The first time I realized my partner, Mike, made significantly more than me, we had just moved into our first home together, a 10th-floor apartment in Queens with a killer view of the Manhattan skyline. The novelty of living together cast a rosy glow on the experience, though all our furniture was secondhand, our shower clamored violently on occasion, and it was a 20-minute walk to the nearest train station.
Then came the inevitable money discussion. "Why don't we just split bills based proportionately on our income?" Mike suggested.
At the time, he worked on Wall Street, and though I know he made enough money, I never realized how much. He paid for most dinners and bought me the occasional extravagant gift, but I just thought it was a result of being young and in love, not flush with cash
I'd recently gotten a huge salary bump since accepting a cushy editor role and was feeling pretty good about my earning power. That feeling was short-lived.
He suggested that he pay two-thirds of the rent and I'd pay the other third. We'd split our other bills the same way.
That's when it hit me: He must earn more than twice what I did. Sure, he had a degree from Yale. But I went to NYU. We both worked long hours, had roughly the same years of work experience. In fact, I'm a year older.
So what was it? The gender wage gap? Was he that much better at his job than I was? The finance industry obviously paid more than journalism, but it still made me feel a bit ... well, shortchanged.
I knew I was fortunate to have a partner who made a great salary, especially in a city with a high cost of living like New York. But when you make that much less than your partner, it can raise questions about your self-worth, and even alter the power dynamic in the relationship.
Now, nearly a decade later, we're married. We own a home and have a baby on the way. My husband's salary has grown with his career.
Meanwhile, I recently started my own writing and editing business. I have a healthy list of clients, a steady workflow, and am exactly where I want to be professionally, but I'm starting over, salary-wise. My husband still earns more than twice what I make.
Here's how I came to terms with it.
I REALIZED THERE ARE EXTERNAL FACTORS AT PLAY
We all know about the wage gap. (Quick refresher: Women still earn about 80 percent of what men do.) The Motherhood Penalty is another punch in the gut. Paid maternity leave is the unicorn of womanhood, at least in the U.S. And the cost of child care? Don't get me started.
I am well-versed in these facts. And I try not to take it personally. But it still makes me angry. So, I educate my husband. I send him articles about how with every child a woman gives birth to, her lifetime earning power decreases by 4 percent. I talk to him about how I — and other women — can successfully manage a career around childbirth and maternity leave. As a couple, we share household duties in a very non-gendered way, and I make sure he knows he has equal responsibility in caring for our unborn son.
Other external factors at play? Today's media industry resembles a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where layoffs and cuts are commonplace. The odds aren't in my favor. Coming to terms with this has helped.
WE COMBINED FINANCES
With the disparity in our earnings, it became too complicated for us to split everything proportionately. So we combine everything into one pot, then split it up according to our financial priorities. They are, in order: saving for retirement/investing, building a nest egg, paying off student loans, starting our son's college fund and making improvements to our home. They are not, in order: spending money on clothing, travel or eating out.
While we have separate retirement accounts and our own, rarely-used credit cards for the occasional unexplained splurge, 95 percent of our money is shared.
For this approach to work, we have to be on the same page, have to want the same things financially, have very similar spending habits, or be OK with how one another spends. One person can't be controlling, spend money to prove a point or use it as a means of wielding power. (Trust me, I've done all of these things, and it does not bode well for a partnership.)
I PLAY AN ACTIVE ROLE IN OUR MONEY
My husband is better with numbers than I am. His background is in finance. Excel is his second language. I'm the stereotypical English-major journalist who struggles with numbers.
But I don't let this stop me. I ask questions when I can't follow his lightning-fast typing on a spreadsheet. We both go to all meetings with our financial adviser, where I make sure I know exactly how our money is being invested, how much, and what our priorities are.
We have a shared Google Drive folder of all our important financial documents, including a live, daily-updated budget. I plan our monthly money meeting, a set time when we go over the spreadsheet, our spending, and if we've hit our investment goals for that month. Sure, I earn less than my husband. But our finances are every bit my responsibility as they are his.
ABOVE ALL, WE'RE ON THE SAME TEAM
You know when you get into a fight with your partner and you pull out that one thing, that zinger you know will really hit them where it hurts? Yeah, you can't do that here.
While my husband and I have had our fair share of money fights, we've never had that fight. You know, the one where he says that since he earns more, it's his decision.
If you're going to be on the same team, be on the same team. Don't use money as a bargaining chip or a way to exert power or prove a point. See if for what is it: a tool that can be used to live the lifestyle you want and do the things that are important to you, together.
After all, what fun would that retirement in Napa be without my partner by my side?