Hi, it’s me, Megan. I’m the personal finance editor here at BuzzFeed, and welcome back to Money with Megan, where we talk through the sticky work and money situations that keep us up at night.
This week, I’m answering a letter from someone who’s having trouble getting their fiancé to commit to a plan for how they’ll share household expenses — and to make things even more confusing, they also have veeeeery different salaries. Here’s what they had to say:
“I’m recently engaged and having a hard time wrapping my mind around how to equitably share income and expenses going forward because my partner makes considerably more money than I do. He’s a doctor salaried around $600K a year. I work in education and make less than $50K a year.”
“He is very money conscious on SOME things, but also spends extravagantly on other things. He has a home mortgage, a mortgage on a Lamborghini, and student loans. He pays his ex 40% of his salary in alimony, but that will end in a few months. He’s got teenagers too, so several more years of paying child support. He basically lives paycheck to paycheck, just with bigger paychecks.”
“Other than saying that he expects me to ‘contribute’ and ‘not just chill’ while he’s working, he won’t fully communicate his financial wishes and expectations. We are currently looking at buying a home together so the issue is somewhat pressing.”
First, congrats on your engagement!! As I’m sure you know, there’s no one right way to share expenses as a couple. What works for me and my partner (separate accounts all the way, baby!) might seem absolutely unmanageable to someone else. So this conversation needs to be all about finding what feels comfortable and right for the two of you.
It’s encouraging that you seem to have good insight into his financial picture, and vice versa. This tells me that you two have the trust, openness, and communication to sit down and figure this out. But instead of just asking, “How should we split the bills?” it might be more productive to start the conversation somewhere else.
One place where you might start is by talking about how you’ve handled sharing finances in previous relationships. What did you like? What could have been better? Is there anything you’re determined to NEVER do again? How do you feel about shared accounts? Answering these questions can help you both understand each other, and a plan might emerge naturally as you talk.
You might also find it useful to talk about your desired lifestyle and classify expenses as wants and needs. His Lamborghini, for example? If I were you, I’d classify that as one of his personal “wants”, and I wouldn’t be open to contributing to that car payment. Likewise, if he has his heart set on a home that’s waaaay out of your price range, there should be an understanding there that he would need to pay most of that mortgage. You shouldn’t have to put all of your income toward financing the kind of lifestyle it sounds like he’s used to.
Another thing that could help is presenting him with options instead of asking an open-ended question. For example, when my partner asks me what I want for dinner, my response is always, “I don’t know.” My mind just goes completely blank. But if he asks me if I want tacos or pizza, I’m usually gonna have an opinion. So make it a tacos or pizza question (and be open to getting creative and making a taco pizza that fits your unique needs).
So what’s on the money menu? Since you have such a big disparity in your incomes and lifestyle spending, I don’t think a 50/50 split is even an option. Some couples like to do an equitable split based on percentages of their income. So you might each contribute 60% of your income to household expenses, or if you make, say, 10% as much as he does, you put in 10% of the mortgage and bills.
Other couples work out their own arrangements that make sense for them like the higher-earning partner pays the mortgage and utilities while the other partner pays for groceries and household subscriptions.
Some couples are perfectly happy to just put all their money into one shared account and say what’s mine is ours, though I think this works best when both partners have similar values and spending habits. Others like to have a shared account for bills and separate accounts for personal expenses. And many women, especially in relationships with men, insist on retaining their own emergency GTFO fund no matter what, just in case the relationship doesn’t work out or becomes harmful.
However, if your fiancé is really reluctant to discuss money in general, it could point to money avoidance related to financial anxiety or even trauma. Even though he’s a high-earner now, if he grew up low-income or experienced a period of hardship on his way here, he might still have a lot of unresolved feelings about his finances that he doesn’t want to face.
Therapy can help with this a lot, and he can also work independently on making baby steps toward being more financially involved. And as his partner, you can offer your support by keeping money conversations low-key and shame-free. Let him know that you’re on his team and you’ll get through this together.
Setting a regular monthly or quarterly money date can also help you stay on the same page and change things up if something’s not working. The way you decide to split the bills now is not going to work forever — expenses change, salaries change, and your financial plans need to be flexible enough to change with them. Keeping the conversation open and ongoing makes adapting to all of life’s little surprises a lot easier.
Finally, there is so much value you bring to this relationship and your household that has nothing to do with how much money you earn. I mention this because sometimes money can set up weird power dynamics in relationships. I don’t see anything in your letter to suggest that this is the case for you, but still, always remember that you’re worth so much more than the numbers on your paycheck.
And that’s all the advice I have for today! If you have a sticky work or money situation that you’d like some advice on, write to me via this anonymous form. And you can also follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn.
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What do you think of my advice, and what’s worked for you when it comes to talking about money with your partner? Share your best tips in the comments!