It’s almost inevitable that you and your partner don’t earn the same salary. Your take-home pay might fall in the same ballpark, but it’s also possible you’re at two different ends of the spectrum.
The median household income was $68,703 per year in 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In some households, this was generated by one person, but in others, it represents the combined incomes of a couple — with one inevitably higher than the other.
If income inequality is an issue in your relationship, you’re not alone. Whether you bring home more or less than your partner, the earnings gap can be a major source of strife.
Thankfully, this is not a problem that can’t be solved. Acknowledging the issue is the first step to finding a resolution, and you’ve already done that. Here’s some helpful advice from financial and relationship experts who understand what you’re going through.
1. Contribute the Same Percentage of Your Income to Shared Expenses
Given the pay disparity, it would likely be difficult for you and your spouse to chip in the same amount of money toward shared expenses. Instead, Adam Kol, known as The Couples Financial Coach, recommends contributing the same percentage of your take-home pay.
“This gives a sense of equality and fairness,” said Kol, who is also a certified mediator and a former financial advisor and tax lawyer. “Figure out your monthly shared expenses and take-home salaries, and then do the math.”
2. Self-Reflect and Talk About It
Whether you’re the high earner or low earner in the relationship, you probably have some type of feelings about the income gap between you and your partner. Kol recommends taking time to sort out your thoughts, as this will help you avoid issues later and come up with better solutions now.
“Be honest about any anxieties, discomfort, resentment, etc.,” he said. “Acknowledge the lower earner’s contributions to the family.”
Openly discussing your emotions on the matter will get the two of you on the same page, so you can move forward together.
3. Avoid Assumptions
You might think you know why your significant other is uncomfortable with the income inequality in your relationship, but you could be totally wrong. Kol said to avoid making assumptions and talk openly about the issue instead.
“For example, sometimes the lower earner feels uncomfortable being supported,” he said. “Listen, ask questions and focus on understanding your partner better.”
Taking this route can help avoid hurt feelings, because knowing exactly why your partner is uneasy about the pay gap will allow you to modify your behaviors accordingly.
4. Consider a Prenuptial or Postnuptial Agreement
Hopefully your love will be lasting, but the idea that the relationship might eventually fizzle — and what that would mean financially — could be placing a burden on at least one of you. Kol said creating a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement can help lift this weight.
“These can lower anxieties and increase teamwork by assuring both parties that they’ll be protected no matter what happens,” he said.
Creating legal documents to guide a potential breakup can feel completely unromantic, but try to focus on the fact that you’re just covering all the bases in case things don’t work out.
5. Be Mindful of Your Tone When Discussing Income
“One thing I see in working with couples is that over time, one partner will develop a tone that sounds more like the parent and one sounds more like the child,” said Dr. Emily Stone, Ph.D, LMFT-S, owner and senior clinician at Unstuck Group. “So, you have one partner talking down to the other partner about something as important as money.”
Not surprisingly, using this tone during financial discussions with your partner will likely cause problems.
“On the flip side, the other partner who feels less in control or seems to have less power, can start to seem more like a rebellious or apathetic teenager,” she said. “It can become toxic fast. In these conversations you need to be showing up as adult to adult.”
6. Discuss Your Money Values
Explaining your beliefs and opinions about money to your partner is crucial, so you can better understand and support one another, said Dr. Sarah Rattray, a couples psychologist. For example, she said equal sharing of money could be important to you from a dignity standpoint.
“Your story may be that one of your parents worked extremely hard in the home raising the family and running the household, and was given an inadequate allowance by the other person,” said Rattray, who is also the founder and CEO of the Couples Communication Institute. “Perhaps as a child you observed the erosion of your parent’s dignity and the lack of respect from the other parent, and vowed to never be in that position when you had your own family.”
7. Create a Budget
It might not sound like the most romantic task, but sitting down and making a budget together can allow both people — regardless of incomes — to feel like equals. This encourages communication by having both partners agree on how the money will be spent, said Dr. Brenda Wade, a clinical psychologist and relationship advisor to dating site Online For Love.
“A strong budgeting system will clarify any concerns about where the money goes and how much discretionary income each person enjoys,” she said.
8. Agree On Basic Financial Dynamics
Every relationship has its own unique set of norms, and many of these involve money. Wade recommends taking a look at your current relationship dynamics to examine key issues like how bills are paid — i.e., are contributions equal? — who typically picks up the check at restaurants and whether you each maintain separate bank accounts or combine funds in a joint account.
“These decisions let both partners feel in control of their financial situations,” she said.
9. Consider Contributions Outside of Salary
Money isn’t the only way a person contributes to a household. It’s very possible the partner with the lower salary is still bringing just as much — or even more — to the table.
“In some situations, the person who brings less income may be contributing a high value in another area of the relationship than the high-salary earner,” Wade said. “The person who earns less, for example, may stay at home to care for the children.”
10. Enjoy Money Together
The salaries earned by you and your partner are essential to pay the bills, but if you have leftover cash, Wade recommends finding fun ways to spend it together.
“For couples to both feel a sense of ownership regarding spending habits and contributions, a reward for successfully budgeting can be a shared activity,” Wade said.
Whether you decide on something lavish like a tropical vacation or a low-key dinner at your favorite restaurant, enjoying your money together will help the two of your connect and feel closer than ever.