Partners, but not (financial) equals?

My income has changed immensely at three distinct points in the past two years, and it's required a lot of adjusting on my part. The first one was expected: I was done with my schooling and had begun a fellowship with a decent salary. All of a sudden I had money in the bank...and then loans to pay off. I did the hard work of building up an emergency fund and paying off as much of my debt as I could each month. And I still had plenty of wiggle room to treat myself with the occasional new pair (or two) of shoes from DSW.

Just when I'd gotten accustomed to my financial situation, my fellowship was ending and I was back on the job hunt, this time in DC. What everyone warned me about was true: expect higher living expenses and a much lower salary. That was exactly what I got. When I finally got a job offer, I was thrilled until they offered me $10K less than what I was currently making. I did my best to negotiate, hoping they'd meet me at least halfway but they didn't. I got a measly $3K more than they'd originally offered me, and panic set in.

How was I going to live this way? I had debts to pay off and a relatively expensive share of rent to pay each month. I felt grateful to have SCL as a partner because he's careful with money. Living on a student stipend, he wasn't going to have much wiggle room either, and together we came up with a reasonable budget for shared expenses that has worked fantastically for the most part. Given my lower salary and my mandatory debt payments, we were (sadly, to me) making fairly close to the same amount each month.

As you all know, that job didn't last long for a number of reasons--including the low salary, as well as just generally disliking my position. When I was interviewing for this current position, I knew what the salary would be--a little under $20K more than I made at my first job in DC. Another huge financial shift.

I think we all can agree that making more money is really nice and helpful, but for me it was also a little daunting. What do I do with this extra money? And I began to think about how SCL and I were splitting things equally. Is that "right" or fair? Should I be paying more now that I'm making more? Would SCL be comfortable with that?

This is still something we're working through, and it'll continue to be an issue while he's in school and I'm (presumably...hopefully!) making more than he is. I waver between wanting to be really generous and knowing that this job is only for a year and wanting to invest this extra money wisely.

Here's one way I hope to be a bit more generous. SCL and I have been invited to at least three weddings in 2010, two of which aren't that close and one that'll require us flying there. Knowing that he doesn't have a lot of extra cash, I'm going to start putting away a little extra each month into a travel fund, so that when it comes time for us to make arrangements, we'll have that to offset the extra costs of attending these weddings.

How do you handle financial inequality?


  1. Honestly, my husband and I pretty easily shifted away from the mine and yours mentality. Pretty much as soon as we moved in together, it all became our money. Our salaries go into one bank account, bills are paid, and we make decisions together. I make about twice as much as him since he's a graduate student, but because it's "our" money, there is not question of inequality. It's all one and the same.

    I know this doesn't work for every couple, though (especially couples who aren't married), so I'd suggest looking at it on a percentage of salary income instead of a dollar amount. If you're both contributing 50% of your incomes to paying your bills, it's an equal contribution even if the dollar amounts don't match up.

    When my best friend recently moved in with her fiance, she had some of the same concerns as you. But my honest advice is that the best way to handle it is to get over feeling like everything has to be "equal." In the end, in a healthy relationship, it all evens out. As long as you're both working hard, paying the bills on time, and splitting household tasks and responsibilities accordingly, dollar amounts shouldn't matter.

    I'm working more hours and technically contributing more financially right now, but once my husband graduates and we start a family, he'll be the one earning more and paying more. The idea of counting beans and deciding who pays more and trying to keep everything equal just doesn't seem practical to me for the long term.

    If there are serious concerns about inequality (i.e. one partner is out of work, not trying to find a job, and spending irresponsibly or racking up debt), then I think there are more serious issues with the relationship than who earns more, you know?

  2. Right now I'm unemployed and it makes me feel AWFUL because my husband is "bringing home the bacon" and I'm just sitting at home. I try to do all the "housewife" stuff to kind of make up for my lack of working, though.

    We just kind of look at it as OUR money. We're in this together so we use the money to help each other out.

  3. Thanks for the input, Karen and Krysten. I think for me, I feel better putting the extra money I have in my emergency fund and retirement savings, which ultimately I hope will be joint savings for our future. SCL can't really do as much of that in his current financial state, and I guess I feel better contributing extra in that way for the time being. I'm also trying to pay off my student loans and putting some extra money towards that. If and when we make a formal commitment, I'm sure I will feel differently about our finances, but for the time being I feel more comfortable knowing I have some money that's mine to tap into if I or we need it.

  4. I understand that. Yay for $20K raises, though! And like you said, putting it in savings and paying off debt is something that will definitely help both of you when you make a permanent commitment. That's much different than spending it.

  5. I can truly say I have been both the bread winner and, more recently, the starving artist, at different times in my life and in different relationships. And on more than one occasion, when I was the super duper bread winner, old boyfriends made off with my belongings, money and sometimes were with me for the wrong reasons all together. Sad but true.

    I think it works best when you are a committed financial team, there are no bruised egos, and you have plenty of mutual goals.

  6. Tina, I'm sorry about your experiences in the past. How hurtful.

    After reading all of your comments, SCL and I had a talk about finances. He said he's comfortable with the budget that we agreed on, and that what wouldn't be fair to him is if I wanted to make big purchases and expect him to pay half. He's right. We made our budget, chose an apartment, etc. based on what he and I could pay.

    Now that my financial situation has changed, our spending together hasn't. I think for us, this is still very much in the spirit of a financial team, committed to keeping our expenses low and ensuring the other isn't in over his or her head. And I'm working on lowering debt, which will benefit us both in the future.

  7. Well, we're currently a oneincome household, so I'm covering everything. Once he gets work, I think we'll probably arrange it so her contributes a percentage (not half, unless he gets a ridiculously wellpaid position) to the household expenses.

    We're definitely of the 'ours' mentality, savings excepted. It hasn't been easy though, shouldering the burden on my own.