.
posted by Michele in California at 3:38 PM on August 3, 2013 [14 favorites]

It's more equal now, but there was a point in our respective careers when my partner was earning double or more than than I was. I can empathise, OP. It chafed. It made me feel bad, and I hated either saying no to stuff or rely on her to pay.

However, as our relationship deepened and matured (and this pretty much happens regardless should you ever have a kid), I stopped think about ourselves and our finances as two separate things, and thought of us more as one unit, working together on our life, together, each person bringing different tings to the relationship to help it work etc.

Now, this didn't obviate the need to check in with each other, and ensure that everyone is comfortable with the level of money being spent at any given time, the budget goals etc. Like so many things in a relationship, good communication is important.

However, thinking this way - and thinking that we were serious and in the relationship over the long haul, really helped make stress iver quotidian things like who paid for dinner or whatever recede over time. Nowadays, we both view any money in the relationship as our money, together. To be spent or saved together.

Not every couple does this, but it really works for us.
posted by smoke at 3:54 PM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mr. Arnicae and I have an income disparity. We have collective expenses, and pay them based on the percent of the monthly income each of us puts in.

So if we collectively make 10 one month, and I make 7 of the 10, I pay for 70% of our expenses that month and he pays 30% of our expenses. It isn't a question of one or the other of us being a "charity", it is what we consider equity in the relationship.

I hate talking about money, and it sounds like you might too, but this is likely a time where you have to bite the bullet and have that conversation about money. Being frank and honest with each other is really important, particularly about complicated and emotional topics like money. Statistically speaking, couples fight more about money than any other topic - putting the energy into having the tough conversations may help you avoid this.
posted by arnicae at 3:54 PM on August 3, 2013

I would encourage you to set up a joint checking account for all of the household expenses. Each person contributes proportionately and either one can draw on it to pay the agreed upon household bills. I think this is better than just splitting the expenses because (1) you aren't constantly having to divide everything and (2) you don't pay as much attention to the relative % (each person just kicks in their share every month, you have to recalculate the shares if something changes.

There will still need to be discussion about what you can afford as a couple and (the harder one) what to do if he wants and can afford to something for both of you that you can't afford on your own (like the trip). I think that will just be awkward for you until you get enough trust in the relationship that you can feel safe that he isn't buying you off or expecting some other kind of payment. Also, if you do move to all money being "our" money then you will need to feel comfortable with the way your partner saves as well as the way he spends. Knowing that the savings are in place and the two of you can really afford the spurges well help you enjoy them more.
posted by metahawk at 4:33 PM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I had an attitude like yours for a long time.

Someone (who wanted to buy me a coffee, but I kept fighting him for the check or insisting on paying) eventually sat me down and explained to me that, just like I like to be able to do nice things for my friends and be generous toward them, I should let them have the same pleasure. I found it to be a very compelling argument.
posted by Lady Li at 5:00 PM on August 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

When my partner was in grad school and had no money I would cover him wherever possible, because it was something I was, luckily, able to do thanks to good employment - and being able to help out someone I loved was something that made me happy. I bet your own partner feels the same way.
posted by wheek wheek wheek at 6:24 PM on August 3, 2013

It's never bothered either of us. I think we both see what somebody makes as more of an accident (e.g. choosing a career based on variables other than potential income; gender differences in how much society rewards different people/different jobs; different opportunities presenting themselves to each of us at different times, etc.) than a reflection of one's basic worth. Sometimes I've worked less; sometimes he's lost job, sometimes I have; at one point he changed careers; we had a kid - I spent more time doing stuff for the kid than he did; he worked more and brought home more money, etc., etc.

We deposit everything into one account, and we pay our bills. All our accounts are joined at this point. There's no "mine" versus "yours" in input or output. We discuss most expenses, but we'd never discuss e.g. clothing or anything personal we buy for ourselves.

Maybe it's not so "modern," the way we do things, but it feels good to us. The main point is there's a "we" and it's "our" money and "our" bills and "our" future together, and that feels better than all kinds of calculations and making sure it comes out "even."
posted by DMelanogaster at 8:03 PM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Other antecdata: I've never been the kind of person that lets people pay for me or buy me stuff. At most, I'll split things

If you grew up poor, there's a good chance you recognize that the way people are paid is completely arbitrary and not at all a direct correlation to how hard they work, how good a person someone is, or how valuable to humanity the work is. Actually, it's not exactly arbitrary, it's more like "we've got ours and I'm going to make sure my kids get theirs and build a whole system of privilege, moralism, and false assumptions about other people to make sure they don't get mine or anything that could potentially be mine in the future."

Money moves around. Some people work hard for pennies, and too many people don't work very hard at all and make cajillions. (Deep down, they believe they deserve it and are just better than everybody else - or smart and rich enough to hire marketers and lobbyists.)

Don't get a chip on your shoulder about this. Put it all in a joint account, pay bills, and love each other with the rest.
posted by vitabellosi at 8:11 PM on August 3, 2013 [10 favorites]

Agreeing with vitabellosi, basically. Do you feel that you work less 'hard' than you partner? If not, then I'd accept it as a quirk (or injustice) of the modern capitalist economy that some jobs pay more than others- usually because the employees belong to an industry that is more profitable. The idea that higher wage earners are all more worthy of their higher wage is frequently nonsense- many very very hard working and highly qualified people make very little, and many who work in profitable fields will make quite a bit. I'm not saying your partner doesn't work hard- but unless you feel that you're actually being slack, I'd see your partnership as one of the few occasions for a fairer distribution of wealth. If, on the other hand, you don't work as hard- then making up for it in the myriad possible ways you can is fine. But it's not your fault that your work is not rewarded as well as his.
posted by jojobobo at 1:31 AM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mr Fish and I have always had an income disparity. When we moved to the country we're living in now he had a job and I was finishing my PhD, and he supported us both. Then I got a low-paying job, making less than he does, then I got a comparatively high-paying job and his contract situation changed so I was earning more.

To be honest, the income difference doesn't phase us. I think it helps that we met in graduate school, where we were used to working our asses off for no money. We're both hard-working people, we both contribute to our household in whatever way we can. Now we approach our budget by combining our incomes, deducting savings and household expenses (we include grocery money/'petty cash' in that), and splitting the rest into 'spending money' for each of us to do with as we please. This works really well for us.

As Vitabellosi says, this isn't charity. It's a life with someone.
posted by nerdfish at 2:35 AM on August 4, 2013

I understand how irksome this can be. Here are a few things to consider:

First, I know you understand how fundamentally wrong it is to judge someone else on how much money they make. Why would you, in effect, judge yourself on that basis?

Second, a marriage (or a functional replica thereof) is a partnership, not a couple people pitching in ad hoc. You're meant to pool everything -- resources, energy, capabilities -- for the advantage of the partnership. Your partner and you will both be doing this. That's how it should be.

Third, the whole point of making money is to use it to make a better life for yourself and those you care about. Allow your partner to make the best use of his money by helping to make a good life for the two of you.
posted by ROTFL at 3:35 AM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just popping back in to say, additionally, that "working hard" is over-rated, generally, so don't try to turn "working hard" into a metric, in your relationship or otherwise.

"Working hard" as a moral good was invented by hard-working, self-employed, well-off Protestants. They had autonomy in their work lives, they worked for themselves, which is completely different from working for someone else.

Their hard worked paid off, so they assumed they were in God's graces, and they just assumed that hard work pays off equally for everyone everywhere. Their logic was incredibly self-serving, and flawed. It was based in a fundamental, Godly belief in their own superiority.

That logic pervades our lives in ruinous ways, to this day.
posted by vitabellosi at 7:56 AM on August 4, 2013 [7 favorites]

In addition to having a joint account for household expenses (to which you each contribute a percentage from your income, then spend for the household as a whole), you should have a very similar account for a "vacation fund" or "fun money". You each contribute every month according to the percentage of your income, but when it comes time to spend it, it becomes "our money" for the specific trip you are planning, with no correlation back to who contributed exactly how much.
posted by CathyG at 8:47 AM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I understand how frustrating it is to have an income disparity. At one point (when I was working part-time) my husband's income was ten times my own. As annoying as that is, it really helps that we have always thought of all of it as our money. Like nerdfish, we didn't have much money when we married, so any income or raise for either of us was just amazing in the amount more money we shared. I'm really glad we started out that way, as it allowed me to become a stay-at-home mom without worrying that I'm not contributing to earning money for our family. It still feels weird sometimes, but it allows our family to have a lot more time, energy, and home-cooked meals. (And I know we're amazingly lucky to be able to live on one income.)

Growing up working class, I mostly think it's a quirk which jobs pay well and which don't, and who lucks out in getting the well paying jobs. You might see if just sharing all of your money together with your partner works better than seeing exactly which of your money is paying for which specific things. It won't get rid of all the niggling feelings, but it helps.
posted by Margalo Epps at 10:33 AM on August 4, 2013

I've been on the other side of htis in all of my relationships, usually 5-10x the income of my partner. So there is a huge disparity, and my income pays for almost everything in practice.

But I don't have any problem with this. I mean, if I'm in a LTR/marriage/etc with someone, I want us to be helping and supporting each other. That means a lot more than just money. Each of us should be contributing what we can to the relationship. If I felt someone was just trying to take my money and not be a partner, that would bother me.

I think as long as both partners are making similar efforts, whether that be in work, the home, whatever... the actual money should be less important, since thats a factor of your skills relative to whats valued in the economy.
posted by wildcrdj at 4:10 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone for all of the excellent replies! I started going through and marking as "best," but realized they all have great gems. I especially appreciated the shifts of perspective: I tend to be someone who pays for things for other people, but protests when it's done for me. After discussion with my partner, we have come to a conclusion that works for us for now. Thank you again to the brilliance of the green!
posted by stillmoving at 8:59 PM on August 5, 2013

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