How to divide expenses?
April 29, 2014 9:48 PM   Subscribe

When you make about the same, it's easy. When one person makes all the money, it's easy. What to do when there is a marked disparity between what two people in a couple earn?

We used to earn about the same in NYC: she's a doctor and was making about $130K and I was in finance, making about $150K plus a small bonus. And we had no kids, so our main expenses were just rent.

And then I lost my job in finance (leading to two years of unemployment) and her income picked up markedly. When I got back to work, I was making $110K with no bonus and she was making about $210K with a small bonus. And I might have managed, but we also then had two kids in daycare and our rent went up, so we were paying $8K just on those. For me, a 50% split of this was bleeding my bank account $1K per month.

And now we've moved out of NYC for Colorado, where our expenses are much less. So what's the problem?
- I am looking at my salary going down when I finally take a local job here -- probably $20-30K
- My retirement savings come out of my paycheck. Hers are largely funded by bonus and employer match.
- We are looking to get a house, and I am anticipating about $4k/month (15 year to match my time to retirement)
- We are looking to start saving for the kids, and estimates about $1K/month per kid

In short, I think we are returning to NYC level expenses while I face a lower income. I don't think I can sustain a 50% share.

What is an approach to sharing expenses that others have taken in similar circumstances?
posted by expense-division to Work & Money (54 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Our solution was that it all goes into a collective pot. If you're in it for the long haul, then it's family income and family expenses. It takes a frank conversation and commitment, but it worked for us.
posted by arcticseal at 9:53 PM on April 29, 2014 [39 favorites]

I'm in a similar circumstance (I earn about 50% more than my wife), and the solution is real simple. Don't be selfish, and pool your money together. Stop thinking of it as "contributing a share". I mean, you've got kids.
posted by Jimbob at 9:54 PM on April 29, 2014 [19 favorites]

Your situation seems pretty close to "one person makes all the money". Put all income in a joint account, and all expenses come out of the joint account. If you're in a committed relationship with kids, there's no reason to account for who is making which money or who is paying expenses.
posted by Mallenroh at 9:56 PM on April 29, 2014 [5 favorites]

My wife currently makes quite a bit more then myself. I keep about a grand per two weeks out of my paycheck for spending money and the rest goes in the pot. Note this relative salary ratio thing has flipped a few times (I've dumped my salary and started a business I don't get paid much in salary but I do get some disbursements which go to big ticket things like new windows or a car, she was unemployed for a few months etc.). It all works out and neither of us worry about the disparity. Its a family unit.
posted by bitdamaged at 9:59 PM on April 29, 2014

So... when you were at $110k and $210k and you were essentially living paycheck-to-paycheck, what was she spending "her" other $100k a year on?

I don't think you have to pool your money (although that's probably the easiest, safest, and smartest bet), but if you don't, you can't let the more capable person be driving the expenses bus.

If each has to contribute equally, your expenses should be driven by how much the lowest salary can afford. So that means you move farther away, buy a smaller house, rent, or whatever else it takes to trim those expenses down.
posted by toomuchpete at 9:59 PM on April 29, 2014 [5 favorites]

There was quite a good discussion of this question on /r/personalfinance just a couple of days ago.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 10:07 PM on April 29, 2014

Another collective pot here: it's all ours, not mine and theirs; we're a family and think that's how it is for a family (with a pot a third the size of yours, fwiw).
posted by anadem at 10:18 PM on April 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

We are looking to start saving for the kids, and estimates about $1K/month per kid

Umm. Maybe my math is wrong. But that ends up being $12,000/year/kid. So by the time your kid is 12 years old, you will have $144,000 for them (WITHOUT the accruing interest)

$216,000/child by the time they're 18.

Maybe I'm just in another income bracket than you, or maybe you're overestimating how much you should put into that account.
posted by hal_c_on at 10:23 PM on April 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just saw an interesting article on mathematical models for fair division which might inspire interesting (impartial) strategies:

My personal opinion is to pool the dough, create a budget, and if you insist on factoring percentages into the equation, do so only for discretionary/recreational spending.
posted by novelgazer at 10:25 PM on April 29, 2014 [5 favorites]

$216,000/child by the time they're 18.

Perhaps not totally unreasonable if you expect to send the kids to private four-year universities, want to pay it all for them, and don't expect financial aid.
posted by Jahaza at 10:28 PM on April 29, 2014 [11 favorites]

Normally as a couple you pool your money, set goals and objectives, and make sure they are met.

I guess it's different for people who are wealthy, and I imagine your partner wants to get some reward from her success, as do you presumably, either to channel funds in an entrepreneurial venture or whatever.

I still think it makes sense to pool resources make sure common goals are reached, and first you have to determine what those goals are.

Or what navelgazer said.

Anyway, it's not uncommon for couples to not discuss money, but as the sole breadwinner for our family I would never make my wife fund her own retirement. We're in this together.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:32 PM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Re: Maybe I'm just in another income bracket than you, or maybe you're overestimating how much you should put into that account. says that if I want my kids to go to college out of state (but still public), I need $192K by 2028. It's $25K now but it ill be more then -- 4% more per year by the assumptions. If we wanted to send them to private schools, we'd need about $300K saved.

The result is that we need to put away about $1K per month (or $1.7K per month in the private case). I trust the math. Open a free account at and play around with it. Tell me I am wrong.
posted by expense-division at 10:34 PM on April 29, 2014

So, what, are you splitting your kids 50/50? Is King Solomon threatening to cut them in half or something? You don't have a Yours half of the life/house/kids and a Hers half. You aren't roommates. The two of you both contribute to the household, in part through money and in part through things like household chores and emotional support and driving kids around and god knows what else. Putting a financial value on all those things to try to figure out where you come out exactly is kind of silly compared to just figuring out that the two of you actually make, say, $300k/year, and you budget everything accordingly.

The people I have seen make this work best tend to allot what's left for "free" money in such a way that if one person has a substantially more stressful job, they get a bit more fun money, but not drastically so. Just enough to sweeten the pot a bit.

You also should definitely not have Yours and Hers retirement plans; you really ought to talk to a financial planner about making sure that what you're doing makes sense for both of you, because if you've got drastically different options available between you, using more of one or the other person's income for that purpose may make a lot of sense.

I am not myself well-off but I have done taxes for a lot of people who are and as a result end up knowing way more than I really want to about their personal finances. I can't say that my clients are a perfect random sample or anything, but I'd say that the vast majority of couples who were splitting like this were people who had, let's say, a higher-than-average expectation of divorcing within the next ten years. It's not usually a healthy pattern to spend all your time thinking about whose money is whose and who "contributes" more.
posted by Sequence at 10:38 PM on April 29, 2014 [22 favorites]

The obvious answer is just to pool everything but it sounds like you guys don't want to do that for whatever reason so here's one option:

Designate one bank account as dedicated to paying for all joint expenses. Everything relating to kids, housing, utilities, grocery, transportation, etc.

Contribute to that on ratios based on your effective compensation, after employer match, bonus, etc. So if she makes 200k and you make 100k, you contribute $1 for every $2 she contributes. I find it excessively complicated to base it on post-tax income but you could do that if you wanted to.

Whatever is left over, you each keep in your own accounts.
posted by phoenixy at 10:40 PM on April 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

I kind of don't get why it's not easy. Mr Fish and I are in very different tax brackets and we also have an income disparity. We get around it by pooling our incomes, subtracting living expenses (rent, insurance, grocery money) and savings, then dividing the remainder into spending money. The concern with saving accounts for the kids and so on sounds like a red herring if you're not acknowledging that these are shared expenses.
posted by nerdfish at 10:43 PM on April 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

We liked the % model- after fully funding retirement for both partners, and after taxes (both of which we treated as "collective pots") we each put a certain percent of our remaining take home pay into a collective pot for household expenses and kept the remaining percent as personal expenses.
Note- this doesn't handle all problems- because then there are discussions about what goes in household and what is "personal," but it at least provides a fair-ish negotiation framework and a nominal number for the household budget.
posted by susiswimmer at 10:44 PM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Re: Designate one bank account as dedicated to paying for all joint expenses. Everything relating to kids, housing, utilities, grocery, transportation, etc.

This is exactly what I would like to do. In fact, I opened an account for that very purpose today. It just heightened the conflict.

I didn't really want to prejudice the answers by laying out the conflict around that: she maintains that if I am not paying 50% for ordinary expenses (food, entertainment, insurance, gas, etc.), I don't have enough skin in the game, so to speak.
posted by expense-division at 10:49 PM on April 29, 2014

And how much skin does she think you'd have in the game if she was paying only, say, 50% of her total income into the pot, and you were paying 100% of yours? Would that way of thinking about it make her a less dedicated parent than you? This is why it's not healthy to start getting into that. But if you're already to the point where you're having conflicts like that over the idea of pooling, this might be a good point to involve a counselor as a neutral third party.

I also point that out because I don't want to say it's necessarily happening in your case, but sometimes if one party is really reluctant to pool funds, they're spending large quantities of money on things they don't necessarily want their spouse to know about, and if that does turn out to be the case it can be an easier thing to deal with if you're already in counseling.

Otherwise, if she's determined not to do that, I agree that the only reasonable thing is to decide what you can afford to do as though you live on double your income, and divide things at that point, and let her figure out what to do with the excess. But I have a feeling that's going to lead to her just buying some of the things that you'd agreed to do without for you to be able to afford it--and that can get you right back to the feeling that you're not contributing enough. Also, you can't, for example, just choose to get taxed as though the two of you make $200k instead of $300k, so for some things that plan is considerably more difficult.
posted by Sequence at 10:56 PM on April 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

This just took a turn from Work & Money to Human Relations.
posted by novelgazer at 10:58 PM on April 29, 2014 [71 favorites]

I'm with novelgazer here. Suddenly we're in relationship filter.
It must be really frustrating to be putting 100% of the skin you have in the game and get that sort of a response. I'm so sorry.
I would consider looking into what your insurance may provide in terms of counseling services and seeking counseling yourself so that you can develop some strategies for how to negotiate the monetary situation specifically and possibly also some strategies to gently convince your wife that marital counseling may be beneficial for both of you. (I started individual counseling through my school and it helped me immensely to eventually convince my husband to join me in marital counseling.)
Because, fwiw, a random stranger on the internet thinks that the current approach and her attitude about it are not ok. No, really. :)
Good luck.
posted by susiswimmer at 11:12 PM on April 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Hmm maybe ask her how she plans to deal with this when she has kids and is on maternity leave with a very low if not non existent salary.

I can't tell you how to deal with this, but it sounds like the issue is about security in a relationship, more than money.

It might be worth discussing others ways of providing that sense of security and commitment that aren't financial. What does your spouse make of couples where one spouse stays at home? Surely she can recognise that there are points where fifty fifty is simply unworkable. This doesn't mean the relationship is unfair or unworkable.

Best of luck this sounds very challenging. I how you can resolve it before trying for kids as you really need to have everything working to respond well to a newborn in the house.
posted by smoke at 11:14 PM on April 29, 2014

novelgazer's right - you opened a 'joint' account without a prior explicit discussion with your wife? Why does she not feel you're fully into things? Something's up.

Here's Suze Orman's advice, for what it's worth, and some discussion on that approach. (Both common and separate accounts, with an equal percentage going into the pot.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:15 PM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Percentages. You contribute X% to the communal pot, she contributes Y%, so you pay X% of outgoes, she pays Y%. This only works in non-budget situations, in that outgoes is what dictates how much (rather than the startlingly common 'we need all of the money to pay stuff'). It still means the person on the lower end gets less $$ (having 5% of your income leftover for personal spending is significantly different between $210k and $100k) but it doesn't ignore the disparity entirely, or require a 'fix' of a different job in order to pay 50% of the bills.
posted by geek anachronism at 11:31 PM on April 29, 2014

It would be better, I think, to just have a big joint pool of money and agree about expenses. But if you can't do that, you might try the following.

Have a joint pool of money for shared, staple things (housing, food, kids, utilities, etc.) into which you pay progressive "family taxes" based on income. The goal of a progressive tax is to make everyone have the same subjective sense of loss or suffering when paying. Since the marginal utility of dollars decreases, just like the marginal utility of all other goods, a person earning more money has to contribute a larger share in order to have the same feeling of contribution. So, maybe try the following formula, based on logarithmic utility function for dollars:

tax = dollars - (dollars ^ (1 - rate))

where "dollars" is your income (adjusted however you like -- pre-tax, post-tax, including bonuses or not, whatever) and "rate" is the percentage of the felt value of your income that you want to give up. A 20% rate seems on the high side just from playing around with the numbers a bit (utilities are sometimes very weird), but with that rate you get the following contributions (roughly):

tax.yours = 100k - (100k ^ 0.8) = 90k

tax.hers = 200k - (200k ^ 0.8) = 182k

Those contributions would feel equally large to both of you. Limit your important joint expenses to whatever you can cover with that money. Or put another way, limit your selfish spending to what's left over after your "family taxes."

But on preview, I'm not sure she is going to agree that what matters is your subjective sense of contribution. Marriage counseling is probably a good idea.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 12:30 AM on April 30, 2014

To be frank, you two appear to be at significant odds, and this is the kind of thing that insidiously destroys a marriage. Might I respectfully recommend marriage counseling stat, and a financial planner as soon as your marriage counseling gets you two to the point that you both acknowledge you have common financial goals and need to work together as partners on this?
posted by davejay at 1:11 AM on April 30, 2014 [9 favorites]

When I moved in with my partner, we split all household expenses in proportion to income. Sometimes I earned more than her & sometimes it was the other way round. As far as we were concerned this was the fairest way to do things. We did this even before we got married and had children - as far as I was concerned it was part of our commitment to each other to see ourselves as partners: as a team. Not everyone works like this - some couples just throw all the money in a pot and do it that way, others split payment 50:50 for everything & if that means living at the level the lower earner can afford, then so be it.

Unfortunately, you can't solve this problem by asking metafilter what the best thing to do is, because what your wife is expecting you to do is obviously grossly unfair: You've moved across the country (to advance her career?) to an area where you have no hope of matching your previous peak earnings, yet she is expecting you to match her expenditure in all ways! This is obviously impossible & you're being set up to fail, even if she isn't doing it deliberately.

Clearly then, this isn't really about the money. Or rather, it's about what the money means to your wife according to whatever rules she's internalised about how relationships "ought" to work: I agree with every other response that says that this is symptomatic of an underlying problem that unless dealt with will fester until it wrecks your relationship.
posted by pharm at 1:18 AM on April 30, 2014

To be blunt: your wife's actions as described by you suggest that she cares more about the amount of money you bring to the household than you as a husband or as the father of her children. Is that the kind of relationship you want to have? Because to me it sounds toxic.
posted by pharm at 1:25 AM on April 30, 2014

So. I make about twice what my husband does. No kids yet, we pool all money. And it's tough sometimes: it leads to friction over spending habits, contributions to household chores, the respective value of our job-work, and so on.

It is still a massive improvement over our previous system of proportional contributions.

Do you know, specifically, why your wife is reluctant to change the agreement? The "skin in the game" line could mean any one of a million things.
posted by third word on a random page at 1:51 AM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

It may be a stretch, but could this friction about money be a proxy for another issue that you're finding hard to discuss? Does your wife, for instance, actually feel that she works harder than you - puts in more hours, or takes on more responsibility, whether at work or at home? Does she feel that you don't properly recognise her contribution? Perhaps the 'I want you to contribute equal money' thing is actually 'I want you to put in the same amount of effort'. Because ultimately, when you're someone's partner and have kids, there's usually an expectation that you share the total workload 50/50.

When you're single, it's reasonable to think about the money you earn as 'your money'. When you're in a relationship with someone, you can pool the money or keep it separate, whichever fits your lifestyle. But as soon as kids are involved, with all of the extra work and responsibility that entails, it seems pretty selfish to still be thinking of your earnings in terms of 'my money'. But again, maybe it's not really about that.
posted by pipeski at 1:59 AM on April 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

What is an approach to sharing expenses that others have taken in similar circumstances?

For what it's worth, we do his/hers/ours with the biggest chunk of income going to 'ours' and what's left going to our own accounts. We got together later in life, in our thirties, so we both already had multiple accounts and just never got around to consolidating them. We opened a few new ones for shared expenses, and we now have multiple joint accounts. I handle all finances and bill paying and retirement budgeting, because it makes Mr. Llama a nervous wreck and start walking down a dark path of avoidance behaviors. He couldn't stand it, and I don't mind it, in fact I kind of like it, so I do it.

If we had gotten together earlier in life and maybe if I didn't have such a need for clear financial taxonomy (i.e., the 'vacation budget') and we'd just throw it in a pile. I guess, on review, we kind of do it like your wife would like but we have almost no income disparity. One year one of us might make 10k more than the other, but the next year the other winds up doing so depending on raises, promotions, bonuses, etc so at the moment I couldn't even tell you who is making more.

One thing we did that's been kind of helpful is devise a plan for 'found' money, tax refunds, bonuses, retroactive pay-one third goes to shared short term savings, one to shared long term savings, and one to the actual person who got the 'found' money. It's sort of fun *pushes glasses up nose*.

But the important thing there is we communicated a lot about it and found something that works for both of us as a couple and as individuals (Mr. Llama has an unshared, private 'tech fund' for gadget buying. I wouldn't mind paying for gadgets under the joint money, but he sort of likes being able to buy the next iWhatever without having to have a discussion about it.)

So the thing is, you're asking what other people have done but we aren't in similar circumstances truthfully because we aren't in relationships with major income disparities and the person with the larger income saying that the other person needs to show their commitment to the relationship by contributing an income-disproportionate amount of money.

Agreeing with others that it seems like a step back from the question is in order, because calling on a partner to 'put some skin in the game' suggests someone who is highly unreasonable/unfair or who believes that for one reason or another their partner is not committed to the relationship, and both of those things need to be worked on entirely separately from nerding out on household budgeting options.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:51 AM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I kind of got to thinking about this more and if we assume that she's not totally unreasonable, the other alternative is, I agree, that this is a proxy for something else. Which leaves, well, a few other things. Regardless of pay, does she work more hours? Does she handle more of the household work and child care? If you're male it's statistically likely, but even if not it's entirely possible that she feels like she's been putting more into this and feels like you need to be putting more into it one way or another to compensate, which is a whole other issue.

But I can't help but wonder if you've either explained something in a way that I've misread, or, well, otherwise, if you've been 50/50 so far and this is the kind of income split you're looking at, I'm just baffled at what she's doing with that other hundred grand a year that she thinks is so vital. But you know what the situation is better than we do, and so maybe there's a sensible explanation for this. There's a big difference if this is a matter of principle and the difference is actually all going into what works out to eventually be shared savings anyway, or if she's say supporting a family member and doesn't want to have to give that up, versus it just being discretionary spending.
posted by Sequence at 3:36 AM on April 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

It sounds like a rational decision is going to be hard to come by. I think, unfortunately, that you're going to literally have to make three different scenario presentations with budgets and money flow.

It also sounds to me like the unspoken thing is that, if you put 100% of your earnings into mortgage, expenses, kids' savings, retirement and utilities, etc.—and $6500 a month doesn't sound that unreasonable for that, unfortunately!—then apparently you have no other money because it sounds like you both aren't allowed to have access to your team's money. Then you will cease to exist as a financial entity and independent person, and will become financially subject entirely to the household. (Many women have experience with this!)

When you say "I don't think I can sustain a 50% share," what does that mean? That means that you retain 50% of your salary, it sounds like. That $3000+ a month: where does it go? Is it squirreled away by you? Is it your Secret Savings? Is it your "rainy day crisis/divorce" money? Does she do the same? How are you both treating earnings after expenses?

In my experience, this stuff is nearly impossible to talk about and reach a breakthrough. But you can! I just feel like now there are errors here on both sides of this relationship in how you each view "my" money, "your" money, "our" money and "team money." And so there's gonna be a lot of talking.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 4:57 AM on April 30, 2014

As many people have said, this kind of thing is the reason that many couples consider all money to be communal; usually, if one partner has a high-paying job, the other partner is doing a lot of work making it possible for the partner to hold that job; the couple is a team that makes money and the money belongs to the team. But it sounds like your wife doesn't want it that way and while that's unusual I don't think it's necessarily unreasonable. For instance, I know some people who are children of divorce who are simply not going to not have their own big segregated pot of money, and I get that.

she maintains that if I am not paying 50% for ordinary expenses (food, entertainment, insurance, gas, etc.), I don't have enough skin in the game, so to speak.

But this I still don't quite get. Is "ordinary expenses" things like food, entertainment, insurance, gas -- i.e. things that are not actually that expensive? If that were the case, you'd be fine, right? Her salary pays the lion's share of the college fund contribution and the mortgage, and you go halfsies on movie night. That, you can clearly afford.

Also, how old are your kids? Because once they both start kindergarten there's suddenly $2K/month in your pocket that used to be going to daycare.

But it sounds more like her desire is that you go 50/50 on the big expenses too. In which case I don't see that there's any other solution but living like households who make twice what you do, or $160K/year. That's pretty good money. Maybe not the kind of money where you can buy a house that's costing you $4K/month, maybe not the kind of money where your kids don't have to borrow at all for college, but enough for a comfortable, affluent lifestyle, about 80% of the way up the household income distribution.

Of course, there is one more option, if this is the situation; you can quit your new, less fancy, lower-status job, and you can live the way a one-income family lives on $210K a year, which probably lets you afford that bigger house. And you don't need daycare because you're at home, which saves you yet more money. And your wife can pour herself into her demanding job without worrying about who's taking the kids to the dentist or who's making dinner or who's dealing with the plumber because it's always you.

Is you quitting your job an acceptable option for you? Is it acceptable for your wife?
posted by escabeche at 5:00 AM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

You both need to take a step back from discussing how the day-to-day expenses are handled and talk about the big-picture, long-term goals. If you aren't working toward the same goals, it's a recipe for disaster and it doesn't really matter what happens in the short term.

What happens if:
-You get injured and can't work?
-She gets injured and can't work?
-You both retire and you get cancer or something, depleting your personal retirement account?
-Your kid develops a mental/physical disability and one parent has to stay home full time?
-A wildfire engulfs your home and the insurance payout (if any) is delayed for months or years?

"Her money" and "my money" don't really work out when it's "our future." You should both be saving for retirement and other things obviously, but is she really going to let 65-year-old-you eat ramen just to afford your heart meds while she's off vacationing on a yacht somewhere? Is she going to deny her child needed care that she can afford because "dad can't fork over his 50% share"?

Y'all need to sit down (with a counselor/mediator if necessary) and discuss your long-term goals.
posted by melissasaurus at 5:20 AM on April 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm rather surprised that you're years and kids into this relationship (marriage) and you've not managed to sit down and discuss how you handle your money AS A FAMILY.

You don't say if you're married, but for all intents and purposes, you are. The easiest way to deal with money in this case is that everyone puts 100% of the money into one account, and all expenses are paid from it.

Sometimes one person in the relationship pays the bills, sometimes it's a thing both couples do together. But either way it's one pot of money, with an agreed upon budget.

Once your bills are paid, your savings are funded, etc, what do you need money for? Husbunny and I walk around with a few bucks every week, but we usually run most purchases past each other above and beyond normal stuff. "Hon, can I buy a new version of Baseball Mogul, it's $20." Sure, go nuts.

Seriously, there is a factor of dysfunction in your relationship here that is much larger than the division of expenses.

Also, if you're uncomfortable putting X into the pot, then suggest that you downsize the house, the kids contribution to college, etc, if you're uncomfortable.

I recommend meeting with a CPA to discuss your money, with your income levels you need to be doing that annually. Ask for financial planning advice for all of your mutual goals. How do you envision your retirement? How does your wife see it?

As a finance professional you should know that one half of this equation is math, but the other is emotion. Find out what your wife's issues are about this money, and try to understand what her emotions are around it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:42 AM on April 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I'd like to nth the comment above that this isn't about money, this is about you as a couple. I can't imagine using things like unequal entertainment spending to justify my partner scraping by while I am flush with cash.

If you're at an impasse, I'd suggest a third-party - a counsellor of some kind, to get at the root of why you as a unit need to operate as separate entities. This would probably involve looking at things like comparative hours worked, housework splits, parenting, etc.

Alternatively, if this really is an impossible option, then you need to calmly and rationally explain why it is the two of you have to live at a level that you both can afford. I.e., we get a mortgage of X, not X+Y, because while one of you can afford X+Y, the other cannot.

Your budget will reflect 2x what your salary is, and whatever additional money she makes, she can use to enhance either her, your children, or your life, but on no uncertain terms will you be living above your means if it's two people operating separately. I would be desperately firm on this point.
posted by rutabega at 5:45 AM on April 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

In case repetition helps, I'll add one more voice that this is clearly a relationship issue, not a money issue. Money-wise, there are plenty of solutions (pooling, percentages, etc) but everything begins with the relationship stuff. You definitely aren't going to solve this unilaterally. Either you guys figure out how to talk to each other productively on your own, or you enlist the help of a neutral mediator/counselor to help figure out where things are going. My vote is for the second option, since it sounds like you are currently in an unproductive and unhappy place.

For what it's worth, we simply pool our finances with no attempt to maintain anything separate, with any spending decision over a certain amount being discussed. (The exact amount to trigger that discussion fluctuates, but meaning "enough to notice.") That has worked for us both when we earned the same and through significant disparities, but it's not the solution for everyone.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:52 AM on April 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Some good points made above, but I also think you might benefit from going to a fee-based financial planner. I went to one alone mainly to review my investments, but the conversation got into my and my partner's income, budget and expenses. At a certain point I said, "Hmm well this is almost getting to be a couples counseling issue" and the planner suggested that yes, it does verge on that sometimes.
posted by BibiRose at 5:56 AM on April 30, 2014

You have a relationship problem, not a finances problem.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:00 AM on April 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

But to the extent you view this as a financial issue, and she is unwilling to do a 2:1 common expenses split (or anything other than 50-50), you need to live at a level YOU can afford. Period.

Buy a cheaper house.

Is there really no compromise available? You both put half of your earnings to a common fund, and can do what you want with the other half? If you guys have to split everything down the middle at her insistence, that mean you both have to live at your level of means (which is still high!), full stop.

Or you could break up.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:06 AM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

she maintains that if I am not paying 50%... I don't have enough skin in the game

I say, deal with this first. How you split the money will then solve itself. She and you need to come to grips with unequal incomes in the family. This reads to me like she equates paycheque with emotional attachment. This is likely the problem that you most need to work on to solve your issue.
posted by bonehead at 6:26 AM on April 30, 2014

A lot of good suggestions above. My husband and I are also a pool-it-all couple and have no concept of my money or his money. I wonder a couple of things, which maybe you might want to mull n if you're not planning to update this thread again:

- perhaps to explore in counseling, but does she have issues with your two years of unemployment? Not saying this is fair, but perhaps she has some resentment for carrying the whole load for two years (less whatever benefits you got)? Perhaps that disrupted some of her savings goals - which, again, are key here as to what she's doing with "her" extra money? Just occurred to me, as a doctor she is probably carrying big loans. Is that what she's doing with "her" extra money?

- Did you come into the marriage with extra debt or expenses that she helped to pay down?

- is this a cultural thing where as the man you're expected to provide for the household, with anything she makes being considered "extra"? Also not saying this is fair, but I know of couples who take this view, and there seems to sometimes be a cultural norm and/or comes with pressure from her family to maintain this arrangement?
posted by handful of rain at 6:26 AM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Would it work to say, "We live on my income x 2 and the rest goes into investments earmarked for the children's education and any large one time (e.g. housing, travel, medical) expenses?" You could draw up a post-nup to agree what happens to that fund if you split up.

For what it's worth, I don't think it's all that easy or straightforward. I am in a somewhat similar position in that I make less but do not agree with the rate at which my partner wants to spend. That is really something on which one has to come to a compromise. With kids, especially, it seems like a good plan is to live well below your your means.
posted by BibiRose at 6:30 AM on April 30, 2014

I was with you that this is a money issue until the skin in the game crack. It seems incredibly dismissive, hostile even. Some relationships can navigate disparate incomes easily, gracefully and equitably. Others seem to settle into the unspoken assumption that the person who makes more has more power, more control within the relationship. If she's telling you what you have to do in order to prove your investment, she's setting the terms of the marriage, the terms of the debate....and basically granting herself more control within the relationship.

Maybe I'm reading this funny. Maybe you two have history to explain how this came about. Maybe the income disparity has revealed cracks in your marriage that were invisible or easily overlooked when you made more money. Whatever the reason, seems like she's saying that money is code and what the code means. I'm with the others that you would do well to address it at this level first, the practicalities and logistics second.
posted by space_cookie at 6:39 AM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I may not have a valid perspective, because my spouse and I are in a pretty dramatically different tax bracket than your family. But I would nth the suggestion of speaking with a financial planner, since they will have seen this (and more!) before and probably have some solid suggestions for the logistical arrangements.

In my relationship, we pool everything in a single account, and then we both get a small equal biweekly allowance for pocket money, which we can spend or save as we see fit - that helps us avoid any feelings of supervision or judgment on impulsive spending choices, lunches out, indulging our solo hobbies, etc. We decided to do equal allowances, because it just seemed fair? Sometimes I make more, sometimes he makes more, sometimes we go through lean or fat periods, but we felt that shouldn't affect our respective abilities to access "fun money". Everything from the joint account, we talk to death, whether it's deciding what size apartment lease we can afford to sign, the rates at which we pay down student loans, how much to spend on vacation, retirement savings, what happens to tax refunds, whatever. Sometimes, one of us will want something that categorically would normally fall under pocket money (a new game, a solo weekend away, whatever), but we agree to fund that thing out of our big pool, because we both want the other to be happy. Pretty much the only time we don't discuss specific numerical details, we've still discussed the broad brushes - for instance, Mr. Bowtiesarecool may let me know he's going to get a haircut/buy a new pair of shoes for work/need to buy dinner out because of his schedule/whatever, and vice versa. No money surprise is a good surprise.

Basically, I'm a big fan of talking money to death, and of absolute equality in how we benefit from our collective resources. There are more ways than money to contribute to a family, and if you or your spouse feel there isn't an even division of effort/reward overall, this may be a bigger conversation.

Or not! It's entirely possible, especially if you came to this relationship later in life, that you both have split resources in a strictly financial sense with roommates long enough that you're not accustomed to/comfortable with pooling, and it's just something you'll have to think about more.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 6:56 AM on April 30, 2014

My husband and I have moved through 3 or 4 different schemes for handling our household budget - One of us pays everything (because the other is unemployed); a proportional split for joint expenses dependent on income; and most recently just pooling all our money while having a mechanism to make small private purchases if desired (two "private" credit cards). Circumstances change, and we try to be flexible to accommodate that.

We have had a couple fights about money, but for us those seem to stem from one or the other having imperfect information. The process of actually sitting down, hashing out budgets, and brainstorming how to pay for our family expenses is generally very collegial, because we respect and love each other.

You two need a family budget, whatever the form, and a "fair" family budget can't exist without mutual respect and understanding. It's entirely possible to set a family budget where each of you pays 50% of the living expenses, but it requires developing a lifestyle that you can comfortably afford paying half of without overextending.

I agree that your wife's resistance is likely not about money per se. Demanding that you pay 50% of living expenses may be an indirect way of asking you to get a higher-paying job? Or to contribute more around the house?
posted by muddgirl at 7:44 AM on April 30, 2014

I'm single and I rent, so take me with a grain of salt.

But wow, yeah, this sounds like a relationship thing. My first question is: Enough skin in the game for what? Enough to mean she's not supporting you, which she emotionally wants to avoid? Enough to mean you're committed to the relationship and family? Enough to make the finances work? Enough to (this is kind of what I suspect) motivate you to maximize your earning potential and not soft-pedal it because she makes enough for the two of you to be comfortable?

I mean, any time somebody says you don't have enough of something, you've got to figure out the enough-for-what. Because if she believes that you need to be paying half the rent or you'll lie around the house, that's a problem. If she believes that you need to be paying half the rent or you're not a good partner, that's a different problem. If she believes that you need to be paying half the rent or other people will side-eye you as a bad partner, that's yet a different problem.

I mean, if she really said "skin in the game," that's basically a phrase that goes to how invested you are and how in-it-together you are, and if she's using your split of living expenses as a gauge of your investment in your family, that's ... something that a lot of people do, but it will cause other issues if you don't hash it out. Agree with others -- what you have here is not a finance question, and no finance arrangement will probably, without more, resolve it.

If she doesn't believe that having children together gives you adequate skin in the game, then paying half of the entertainment expenses ain't going to do it.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 8:12 AM on April 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is very interesting. When I married my guy, he was making like nothing. Like seriously nothing. I had a ton of savings and had to temporarily stop working in a lucrative job because of him (to be together geographically I couldn't get another job, because we were living together in another country), and in order for me to feel comfortable that he wasn't marrying me for my savings and money making potential (yes everyone can critique me but this is what I did) we lived completely off of his salary. I moved in with him to a much simpler and cheaper apartment, further away from my friends. There were weeks we didn't know if we would need our last five dollars for one day or for one month (because his shitty employer kept paying him a month or two late..yes it was that bad). Our date nights became taking long walks, and instead of fancy meals from a restaurant we would share a bottle of juice and bag of chips from a supermarket along the way. We learned picnics= romance in a totally different way. I was totally cool with this, and would have definitely brought out my cash reserves if our situation ever became a matter of ability to actually survive at the basic level.

My point, besides opening myself up for criticism from others that I treated him poorly or something, was that if she wants you to contribute 50% (or more) of living expenses, then she has to live at the scale that your contribution can comfortably provide.

Another note- he really picked up his game and now provides for us plenty. My savings remain a reserve for us to BOTH fall back upon should we need it (and if it makes it that far, we can use it for retirement or something), but we keep our lives affordable at his salary level. We'll keep doing this as long as we can manage it.
posted by cacao at 8:18 AM on April 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

The way I see it is you have three options:

1. Each person contributes enough to cover half of the family expenses, but your budget is based on the income of the person earning less. (Smaller house, fewer vacations, etc.)

2. Each person contributes proportionally to family expenses based on your income. (FWIW, I'm not married, but a variation on this is what my boyfriend and I do. I make more than he does, so we do a ~60/40 rent split to match our income disparity. We actually split utilities 50/50 but I would be ok with doing that proportionally as well. Food and entertainment we don't track super closely but try to even it out by just taking turns who pays.)

3. All the money goes into one pot and it's all the family's money, with likely some "allowance" distribution to both partners so you have some fun money.

Your question as posed makes it sound like your wife is only ok with #1 but with the budget based on the income of the higher earner, which is untenable. Meanwhile it sounds like you would prefer option #3. You have to talk about all the options available to you as a family and come up with something that works for you both, or this will tear you apart. Money resentment is not good. And it's not like you guys are at an income level, even with two kids and even with your projected reduced income, where you should be anywhere near paycheck-to-paycheck. This should be solvable.
posted by misskaz at 8:37 AM on April 30, 2014

So...You're not married?

1. Have a conversation about what "responsible spending" and "responsible saving" means to each of you and come to an agreement (or begin the separation planning).

2. Get married so you are protected in case of a death or split.

3. Pool all the cash.
posted by WeekendJen at 8:50 AM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

"When I finally take a local job here" - So you're still unemployed? And you were unemployed for two years?

Look, this woman has a hard, stressful job that is highly financially rewarding, and she married someone who she thought had the same career path (finance). It hasn't quite played out that way for you so far (though things might change in the future). Many women have never conceived of themselves as a primary breadwinner - a role that is incredibly stressful - and she is probably still adjusting to finding herself in that position. She may privately have had the hope that you would make enough money that she could stay home with her kids for a few years while they were little instead of putting them in daycare, and due to the (perhaps uncontrollable) events of your professional path that has not been possible for her, and will likely never be. The pressure she's putting on you to pay 50% of the household expenses may be her resisting what she feels is a slide towards her being the primary breadwinner for the next 40 years (since she has been since you lost your job). If this is the case, marital counseling will help her deal with the necessary adjustments in her vision for her future and your shared life.

As others have mentioned - it may also be that she is not confident in the future of this marriage and is saving personally because she thinks there is a chance she may get divorced.

It sounds like when you get a new job, it's expected that you'll make about $80-90k a year and she'll be making about $210k (unless the move included a pay change for her).

Regardless of gender, if I were making about 2.5x as much as my partner and talking about pooling that money (or contributing to a joint account based on % of income), I would expect them to be substantially stepping up their game to pull their weight in other ways. Ok, she makes most of the money - but there is so much else that goes into a household. Do you take the lead on getting the kids ready in the morning and to bed at night? Do you do the bulk of the grocery shopping, cooking, laundry, dry cleaning dropoff/pickup, bill paying, lawn care and car maintenance logistics, and other household tasks? Not that you have to do ALL of that, but if you want to adjust the household spending so that she's covering more than 50% of the costs, perhaps you could outline for her the other ways that you contribute.

All that said - I think it's totally unreasonable to expect to split household costs 50% once you are married and have kids. I'd insist on pooling it all - but I would have done that before I signed the marriage license.
posted by amaire at 8:55 AM on April 30, 2014 [4 favorites] says that if I want my kids to go to college out of state (but still public), I need $192K by 2028. It's $25K now but it ill be more then -- 4% more per year by the assumptions. If we wanted to send them to private schools, we'd need about $300K saved.

Yowzers. Good plan.
posted by hal_c_on at 10:46 AM on April 30, 2014

"Skin in the game?" Really? I don't mean to be harsh, but sheesh! I (female) make 90% of our income. It used to be equal until my husband became ill. In both situations, it was "our" money, not mine or his. It goes into one account to pay for everything.

I'm with those who suggest counseling before kids or anything else.
posted by harrietthespy at 10:47 AM on April 30, 2014

We just calculate the percentages. So the person who earns two thirds of our joint income also pays two thirds of our expenditures.

I don't like having a joint account. I'd hate it if my husband spent "our" money on something of which I don't see the point. If it's his own money I don't mind at all. But that's just how I feel.
posted by Omnomnom at 4:52 AM on May 1, 2014

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