Cash may equal financial security, but it doesn’t equal relationship security. But don’t let two very different incomes get in the way of nav.ing a healthy relationship.
I find myself huddled outside a club in San Francisco, cold and damp from the rain. It is my best friend’s birthday. Though we are without an agenda, we had no lack of spirit or buzz. A group of us bar hop until we stumble across a spot with room to spare. After consulting the bouncer, our fearless leader returns to the huddle to inform us of the plan. “We’re good to go, team,” he reports. “We have to pay for bottle service to get a table, so it’ll be roughly $175 per person. But since we’re freezing and most other places have a line, I vote we head inside.”
The birthday girl, who has a high-paying job in tech, already has Venmo open and is ready to pay her share. My partner, who works in finance, nods enthusiastically. But I freeze. A month ago, I quit my corporate gig in marketing to be a full-time freelance writer. When my salary became roughly half of my former paycheck, I spent hours poring over Excel trying to figure out a new budget—one that allowed me exactly $150 per month for social activities.
I push the pang of anxiety aside and pretend I can keep up—not wanting to admit my financial limitations or disappoint my friend. Needless to say, I spent the next day frantically number-crunching and cancelling dinner dates for the upcoming month.
This wasn’t the first insecurity-provoking moment I experienced since my career transition. We haven’t merged our finances and have always split things 50-50. So when he tries to cover for me, I end up wondering, “Will he feel resentful? Why do I suddenly feel dependent and less powerful?”
After the bottle service debacle, my partner asked me if something was wrong. I broke down. Over the next two hours, we had a vulnerable discussion about our incomes, and how we can maintain a strong relationship despite different paychecks. The truth is: My partner and I are still figuring it out. But I’ve already noticed some positive differences lately and would offer these four pieces of advice for anyone in a similar situation.
Confront the elephant in the room
I should have done this as soon as I quit my job. I’m grateful for my tearful breakdown because it instigated the conversation with my partner. Looking back, I wish I had the foresight to recognize that all of the thoughts and potential issues running through my mind would grow stronger the longer I refused to vocalize them.
Talking about money can be awkward and embarrassing—I get it. I have a hard time being vulnerable and hate feeling like I can’t “keep up” with my friends or partner in terms of spending. But I hate the constant anxiety and dishonesty with my partner more.
Decide where you want to spend
We began by identifying the two major areas where income disparity was affecting our relationship, and my emotional and financial health. These ended up being rent, travel, and social activities:
For the first, we decided to move toward a percentage plan for paying rent rather than splitting it 50-50. Now, we each put 40 percent of our salary towards rent. This ends up being different amounts for each of us, but we both feel like we’re contributing an equal portion based on our individual resources.
In terms of travel, I ended up cancelling a few weekend trips and one vacation. But I didn’t expect or ask my partner to do the same because travel is one of his passions. He now understands that if I tagged along, I’d only be stressed. And although he’s now going a few places solo or with a friend, we added a few local, less expensive camping and hiking trips to the calendar.
Creating a plan for our social life involved more than just saying “no” to bottle service. Before we commit to a social gathering, we always quickly check in with each other to decide what to do and establish comfort. Sometimes this means suggesting another restaurant, offering to stay in and cook, or deciding to head home if something unexpected (like bottle service) presents itself. Regardless, we made a pact to always have a conversation first.
Invest in each other’s financial health
To make my new reality more palpable, I’ve found small ways to get my partner more invested our financial health. Since he’s a finance whiz, I asked him to double-check my budget and revenue forecasting. After reviewing the data and making a few recommendations, he’s even more patient and thoughtful. He even sends me Groupons for exercise classes that always fit within my $100 per month fitness allowance.
Try finding small ways to involve your partner in your financial health because it will then expose them to your lifestyle. Is your partner obsessed with technology? Are they well-read? Ask them to help you set up a money management app or help you find the best advice for saving, creating a budget, or paying off debt. While I’m capable of doing these things on my own, collaborating with my partner gets him engaged in my finances and makes him more aware. For me, this has led to greater understanding and respect.
Focus on what matters
It’s easy to equate our salary with our worth. When mine became significantly lower than my partner’s, I experienced feelings of weakness, inadequacy, and dependency. But opening up to my partner about this created an opportunity for us to address these feelings and come up with solutions to prevent both of us from engaging in unhealthy, destructive behaviors—like pretending to be sick to avoid an expensive dinner (yep, did that) or resentfully venting to others about always picking up the bill.
Addressing our income differences head on and figuring out our own solutions reminded me of one of the many reasons I love my partner and cherish our relationship: our ability to communicate and problem solve. I’ll take these traits over a paycheck, regardless of the amount, any day of the week.