For Love & Money is our weekly series exploring how we navigate one of the most intimate and rarely talked about aspects of our relationships: our finances.
When Josh met his pediatric surgeon wife 14 years ago, he knew he’d be signing up for a lifetime with someone who made more money than him. And when they had their daughter and decided it made more financial sense for him to be a stay-at-home-dad, Josh endured a “tremendous identity crisis.”
As hard as it was to go from making less to not making anything at all, the one thing he didn’t struggle with was making equitable financial decisions with his spouse — mostly because they never tried. Instead, he remained in charge of how they spent their money, not because of some archaic ideas about gender norms, but because his wife was always busy. “From the perspective of someone who literally holds the lives of children in her hands every day — no purchase is a life-or-death situation,” Josh tells me.
It might seem like a solution for their unique situation, but per financial coach and host of the Squanderlust podcast Martha Lawton, Josh and his partner have figured out what many couples with different incomes learn the hard way. When it comes to making equitable, financial decisions, the 50/50 approach frequently fails to work. “If the richer partner insists on a 50/50 split, I’d say that’s kind of a red flag that they’re tight,” Lawton explains. “If the lower income partner insists on a 50/50 split, then I’d suggest they may have difficulty accepting care and support from their partner in other areas too.”
Through her work, Lawton has found that the greater the income gaps are between couples, the more stressful and impractical it becomes to keep everything perfectly equitable. “This can be a trust issue,” she says, where the person who makes more doesn’t trust their partner to make financial decisions, or the person who makes less doesn’t trust their partner to not hold it over their head.
Behavioral economist Keisha Blair agrees that when couples put pressure on themselves to make every decision in a perfectly equitable way, it can cause more problems in a relationship, especially when there is a significant gap in incomes. “This can affect everything from intimacy and sex to communication in a relationship,” she warns. In her experience working with couples with million-dollar gaps in salaries, she’s found that more often than not, this can lead to feelings of resentment in the higher earner and feelings of low self-worth and helplessness in the lower earner.
Instead, Blair recommends a more holistic approach that aims to bolster both parties. “One way to do so is to let the lower-income spouse make the budget and monitor it, with ongoing communication and consultation,” Blair says. Similar to the system that Josh and his wife landed on, this can also be beneficial logistically because it helps the higher earner focus on what usually is a more demanding work schedule. “The lower-income spouse can also be empowered by helping with tax planning and yearly tax returns, by organizing and tracking taxable benefits and expenses,” Blair continues.
Rachel, who earns about $90,000 a year, doesn’t worry about making equitable financial decisions with her husband, who takes home $50,000 a year. She attributes part of this to having regular monthly discussions about their financial goals, as well as a combination of shared and individual checking accounts. “It lets each of us spend that portion on whatever we want and not cause any disagreements,” Rachel tells me.
That’s not to say that Rachel and her husband don’t argue over big financial decisions — it just doesn’t come down to the dollar amount. “For big purchases like vacations, we have grumbled a bit more about the amount of time we can take off work than the cost of what we do,” she says.
That’s often the trickiest part with significant gaps in income: not determining who has the most say in big purchases, but negotiating whose time has the highest value. “There have been disagreements when comments are made about having more say because of making more, but we both have reached the understanding that that’s considered a ‘low-blow’ topic,” Rachel says.
In the end, the secret to making truly equitable financial decisions with two distinctly different incomes may be taking those numbers off the table entirely when it’s time to discuss a larger purchase. Because if you communicate well and already trust each other, you’ll figure out how to come to a conclusion as a team. And that’s worth a lot more than whatever the highest income in your household is.