Income Disparity and Money Imbalance in Relationships

Income Inequality In Relationships

Money can be a major source of stress and conflict in a relationship.

Different attitudes about saving or approaches toward spending might cause friction between partners. There will be disagreements if you want to save all of your discretionary dollars for a rainy day while your partner wants to hit the town and spend every penny.

But spending habits aren’t the only things that cause couples to fight about money. There’s also the issue of money imbalance in relationships.

Do you and your spouse or partner make the same salary? Are your financial situations identical? Probably not.

There have been times in my marriage when I’ve brought in a tiny fraction of what my wife was making, thanks to my propensity for being laid off. A few years ago, my wife took almost a year-long sabbatical to care for a relative while I worked. There have been a lot of ups and downs in our financial life together, but as a married couple, we’ve been very supportive of each other emotionally and financially when times were hard.

A financial imbalance can affect your marriage or relationship in many ways. When one partner earns more money than the other, issues can arise for one or both partners.

Can money break up a relationship?

Money can break up a relationship. Differing spending habits and views on money can cause a breakup. Hiding money problems or lying about spending breaks trust and can break up a relationship. A big income gap between partners can make it hard to be on the same page and lead to a breakup.

Money is one of the more significant contributors to relationship conflict. In a survey of 2000 adults, 62% reported having arguments over money with their partner from time to time. Mingling your relationship with money can lead to fights over:

  • Financial strain
  • Different money values or feelings about money
  • Priorities
  • Shared expenses or joint finances
  • Money mistakes

All of that potential conflict can absolutely lead to the end of the relationship.

That doesn’t mean keeping finances separate or maintaining your financial independence as if you were single is the answer. Achieving financial unity through open communication, finding common ground, and practicing teamwork can make your relationship work.

Does income matter in a relationship?

Income does matter in a relationship when it comes to deciding how shared expenses and responsibilities should be divided. But it’s more important to have honest communication and be on the same page about how money is spent and how bills are paid than the exact salary or income each partner earns.

What is a financial imbalance in relationships?

Financial imbalance in relationships is when one partner earns significantly more than the other. This can cause arguments over how you should split expenses and spend or save money. A financial imbalance can also cause disagreements, guilt, resentment, controlling behavior, and a breakup.

Common Conflicts Caused by a Money Imbalance in Relationships

Income disparity in relationships can lead to arguments over money.
An income disparity in relationships can be overcome.

Earning significantly more or significantly less money than your partner can be a major source of conflict in a relationship. If one partner makes fifteen dollars an hour and the other bills clients one hundred dollars an hour, that’s a huge gap. The bigger the income gap, the more potential there is for friction.

Here are six common issues that arise from money imbalances in relationships:

1. Feelings of guilt

Guilt is common for the partner earning less. For example, if you’re a stay-at-home mom or going to school full-time while your partner works, it’s hard not to feel guilty when you buy yourself something with money your partner earned.

2. Feelings of inadequacy

Healthy relationships are about treating each other as equals. When your incomes are at opposite ends of the pay scale, the one earning less might not feel equal. Feelings of inadequacy around income could be tied to job prestige, earning potential, or the desire to be the breadwinner.

3. Growing resentment over the income difference

Resentment can fester when there’s a significant income imbalance within a couple. And it works both ways.

The higher-earning partner might resent having to shoulder the majority of the household expenses and financial burden. The lower-earning partner might resent their partner’s success and the demands of their career.

4. No balance of power

Money imbalances can lead to power imbalances. The majority earner believes they have power over the other person.

This power dynamic can lead to the primary income earner feeling they have the right to make all the decisions. The partner who makes less has no financial security and ends up being controlled.

5. Exercising financial power by spending money selfishly

The primary income earner might see the money as their own, even if it sits in a joint bank account. Since they earned it, they might feel they have the right to spend it without regard for their partner’s needs, input, or feelings.

6. Financial infidelity

Financial infidelity is withholding information from or lying about money to one’s partner. It can involve hiding spending, stashing cash in separate accounts, secretly running up credit card debt, or making financial decisions without a partner’s knowledge. Financial infidelity is more than a financial issue: it’s a breach of trust.

A large income imbalance could lead to either partner hiding their spending, covering up money issues, or withholding information about the couple’s finances.

8 Tips for Making an Income Disparity Work

Couple working out their money differences.
Financial disparity in relationships can be resolved.

Financial inequality could cause bumps in the road if there’s a big pay gap. As is the case for virtually any issue in a loving relationship, communication is the key. Here are some tips for making a large money imbalance in relationships work:

1. Understand that an income gap is perfectly natural in a healthy relationship

Rarely will two people earn the same amount of money. That means the expectation that both partners should contribute exactly evenly is probably unrealistic. Find a way of sharing expenses fairly regardless of income.

2. Talk through it

We’re brought up to believe that talking about money is rude. You might find it hard to open up to your partner about your financial concerns.

But if something bothers you, whether it’s about money or something else, you must speak to your partner about it if you want a happy relationship. Having difficult money conversations when needed is part of that.

3. Create a budget

Create a budget together that works for both of you. A realistic budget helps you determine how you should spend your shared income and improves your financial health. Together, you’ll set financial goals, identify spending priorities, and work out how much each partner should contribute.

4. Be Transparent

Neither partner should ever be blindsided. Major purchases, spending, and other financial obligations should be discussed freely. Consider using a budgeting app like Mint, Personal Capital, or YNAB so you can both keep track of your finances.

5. Recognize contributions beyond money

There are many ways to contribute to a relationship that don’t involve money. If you feel your partner puts in less than you, try to see the value in the other things they do.

Perhaps they take care of the children, clean more, cook more, or keep the household organized and running smoothly. All of those things are necessary and valuable. It’s important to acknowledge that.

6. Change your money mindset

Think of money as ‘ours’ instead of ‘yours’ or ‘mine.’ The money in your bank account represents your joint household income.

Remember that money is just one part of your relationship. And it’s probably not the part that makes your heart flutter.

7. Don’t blame, judge, or brag

Income differences in relationships are perfectly normal. No one should feel bad about their income. Don’t blame yourself, and don’t blame your partner.

Partners are supposed to be there for each other through thick and thin. Making the other person feel judged or inadequate can damage a relationship beyond repair.

8. Enjoy the fruits of your labor together

Take the time to plan events and activities you both enjoy. A big night out, dinner in a fancy restaurant or a vacation you plan together can remind you what it’s all for.

Don’t Let a Financial Imbalance Ruin Your Relationship

Relationships and money can mix, but it might not be easy.

Financial inequality in a relationship doesn’t cause divorce or breakups. Having drastically different money personalities and constantly arguing about money can. A money imbalance in relationships with other unresolved issues can also spell the end of the relationship.

Couples can take steps to prevent salary differences and different money beliefs from causing relationship problems. It starts with honest communication. Fostering true teamwork by creating a workable financial plan together, valuing each other’s contributions, and practicing good money management together will also go a long way toward having a solid relationship despite the income gap.

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