The M-word: can having very different salaries impact your relationship?
Talking about money is hard. Whether you’ve not got enough or you’re doing well, it’s not an easy topic to talk about. The boundaries can feel so blurred; are we boasting if we admit we’re doing well? Are we not managing our finances properly if we’re struggling? There are always people worse off than we are – we can’t really complain, can we?
Despite studies showing that more than a fifth of us are stressed by our financial situation (rising to a third, if you’re between 18 to 34), not to mention over 70% of us spending time worrying about our finances while at work, it’s still a tough subject to talk about.
Getting over those first conversation nerves and airing your finances out in the open with your partner could be the key to a healthy relationship. One study reports 94% of couples who feel they are in a ‘healthy marriage’ have talked about their ‘money dreams’ together, compared to just 29% of those who considered their relationship to be just OK or in crisis.
One couple in their late 20s and early 30s share their experience when it comes to talking money, comparing salaries, and finding a financial balance that works for them.
By his late 20s, my partner had his first mortgage, fully paid off his student loans, went on exotic holidays multiple times a year, and kept two cars without breaking a sweat thanks to his hard work and successful career in the tech industry.
By my late 20s, despite my hard work, I was living back at home with my mum, spending well over half of my salary just to catch public transport to get to my creative industry job, juggling my undergrad and postgrad degree payments, and I could count on one hand the total number of times I’d ever been on exotic holidays.
The thing is, career-wise, neither of us can really pinpoint that moment it went ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ for either of us. Academically I excelled in a field which traditionally doesn’t pay much (and with the way modern media is going, is set to pay even less over the coming years). My other half just about scraped through university and landed his first job inside the tech industry, almost entirely thanks to his confidence and charm.
Less than a decade into our professional careers, almost four years into our relationship, we’ve come to terms with the fact that our earning potentials will never add up. Short of a massive career change, realistically, I am never going to be able to catch up with the staggering difference in our salaries; that’s something we’ve both had to address in our own ways.
With one of us earning almost five times the other’s annual salary, you can imagine how our very different lifestyles and approaches to money clashed a little in our early days. I felt pressured to keep up and pay my way, while my partner didn’t consider the cost or frequency of our extravagant dates and trips. Neither of us wanted to address the elephant in the room when it came to our joint or separate spending.
How did we get over that fear and start having a more open, upfront dialogue about our finances? It took a lot of awkward conversations, but we got there. Finding a compromise that worked for us both was key. For some people, that could be keeping things 50/50, or maybe looking at the things each enjoys that matters the most and reserving your spending for these could work for you.
There are always free things that can be found to do and enjoy together, but that doesn’t necessarily address the bigger issues when it comes to mortgages, bills, even deciding what each of you counts as ‘essential’ when it comes to home upgrades and fixtures. It can be tough, but the sooner you start having these conversations, the less time and energy you will spend feeling anxious and stressed about them.
If there are some things one of you would rather keep doing or buy that the other can’t afford, look at ways in which things can still even out – or consider if things need to even out monetarily. Being equal partners doesn’t have to mean paying everything equally. There are other ways you can share the load.
I won’t say that talking about money doesn’t still make us both a little bit uncomfortable (because it really, really does), but we’ve both learnt how to recognise and face our own and joint issues when it comes to money. I don’t feel so bad speaking up when something is above my budget – or accepting compromises when we both want to do something that might cost a bit more than I’d like. My other half feels much less embarrassed discussing money, as well as talking about and celebrating his financial successes.
By recognising our own hang ups when it comes to talking about money, we’ve managed to ditch some of the joint stress we didn’t even realise we were holding on to, making our relationship feel even stronger and more happy overall.
If you’re looking to start the conversation about money, there are a few things it could be worth keeping in mind.
Is it really money on your mind?
Are you really worried about money, or are there other underlying issues that may be making you feel more anxious? Money can be an easy target to focus on; it’s tangible, easy to blame, and easier to project other issues around control, anxiety, and self-esteem on.
There’s a time and a place for everything
When and where you are going to bring it up. It’s not something a lot of couples talk about too openly before they are serious (and even then, it can be a tricky topic). Pick a time when you are both calm and relaxed to bring up the topic.
Try to avoid waiting until you hit a critical point, or before any specific money issues arise. If it’s easier, try discussing different hypothetical money scenarios and problems, along with how you could address or deal with these together (eg. joint accounts, loss of a job, overdrawn bank accounts).
No really – timing is everything
Consider if it’s too soon. You may need to be patient and find when is the best time for you both to talk about it. If your partner remains evasive or defensive about talking about money all together, this could be a red flag that something is wrong, or a sign of communication problems.
Knowing your own mind is key
Do you understand your own attitude to money? Do you have clear financial goals (long or short term), what are your day-to-day spending habits, and are you more focused on long-term safety and stability, or likely to take a risk for higher returns? Knowing your own attitude towards money and taking time to understand and become comfortable with them can help build a stronger foundation for a healthy joint relationship with your shared finances.
Are you in a good place to talk?
Are you in the right place (mentally, emotionally, and physically) to have this conversation? If your partner opens up to you about money worries or debt issues, are you mentally and emotionally prepared to stay calm, be objective, and leave any judgements at the door?
It’s OK to feel angry, worried, or scared, but if you’re not ready to talk about the potential ups and downs of both of your finances, it could be more beneficial for both of you to put the conversation on hold until you feel ready to talk – and listen.