DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: So my partner and I have been in a committed relationship for 10yrs, we moved out of state together in 2017, and we just bought a house together this year. I think we both agree on finances pretty much… except I make about 1/3rd of what he makes.
My income is a really big sore spot for me because I did everything “right” but still end up making barely enough to survive at a job I hate that I’m not qualified to do. Financially I don’t see a successful future for myself.
I’m able to afford the house because technically paying a mortgage is cheaper than rent, but with buying a new house came buying repairs and landscaping and everything else. My savings took a big hit and I haven’t added to them in years, (except for my 401K through my job). An easy fix for this would be just having a joint bank account, since we wouldn’t have to divide all the bills in half anymore and we could pool our savings.
Except I’d know that I was only contributing 1/3rd of what he makes. I feel uncomfortable just spending my own money on myself. He doesn’t pressure me about finances at all and we have similar opinions when it comes to money, but again I feel really uncomfortable with the idea of sharing finances when I make so little. Should I just get over it? And how? I feel worse when I think about quitting my job and trying to improve my situation, since it means I’ll be contributing even less on the off chance I’d eventually make slightly more. None of these feelings are from him, just from me living from paycheck to paycheck.
DEAR JUNIOR PARTNER: This is one of those times where I’d have to ask whether this is an active issue in your relationship, JP, that’s actually causing problems… or if it’s just something that you‘re worried about.
Before I get deeper into this, I do want to say that having anxiety over income and income disparities is a legitimate worry. Money is probably one of the biggest sources of anxiety when it comes to dating and relationships; close to a third of relationships struggle because of money problems, often resulting in break ups or divorce. So it’s entirely understandable that your making so much less than your partner does would cause you some sleepless nights and legitimate anxiety.
But the fact that you’re worried doesn’t automatically translate to it being the incoming meteor that’s going to devastate your relationship.
The question of whether you should get over this or not all comes down to communication, communication and also communication. You’re spending a lot of emotional bandwidth getting spun up about something that may well not be a problem so much as borrowing trouble from a future that doesn’t exist (yet).
I think the most important factor to consider is: are you and your partner able to actually talk about your finances, openly and honestly, without hesitation or rancor? This is incredibly important; if you two aren’t talking about finances, then you run the risk of discovering that the two of you have been sitting on a ticking time-bomb. Not because of the disparity of income, mind you, but because you both may well be working from assumptions, mistaken beliefs and conflicting values, not actual facts. If you haven’t — and considering that you bought a house together, I really hope that’s not the case — talked about money, finances and income then it’s vital that you do so now. It’s important not just for practical reasons, but for emotional ones too. On the practical side, understanding who has how much, who earns how much and where that money gets spent and how is vital to future financial planning. On the emotional side, it helps make sure that you and your partner understand not just each other, but your relationship to money. Different people, especially from different classes or backgrounds, can have very different relationships to money. People who, for example, have grown up living paycheck to paycheck or struggling to make ends meet are going to view money very differently that someone who came from privilege. The person who grew up without often keeps that feeling of “this is all going to disappear until my next paycheck” because that’s how they’ve lived their lives. That directly affects the way they handle their finances; they’re less likely to save it or invest it because they’re going to need to use every single penny. But to someone who grew up with financial security, that can seem wasteful.
Similarly, someone who has grown up seeing money as a scarce resource and has had to decide between paying for food or paying the bills may have very different views on how their partner — who grew up with privilege — spends their money on what may seem “frivolous” or “indulgent”. And that’s before we even get to differing definitions of what’s frivolous and what’s necessary.
Just as importantly though is making sure that you’re on the same page in terms of how to handle things and how everybody feels. Right now, you’re worried about not being able to contribute as much to a joint bank account or being able to contribute to the same level that your partner does. But how does he feel about things? He may well have accepted that, as the partner who makes more, he’s going to have to shoulder more of the financial load. After all, there’s a difference between splitting things equally and splitting things equitably. Splitting all the bills equally seems to make sense on the surface; you’d be paying the exact same amount. However, the fact that it’s equal doesn’t make it equitable; you may be paying the same amount, but what that amount represents is significantly different to you and to him. To somebody making $500,000 a year, paying $1,000 a month is a relatively negligible amount. To somebody making $25,000 a year, that’s nearly half their income. Asking you to contribute the same amount he does may be equal… but it sure as s--t wouldn’t be fair.
If you haven’t talked with him about how you’ve been feeling and the worries you’ve had about not contributing the way he can… well, that’s got to be your first step. The sooner you two can talk this out, the sooner you can get on the same page and, in the process, ease your worries about how much you can put into the family coffers.
However, you should also talk to him about wanting to change jobs and what that might mean in the short term. One of the reasons why we can get anxious over situations like the one you’ve found yourself in is because of the uncertainty. Humans don’t do well with uncertainty; when there’re too many unknowns or variables, we get deeply uncomfortable. But the cure for that is knowledge and having a plan. Talking to your husband about wanting to switch jobs will not only get the two of you on the same page, but it will also mean that you can come up with a plan for the interim between leaving your old job (that you hate and makes you miserable) to a new one (that you will hopefully enjoy and provide more financial security). Having a plan in place, knowing what you’ll do in that transitory period, is the cure for anxiety.
I would also suggest that you and he see about finding a financial counselor who specializes in family financial planning. Having a trained third party involved in the conversations can help go a long way towards not only easing your anxiety, but coming up with equitable solutions for dealing with your household finances and how to handle your making the jump to bigger and better things.
But more than anything else: talk to your partner. I think you’ll discover that not only do you have nothing to worry about, but that he understands completely and that he is entirely in your corner.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com