Talking about money can be stressful. When you’re navigating a relationship, the last thing you might want to bring up is your financial situation, especially if you’ve never really discussed it before. But it’s a real issue, and sometimes, it can cause problems in a relationship if it goes unaddressed. Here’s what to do if your boyfriend or girlfriend makes less money than you do.
First of all, there’s no textbook answer for who should be making the most money in any relationship. But due to heteronormative and patriarchal pressures, some women buy into the narrative that their partner should be capable of supporting them, or that their date should be able to pick up the check. Relationship coach Shula Melamed emphasizes how difficult it can be to have conversations about financial concerns. “Unfortunately, along with sex, it can be one of the more difficult things to talk about openly because there can be some shame and other complicated emotions attached to it,” she says. “One of the issues with talking about sex that people also have about money is that everyone assumes they are coming from the same place, and a lot of times they are not.” Everyone has different anxieties and feelings about money, and this can lead to some emotionally charged conversations.
But according to financial expert Christie Garton, author of the fifth edition of UChic: College Girls’ Guide to Everything, and founder of the scholarship grant 1,000 Dreams Fund, what’s more important than money is that both of you are happy in your careers.
“Yes, money matters,” she says. “But when it comes to relationships and any apparent imbalance in paychecks, what matters most is how your partner feels about [their work] situation." Is your partner feeling fulfilled and satisfied in their work? Do they enjoy what they’re doing even if it doesn’t bring in huge sums of cash? That’s the most important thing of all. If they're unhappy, you might want to start by encouraging them to find work that helps them feel more inspired, or to advocate for more responsibility and creative freedom at their current company.
If you find yourself struggling internally with your partner's money situation and want to move past it, start by examining your own perspective. “Think about what you need to feel secure and why/how your partner making less than you creates an issue for you,” Melamed suggests. “Do you need a partner who can match or surpass you? Do you need to know the other person has earning potential in the future? … Approach your feelings with curiosity in order to get to the bottom of what you might really be feeling.” You might have deep-seated feelings about money that you aren’t quite sure how to deal with, and this could potentially boil over into resentment toward your partner. See if you can change your outlook without getting them involved.
If you think your partner might be feeling uncomfortable with the money imbalance, provide a voice of love and approval. As long as they enjoy their job, that’s what matters most. If they are unhappy, both of you should sit down and figure out next steps to help them land the career of their dreams. If they like their work but hope to be making more, you can also help. “Be a source of support and encouragement for them to advocate for a raise and/or greater benefits,” Garton says. “You can be a resource … in helping them realize their full salary potential.”
When you’re having money discussions, approach them from a place of curiosity rather than blaming and judgment. “Never, ever frame the conversation with, ‘You always do XYZ when we go out/have to pay for something,’” Melamed advises. “Ask, be curious about their issues with it, and see if you can find some common ground.”
If anything, talking about money might bring you even closer as a couple. Sharing vulnerabilities and supporting each other through tough times is what gives relationships strength.
The more you talk about finances as a couple, the more natural it will start to feel. If you’re hoping to help your partner spend their money more responsibly, look for ways to make your dates more budget-friendly. Garton suggests choosing experiences over fancy material things. “They say experiences brings happiness,” she says. “By focusing on having meaningful experiences together as a couple, that is another effective way to reign in any overspending.” Try cooking a meal together, having a picnic, or going to a museum on discount days. If you can help relieve some of their financial burden, you’ll both feel satisfied and grateful.
Ultimately, it’s up to both of you to work through financial issues, and keep in mind that every couple is going to experience this in some form. No two people have the exact same career and home situation, and everyone brings their own values, fears, and concerns to the table. Figure out what works for you as a couple and keep an open dialogue going to support your journey together.