If One of You Makes More, Can You Still Be Financial Equals?

If One of You Makes More, Can You Still Be Financial Equals?

November 27, 2013

Dear Carrie,

We've been married for two years and so far my husband and I have pretty much split the bills down the middle. That's about to change as I become a full-time grad student with limited income. I'm used to being a financial equal and I'm worried that I'm going to feel too dependent. How can we avoid this?

—A Reader

Dear Reader,

Great question, and one that has as much to do with your values as a couple as it does with your finances. Financial equality in a marriage doesn't always mean that you contribute the same amount of money, but it does mean that you respect each other and choose to work as a team, no matter who's on first financially.

During the course of a marriage, it's very likely that at any given time, one person will make more money than the other—and that you'll trade off being the primary breadwinner. For instance, you may have limited income while you're in school, but you could end up with a much higher salary down the road.

You and your husband are wise to be thinking about this before you start grad school and get swept up in your new responsibilities. Money issues are notorious for causing problems in a marriage, so it’s best to discuss any concerns that either of you have in advance. While you're worried about feeling dependent, your husband may have his own worries about picking up the slack. Once you put these things on the table, it will be easier to come up with a plan that will work for you now—and hopefully be a blueprint for the future, as well.

Agree on some general principals
Before you get into the specifics, I'd sit down together and make sure you agree on a couple of important points. First, no matter who's making the most money, are you committed to sharing your financial resources as a couple and to helping each other achieve your goals? Second, do you both feel the same need for a certain amount of financial autonomy? With this as your foundation, look at your budget and explore ways to share your resources.

Find a system that feels fair to both of you
  • There are a number of ways to go about it, and every couple has to figure out their own details, but here's a method that has worked especially well for some couples I know:
  • Put all your income in a communal pot.
  • Subtract what you need for monthly expenses—rent, food, utilities, insurance, shared credit balances, etc. This will help you focus on your budget.
  • Determine a set amount you can save each month, both for an emergency fund and ideally for retirement contributions.
  • Agree on how much you'll each have to spend (it probably should be equal) on personal things like clothes, gym memberships, lunches, coffee—whatever you decide.
  • Spend the balance as a couple for dinners out, vacations, etc.
Now this is just one straightforward way to specifically handle monthly income and expenses. Some couples might feel more comfortable working things out on a percentage basis, with the higher earner covering a correspondingly higher percentage of the bills. But you get the idea. The goal is to cover the basics, save a bit for the future, and still have a certain amount of personal money that you can each spend with no strings attached—and no concern about who's making the bigger salary.

Check in with each other often
Whatever approach you choose, realize that this new financial arrangement may feel uncomfortable at first. See how it works for a couple of months, and don't be afraid to bring up any issues. You can always make changes. The last thing you want is for you to feel guilty about spending money or your husband to feel resentful that he's bearing the bigger financial burden.

While you're discussing your present situation, don't forget about the future. Remember that your income will change and your roles may also change. For instance, you might decide to have a family and one of you might stay home for awhile, so be open and flexible. And realize that you're not just talking about today's money concerns—you're talking about your hopes and dreams for tomorrow and how you're working together as a couple to achieve them. Best of luck.

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