You know your relationship is serious when you and your partner work up the courage to have the money talk. Many couples decide to combine finances in one way or another, but whether you’re dating, engaged or already married, things can get tricky — especially if there’s an income disparity.
The good news? Just as with any relationship issue, keeping the lines of communication open and honest will allow you to find a solution that is fair to both of you. Here are tips for how to combine finances with your partner when one person makes more than the other.
Begin with full transparency
Getting a clear look at each other’s financial lives is the first step to overcoming income inequality in a relationship. Anne Brennan Malec, a financial therapist and founder of Symmetry Counseling, stresses the importance of putting all your cards on the table.
“There could be a lot of hidden financial details that I think, in part, stem from shame around someone’s financial position,” Malec says. “Given their age, they may think they have too much of this and not enough of that, and it can be embarrassing.”
The higher earner can also develop feelings of resentment while the other partner feels insecure about their ability to contribute to the family budget. Consider framing the conversation as a safe space to share as you begin this new chapter together.
Decide how you’ll pay expenses together
Once you’ve opened up fully about your finances to each other, tackle the logistics of any income disparities and come up with a method to pay bills that feels fair to both of you.
Start by identifying all your individual and joint expenses. Malec says one option is making proportional contributions to joint expenses based on your income. “If somebody earns 60 percent of the total family income, then they would pay 60 percent of the family expenses, and the other party would pay 40 percent,” she says. Just make sure you both agree on what constitutes a family expense, Malec adds.
Other couples may feel more comfortable combining all their income and expenses together and paying all their monthly bills from a joint account. Regardless of whether you decide to keep your money separate or combined, be sure to account for financial goals and discretionary spending in your budget.
Agree on rules around discretionary spending
Regardless of your income, it’s wise to think about how you’ll handle discretionary spending. If you have completely combined finances, the partner who makes less may feel less inclined to spend.
Rather than keep track of every discretionary purchase, Malec says committing to a figure together can help reduce financial conflicts. “Let’s say it’s $400 per month per person that’s built into the family expenses,” she says. “Ideally, your spouse doesn’t question how you spend your personal monthly budget.”
This simple agreement can help prevent hidden spending and financial infidelity. The number you settle on should be a line item on your budget that feels fair.
Account for fluctuating income
If one of you is a full-time freelancer or works off commissions, it’s likely you have an income stream that fluctuates from month to month. This could create challenges when sharing money with a partner.
Malec suggests basing your joint budget on a lower estimate of the earnings of the partner who is self-employed. If you have a sales job and receive bonuses on top of a guaranteed salary, create it based on the base pay only. Then make a plan for how you’ll allocate any additional funds that come in. “Create the budget based upon what you know for sure, because that’s what you can count on,” Malec says.
Check in with each other
According to Malec, ongoing communication is the key to making your joint financial life work. “You want to create a money relationship that keeps it from leading to resentment,” she says.
She recommends setting aside time at least once a month for a quick budget meeting. You can use this time to assess your financial wellness and discuss your dreams and challenges. Also consider visiting a financial advisor together so you can create a financial plan that accounts for all your joint goals.
The end game is for you and your partner to get — and stay — on the same page financially. As you move through different stages of your career or as your income changes, you can then revisit your plan from the strong financial foundation you’ve built together.
Want more? Get financial tips, tools, and more with our monthly newsletter.