I am a woman who makes more than my husband and our situation is growing less unique by the day. The percentage of women breadwinners has been rising steadily over the past 30 years — it’s now 28 percent of all married-couple families, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data. And as women continue to earn more higher-education degrees than men, it’s likely this trend isn’t going away.
But it’s one thing to talk about changing social norms when you’re dealing with statistics and another thing to handle them in a real relationship.
Because of the disparity in what my husband and I earn, I’m frequently faced with adjusting my goals or finding a way to negotiate our feelings. In my experience, communicating our needs early and often is a great way to minimize frustration, hurt feelings and hurt pride.
Here are five conversations we have that keep things running smoothly.
We all have things we look forward to, and sometimes the anticipation that comes with saving for something we want brings us as much happiness as the goal itself.
For me, that goal is travel.
I’m willing to save all year long if it means I’ll be able to take an amazing trip. This is a challenge because my husband enjoys traveling, but not as much as I do. He’d rather save for something he finds more personally rewarding, and because he earns so much less than I do, he can’t afford to split the cost of traveling 50/50.
Our solution: Since my husband enjoys traveling, we share the cost, just not evenly. Most of the time, that means I pay for the elements of the trip that tend to cost the most and need to be decided in advance, like flights and hotels.
When we’re actually on the trip, we evenly split expenses that are easier to decide on an individual basis, such as whether to splurge on a specific meal or special experience.
Because I shoulder so much of the expense of traveling, I don’t contribute financially to my husband’s short-term goals; they don’t interest me to the same degree that traveling interests him. I do, however, support his personal projects in other, nonfinancial ways: by contributing my time, energy and skills. For example, one of my husband’s past short-term goals was to make a small indie film. I didn’t contribute to the film’s budget, but I did help by editing the script and crowdsourcing the equipment.
What I learned: Talking about our personal short-term goals frequently means we both know about and respect each other’s current projects. We agree that traveling is more my passion than his, so there’s none of the hurt pride that might have come with his not being able to evenly split all the expenses, and no resentment that could have accompanied spending all his disposable income on something that brings me more happiness than him. Instead, he has his own short-term goals to look forward to, and he knows that I am ready to be an active participant in them.
Like many couples, my husband and I both share a desire to own a home. When we discuss the financial challenges we will have to overcome in order to buy a place of our own, our conversations always come down to two main goals: saving for a deposit and paying our future mortgage. Because of our disparate incomes, it’s impossible for us to save up equal amounts for our deposit. However, things are less clear about how even or uneven our incomes might be throughout the 20 or 30 years we’ll be paying our mortgage. Because my husband is still a student (and is fortunate enough to know he will most likely have a job upon graduation), it’s likely that our incomes will become more similar down the line.
Our solution: We’ve decided that I will put aside money for the deposit, while my husband will not. His income is low enough that if he were putting aside money right now, he could not afford to save for any short-term goals (like filmmaking, or adding to his impressive collection of ’70s and ’80s horror movies). Because our short-term goals contribute so much to our happiness as individuals, and because my income is enough to allow for both short-term and long-term savings, I’m happy to be the one to helm this ship.
Part of the reason I’m comfortable with this is because I know that my husband’s income most likely will increase significantly within the next three to four years, so the inequality of our contributions does have a foreseeable expiration date.
But what if his future income doesn’t allow him to split the cost of our mortgage with me 50/50 while simultaneously making student loan payments? We recognize that this is one of the money discussions that we will have to revisit from time to time.
What I learned: When it comes to an expense that lasts 20 or 30 years (or more!), it’s hard to determine exactly what’s going to happen. The fact that my husband is a student means there are still elements of our financial future that are not definite. Even if no decisions are being made today, it’s still valuable for me to check in with my own feelings periodically.
Through a combination of scholarships, informed decisions and extremely generous parents, I’m fortunate not to have any student loan debt.
My husband is a different story.
He enrolled in a costly private college right after high school and, after two years of less-than-stellar grades, decided that school wasn’t for him. He left college to work for a couple of years. When he felt motivated to continue, he enrolled at a less expensive city college for the remainder of his undergraduate career.
He is now a graduate student. The cost of city and state college is a lot less than a private institution, but it still adds up. Combined with the two years he spent at a private school, he’ll have approximately $300,000 in student loan debt when he graduates.
Our solution: Because he owes so much and feels the reason his debt is so considerable is a result of his own poor choices, he is not open to me contributing to the cost of his loan payments.
If he continues to feel this way and is unable to split our future mortgage payments with me 50/50, I know that the option to put the house in my name is there. But who knows what the future holds; he could one day become comfortable with the idea of his debt becoming “our” debt. Or I may, when the time comes, realize I’m not comfortable paying debt that isn’t mine. This is another one of those conversations we will have to revisit.
What I learned: If we had not made it a point to talk about our long-terms goals, we would not have the understanding that we could (if necessary) put just my name on the deed. Of course, it’s not what we prefer, but it’s good to have something to fall back on.
There are a lot of little things we pay for that contribute to our basic cost of living: rent, utilities, groceries and dining out are big ones for us. We also would love to one day adopt a dog, which would mean additional costs (pet food, grooming, vet bills, emergencies).
Our solution: My husband and I split the cost of our rent and utility bills evenly, but because doing so consumes such a big chunk of my husband’s monthly income, there are some tradeoffs. We split groceries 70/30. When we go out to eat we split the bill evenly, but we also limit the number of times we dine out each week to once or twice, and only on weekends. We rely on our groceries to get us through the week, including bringing lunch to work.
Splitting our rent and utilities evenly comes with sacrifices elsewhere in our budget; because of the strain owning a pet would put on my husband’s wallet, we’ve put that on hold for the foreseeable future. If we didn’t split those two big-ticket expenses, that might make owning a dog more affordable. But for us the simplicity and equality is more important for our mutual peace of mind right now.
What I learned: When we first moved in together, my husband and I split the cost of our everyday expenses 50/50. As time has gone on and we’ve become more comfortable talking about money and what we can each afford, we’ve tweaked things.
We started splitting our groceries unevenly about a year ago after we decided to make an effort to buy better quality meats and produce, upgrades that can add up over the month. Also, we’ve learned that it’s okay to break the rules every now and then.
Maybe he decides to buy something for lunch rather than eat whatever we’d packed for ourselves. Or maybe we both had a bad week and need to just go have a nice meal. We figure it out. The cost of treating ourselves once in a while is what makes it easier to stick to our plans in the long run.
Personal spending is the way we use our money to treat ourselves. For me, that means occasionally ordering sushi at work, or splurging on new books and clothes. For my husband, that means rare Blu-rays of vintage horror movies. To each their own!
Though the things we’re buying are small and don’t individually impact our lives much, the freedom to treat ourselves makes a big difference in our overall happiness. But given the disparity in our paychecks, how often (and on what) my husband and I can afford to treat ourselves doesn’t always match up.
Our solution: My husband and I had a conversation about money when we decided to move in together, and again four years later when we got married. Both times, we decided to keep our finances separate; he has his checking account and I have mine. Though we obviously know how much the other earns, having separate checking accounts means that neither of us could monitor each other’s spending, even if we wanted to. And because my treats come out of my pocket and his treats come out of his, we have no reason to care. We both have the freedom to treat ourselves when and how we want, without any reason for the other person to be affected or concerned.
What I learned: I want the power to spend my money how I like and the ability to save a safety net should anything in my life not go as planned. Having the ability to do so is a big deal, and I’m happy with the way that keeping our finances separate has allowed me to do that — without answering to anyone by myself.