Making a Relationship Work When One Partner Earns More

by Mikey Rox on 2 January 2013 6 comments
Photo: Leon Fishman

Often, the spouse in the relationship who brings in less income than the other can feel inadequate and insecure about not being able to contribute equally to paying the bills or sending the same amount of money to savings.

First, you should understand that it’s natural — 99% of the time, one person is going to make more money than the other, which makes it almost impossible for each of you to contribute equally. Second, it’s important to recognize that there are ways to even out the playing field so both partners can feel appreciated and valuable for their individual contributions.

To help get this conversation started in your home, I’ve put together a few tips to help you navigate a rather touchy subject and handle it in a way that’s positive for your relationship. (See also: How to Be Happy and Married: 24 Tips From a 24-Year-Old Marriage)

1. Talk About It

Many spouses avoid this topic of conversation because it ends up in fight with hurt feelings all around — but it doesn’t have to be that way.

The first step toward working out unbalanced incomes and finding common ground is to sit down and have a frank discussion about how much each partner brings in, your joint plan for saving, and your ultimate financial goals. Maybe one spouse is OK taking on the majority of the bills, no questions asked. Or perhaps the lower earner wants to take on a part-time job to contribute to the overall income a bit more. The only way you’ll come to an amicable resolution, however, is with open and honest dialogue about what’s expected, what can be done to ensure both spouse’s happiness, and a plan to achieve it.

2. Crunch the Numbers

A great way to compromise on how much each spouse contributes to the monthly bills is to compare your salaries to see how much difference there is between them. Does one spouse make 25% or 50% more than the other? Whatever the percentage above the other, consider breaking down the bills with that gap in mind. The higher earner, since he or she brings in substantially more, could reasonably afford to pay a higher percentage of the rent/mortgage, cable, and utilities relative to their salary.

3. Establish a Joint Slush Fund

If one spouse is constantly pinching pennies while the other is seemingly sitting pretty, it may be hard for the lower earner to get on board with recreational activities that they can’t afford on their own. To eliminate this problem, open a joint account that’s specifically for fun. Decide how much money you’ll contribute to the account on a regular basis — $100 a month? $200 a month? It should be an equitable amount that the lower earner can afford — and start building it up. After a while, you’ll have an account to which you both contributed, so both of you can feel comfortable dipping into it when you want to do something together.

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4. Put an Emphasis on Free Activities

Even if one spouse has more than enough income at his or her disposal, that doesn’t mean that you always have to spend money on activities as a couple.

Start changing the way you think about spending time together, and try to eliminate the money factor several times a month. No matter where you live, there are fun and free activities perfect for facilitating togetherness — all you have to do is look for them. You’ll soon find that it doesn’t cost a dime to spend quality time together — which leaves all the more money to send to your slush fund or savings account.

5. Think About a Second Job

If you’re the lower earner and your inability to bring in as much income as your spouse is really weighing on you, consider picking up a part-time job or freelance gig. The higher earner will be proud of you for being proactive about your financial situation, and you’ll lessen the stress you put on yourself worrying about money issues. There are plenty of side jobs out there for people with special skills — like graphic design or handy work — or you can go on the hunt for something more permanent in your area.

6. Earn More by Doing More

Another great way to contribute to the relationship — even when you can’t do it financially — is to contribute physically. If your spouse makes more and pays a higher percentage of the bills based on that higher income, show your gratitude by taking on more of the household chores. In the working world, those chores are assigned a monetary value, which means the time you put into them is worth money. Even though you won’t get paid for it, the value the extra work on your part brings will show your spouse that you value your relationship and that you appreciate his or her financial support.

Are you the higher or lower earner in your relationship? How do you make it work? What tips can you offer? Let me know in the comments below.

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Guest's picture

We've been at very different extremes when it comes to income inequality in our marriage. We actually wrote about it here - http://www.plantingourpennies.com/2012/10/31/income-inequality-in-relati...

But the biggest thing that makes those extremes easy to deal with for us is having combined finances. Everything that comes in is OURS, not his/hers. It reframes the discussion of earning differentials as a competition to maximizing what you can do together as a team.

Guest's picture
Kem

Funny thing about taking on extra household chores or a second job: there are still only 24 hours in a day whether you make $40K or $80K. Who's to say that the $40K job isn't more physically exhausting or stressful? And yet a person must kill herself to even out incomes? Get real. As long as they're not a layabout, the person who makes $40K is better off alone than with a partner who gives them grief about an income disparity.

Guest's picture
Guest

How about just marrying a grown up without self worth issues? My husband and I have alternately been primary bread winners, and it's not once been a problem for either of us. I can't really imagine being married to someone who would be so petty.

Guest's picture
Maria Barker

This really was my first thought. I married a grown-up, and am so glad I did. Since we marry the one we choose, not the one "arranged" for us, why are we not choosing more wisely?

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Guest

At 40, I'm embarking on my second marriage. For the first time, I'm in a relationship with someone who makes more money than I do. It's no problem for him, but I am having a hard time with it. Out of personal guilt, I do all of the household chores to try to equalize our contributions but it's hard because, like another commenter has replied, there are only 24 hours in the day. I have a full-time job and, as we all know, housework takes a lot of work and time. I simply don't agree that numbers 5 and 6 are practical. Based on my experience, numbers 5 and 6 are only done out of guilt, not practicality.

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Lala

I make more than what my husband makes, and we've never had any issues.

We figured out the percentages right at the beginning, and I pay the big stuff (mortgage, major credit card, insurance, etc) while husband pays the small stuff (utilities, small credit card, etc). We have two (joint) checking accounts as that has always worked best for us - but they are SHARED accounts; his has his paycheck direct deposited and my account gets my paycheck (so no freaking out if someone forgets to note a transaction or withdraws money without telling the other person). We add to our shared savings account monthly with whatever we feel comfortable with once the bills are paid.

We don't split bills - just add up what the basic amounts were of monthly expenses back at the beginning, and parceled out the individual bills according to what made sense and was manageable. We occasionally do a quick update (like when we refinanced and the mortgage payment dropped about 30%) to make sure that both of us are comfortable with what we're paying and still have enough left over for personal spending and our savings.

It's really about who has the responsibility for making sure which bills are paid, and we share the bill paying so that both of us have responsibility for managing and solving bill issues (husband was not taught anything about money management growing up, but he's great now)

Neither of us consider our pay scales relevant to our self-worth or impact our relationship at all. I can't even imagine expecting my husband to go get a second job to earn "even" with me, and the idea that he has to do more work around the house just because he makes less money? That is sad. He works just as hard as I do, and it was just luck I have such a great well-paying job...