The way you communicate about money can make or break your relationship. In fact, one in five US couples point to money as their No. 1 relationship problem, according to a 2021 Fidelity Investments study. And when one partner makes more than the other, it can add to this strain. So how do you navigate a significant pay gap in a relationship?
I gathered advice from Farnoosh Torabi, CNET Money editor at large, host of the So Money podcast and author of When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women, a book on how to level the financial playing field and maintain your financial independence as you and your partner merge your lives and money.
1. Don't be afraid of the "Money Talk"
If you and your partner are getting more serious -- whether that means moving in together or discussing marriage -- make sure to have an honest conversation about the future and how you plan, as a couple, to manage your money. Transparency and open communication are essential to setting yourself up for success, especially since money questions can become more complex down the road.
Talking about money can feel awkward at first, especially if you earn very different salaries, but not talking about your finances can lead to disagreements, resentment and other trouble later on. Discuss not only your goals, but your financial background and experiences. Some questions you can ask your partner are:
- How did you learn about money?
- What was your first job like?
- How did you pay your way through college?
Learning more about your partner's background with money can help you better understand how they make financial decisions and what's important to them. It also allows you to broach this subject with more empathy if problems arise.
Of course, don't neglect the specifics; it's important to touch on the tricky questions, like your credit score, savings and salary.
2. Discuss how to split financial priorities
How you decide to split your bills and savings goals is an important topic to tackle, especially if you earn a very different salary than your partner does. Splitting bills down the middle may not be feasible and often isn't fair to the person making less. Instead consider contributing an equal percentage of your income into your joint account to pay for whatever costs you decide to share.
Although the person making more will ultimately contribute more money using this method, you will both be contributing an equal percentage of your income, offering a better balance. Discussing this up front is key, so there are no hard feelings later on -- and be sure to revisit this topic if one of you experiences a pay cut, receives a raise or lands a new job.
3. Never keep all your money in one shared account
Having a joint checking or savings account can make managing everyday and monthly expenses -- rent or mortgage payments, utility bills, groceries and gas -- much easier when you're in a relationship. A joint savings account can also allow you and your partner to easily pool money together to save for shared financial goals like a new car or a vacation. But that doesn't mean you should send your entire paycheck to a joint account.
You should both keep a certain amount of your income separate, and at minimum, maintain individual saving accounts. Doing so will allow you to retain financial independence and autonomy when making individual purchases, reducing feelings of reliance or resentment. Torabi advises that as a couple, "You should establish three separate bank accounts: Yours, mine and ours."
4. Remember that making less is not a reflection of your worth
Making less money does not make your career any less important, nor does it make you less powerful within your relationship. "Instead of looking at your lives and incomes as individual components that you bring to the table," Torabi emphasizes, "see them as combined purchasing, saving and investing power."