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How to Deal with Financial Income Inequality in Marriage

By Casey Slide

couple calculating financesSay, for example, that a married couple makes a total of $100,000 a year. Both spouses work hard for their money, and enjoy spending their discretionary income. But who gets to spend more on discretionary purchases if one spouse makes $30,000 a year, while the other makes $70,000? Can each spouse still respect and love the other, without fostering feelings of guilt and resentment? Yes, but it is not easy. Income inequality in marriages, while common, unfortunately causes unnecessary tension in many relationships.

How do you deal with income inequality, and how do you determine who spends the money? Let’s take a look first at the issues caused by income inequality, and then explore some different ways to handle those issues.

Issues Surrounding Income Inequality in Marriage

Although many issues may arise from income inequality in marriage, we’ve listed some of the more common ones here, all of which are fixable or preventable:

1. Guilt
As a stay-at-home mom, this is an issue that we deal with often in our home. My husband makes the majority of our income, but I make some extra money doing side jobs, such as freelance writing and babysitting. While I do just as much work for the family as my husband, sometimes I feel guilty for buying myself something because I wasn’t the one who made the money that paid for the item. This is very common for the spouse who earns less. In fact, I have several friends who have also at times experienced feelings of guilt.

2. Resentment
The spouse who earns the majority of the household income may also feel resentment towards his or her spouse. If the spouse who earns less income spends money on goods that are not essential, the spouse earning more money may feel taken advantage of or feel that the household budget categories and expenditures are unbalanced. Perhaps the spouse who earns more feels as though he or she has to work harder or longer hours to make the money, and feels that his or her spouse needs to put in the same amount of effort earning an income.

3. Power Struggle
Money equates to power. This includes power to get what one desires, power of influence, and power over other people. In marriages, sometimes the primary income earner believes that he or she has power over the other spouse. The primary income earner makes all of the decisions about where the family goes, what the spouse does, and determines the family dynamics. The spouse who makes less money ends up at the mercy of the spouse who makes more.

4. Overspending
Overspending can be another result of one spouse making more money than the other. Similar to a power struggle issue, but isolated only to issues with power over the money, the spouse earning more sees the money as his or her own, and believes that he or she has the right to spend the money at will. The other spouse may not have anything left for other purchases.

5. Lying About Money
Another issue that may arise from income inequality is dishonesty. There are several reasons why couples may lie to each other about money, or want to hide their spending habits. If a spouse is spending more than a fair share of the family income, he or she may cover up the secret to avoid marital conflict. It is a terrible thing when one spouse overspends. It is even worse when the spouse lies about overspending.

6. Denial of Needs
In extreme circumstances, some spouses who make less money may deny their own needs because they don’t believe that they have a right to spend the family money. They may deny themselves such things as clothing, grooming, and dining out, or on an even more extreme level, they may deny themselves doctor visits or food – all the while thinking that they are doing what is best for the family. This kind of behavior causes more harm than good, and puts an additional strain on a marriage.

7. Divorce
Income inequality alone does not cause divorce. Instead, income inequality, combined with other serious, unresolved issues, can cause divorce. Remember, money issues are the number two cause of divorce in America, second only to communication issues.

couple sharing money

How to Handle Issues and Avoid Conflict

In order to handle these income inequality issues or avoid conflict altogether, follow these tips:

1. Open the Lines of Communication
This is the best way to prevent and resolve any issue in marriage: Have open communication. If you feel guilty for spending money because you make less money than your spouse, talk about it. If you resent your spouse because he or she is spending too much money, talk about it. Just remember to start any discussion about money in a loving manner, without accusing the other of wrongdoing. The two of you are teammates in life, and shouldn’t treat things like a competition or a battle. Help each other out!

2. Share Your Needs
Once the lines of communication open up, share your needs. If you feel that you need to have an equal amount of spending money, share that with your spouse. Or perhaps you need help or encouragement from your spouse in order to generate more income. Your spouse won’t always know what you need unless you clearly explain it.

3. Create a Budget
If you have not already made a budget, start one today. Determine your income and expenses, as well as how much discretionary income that you have. Then determine how much spending money each spouse should get. Not only will this clear up where the money is going, but it will also make it so each spouse has agreed upon how much can be spent by the other spouse. For those who are just starting out using a budget, I recommend the envelope budgeting system.

4. Have Regular Finance Meetings
My husband and I talk about our finances once a week. We take a look at our budget to see how we have been spending our money and identify any areas where we need to cut back. This also gives us an opportunity to discuss any other issues related to our money, including upcoming expenses, possible income opportunities, and problems we have with our current spending. If you have an issue with income inequality, this would give you an avenue to discuss it safely.

5. Create a Reward System
My husband and I have a fun way to keep ourselves within our budget by using a reward system. At the end of each month, if we spent less than we made, we take a percentage of that amount of money to be our spending money in the next month. For example, if we made $400 more than we spent, we each get $40 to spend as fun money for the next month. This allows us to work as a team to achieve our goal of being under budget in a fun way, while also rewarding us equally since it took the both of us to succeed.

6. Have Equal Amounts of Total Work
If two spouses are not earning the same income, housework often makes up for the inequality. If one spouse works 50 hours a week while the other works 25 hours, the one who works less can do 50% more housework than the one who works more. By creating equality of total work, the relationship stays more stable, and no one feels as though he or she is carrying the burden of the family.

With that said, if the two spouses work equal hours, but have different salaries, the higher-earning spouse should not penalize the other person for working in a lower-paying job. The spouse may want a higher-paying job, but has always been passed over for promotion, or, conversely, the spouse might be happy in the lower-paying job. Whatever the reason for the discrepancy in income levels, it shouldn’t be a point of contention. Both partners should contribute to housework  using a house cleaning schedule if they have similar hours at work, regardless of the difference in salaries.

Ultimately, treat each other as teammates. Don’t try to penny-pinch when it comes to money and hours worked; this will cause unnecessary stress between you and your partner.

7. Spend Money Together
As a way to remember that the money that a married couple makes belongs to the couple, money should be spent together on regular date nights and summer vacations.

8. Be Flexible
Your spouse may have had an especially difficult work week, recently experienced a death in the family, or might just be having a bad day. Chip in and do more than your share in these situations. Perhaps your spouse needs extra money for an essential, one-time purchase, or wants to lend money to a family member. Spend a little less that month, and let your spouse have a larger percentage of your combined income. Your efforts will be appreciated, and that effort and thought will be returned by your spouse when you’re in a similar time of need.

9. Get Rid of Separate Accounts
When you are married, you share everything. You share a home, your hopes and dreams, and your money. Things get complicated when spouses have two separate checking accounts. If you must have your own accounts, consider splitting bills, such as the mortgage and utilities, as a percentage of how much you make, instead of 50/50. For instance, if one spouse has a salary of $30,000 and the other has a salary of $70,000, have one spouse pay 30% of the bills while the other spouse pays 70%. That way, the poor won’t get poorer, and the rich won’t get richer in the relationship.

Final Word

When you are married, you are part of a team. A team works together, practices together, plans together, wins and loses together, and is rewarded together. So in your married life, both spouses need to work in tandem to get through any financial issue that may arise, such as income inequality. You must open the lines of communication and plan how you are going to deal with the differences in your salaries.

How do you deal with income inequality in your marriage?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Casey Slide
Casey Slide lives with her husband and baby in Atlanta, GA. She graduated from the University of Florida in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering and worked for a prominent hospital in Atlanta. With the birth of Casey’s son in February 2010, she decided to become a stay-at-home mom. Casey’s interests include reading, running, living green, and saving money.

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  • http://www.pfsdebtrelief.com Stephan

    This is definitely a tricky topic and something that i think will be more common as time goes on. It is important that whoever the primary income earner is does not project a feeling of power over the other one. Its tough I know, ive gone through it, but open communication lines seem to be the best bet at avoiding the money fights!
    Preferred Financial Services

    • Joanna Crain

      Stephan,

      You are right on with your comment. I have been through it too and it isn’t fun being the underdog on this one. But keeping the dialogue going can at least avoid misunderstandings and resentments.

      Best,
      Joanna

  • Skirnir

    As of yet, this hasn’t been a problem for my husband and I. I work a part-time nonprofit job and make very little, while he works full time at a computer related job. He makes enough that we don’t fight about money and neither of us are heavy spenders. But what bothers me, is my job is ending soon, and I am contemplating not getting another job right away. I know my husband would just say put it on the credit card for my purchases, but in a way, I like having my own money. So not sure what I will decide.

  • Rolltider1978

    This is hard for the one who earns the most and runs the show. They don’t want to give up the power and control, nor do they want to pay more for bills than the under dog. The one who earns more, will not like this approach. That person will want it both ways, by paying only 50 percent and making the underdog pay 50 percent, they have more of their income to keep, thus the underdog has even less of their income to keep. (rich getting richer and poor getting poorer) So, with more money comes more power, control, ability to shame and dominate, make all decisions, lie, hide, and feel that they can spend at will. This won’t be given up easy, so don’t expect a person who has been so greedy and selfish to stop and just do it this way. This type of person is narcasistic and controlling and will fight for their “right” to keep up the bad behavior. Often they blame the way they behave on the underdog, demanding that if they did it this way the underdog would abuse money and take advantage of “what isn’t theirs”. If you are able to convince the one making more to comply and work together, then congratulations, there is hope for your marriage. But, if your spouse refuses and won’t follow this advice, then you have to decide if you want to live your life controlled, dominated and shamed for not making as much, or if you want to move on with your life. You deserve better treatment and you should have your voice respected at the table. Stand up for yourself and your marriage and try to compromise with this advice, the direction of your life may depend on it.

    • Mrs Mcquarter

      Are you my spouse? Cause I swear you are

  • Rolltider1978

    This is hard for the one who earns the most and runs the show. They don’t want to give up the power and control, nor do they want to pay more for bills than the under dog. The one who earns more, will not like this approach. That person will want it both ways, by paying only 50 percent and making the underdog pay 50 percent, they have more of their income to keep, thus the underdog has even less of their income to keep. (rich getting richer and poor getting poorer) So, with more money comes more power, control, ability to shame and dominate, make all decisions, lie, hide, and feel that they can spend at will. This won’t be given up easy, so don’t expect a person who has been so greedy and selfish to stop and just do it this way. This type of person is narcasistic and controlling and will fight for their “right” to keep up the bad behavior. Often they blame the way they behave on the underdog, demanding that if they did it this way the underdog would abuse money and take advantage of “what isn’t theirs”. If you are able to convince the one making more to comply and work together, then congratulations, there is hope for your marriage. But, if your spouse refuses and won’t follow this advice, then you have to decide if you want to live your life controlled, dominated and shamed for not making as much, or if you want to move on with your life. You deserve better treatment and you should have your voice respected at the table. Stand up for yourself and your marriage and try to compromise with this advice, the direction of your life may depend on it.

  • Ebbebest

    Wow, perfect timing! My boyfriend of two years will be moving in November and he makes less than I do. This really hit home. We plan on getting married eventualy but being I’m divorced, and have three kids, I’m trying not to rush into anything. I can’t express to you how much this article related to my situation!

    • Casey Slide

      I am glad the article was helpful. Good luck!

  • Jay

    You we so incredibly spot on with your advice. I earn a higher income and have resented paying the majority of the bills. I need to change my perspective and come up with a solution to make up for the fact that I contribute more financially. I love the idea to come up with a cleaning schedule, especially due to the fact that I am rarely home because of my job. The whole reason I was resentful was because I feel like I am never home, and as a result do not contribute to causing higher utility bills. I now see how I can actually make my spouse feel resentful of ME for making more and asking for a 50/50 split….. It’s just not equitable. Thanks again for the advice!

    • Casey Slide

      Glad I was able to help. Good luck to you!

  • Julia

    Good advice in principle, assuming that the lower wage earner is an honest, trustworthy type. I earn about 4s more than my husband but have been unable to adopt the ‘our’ money approach as he simply cannot be trusted. We had a joint credit card account (in my name), he went out spending on it and didn’t volunteer money for his purchases when the statement came. We had a joint bank account to be used for paying household bills. We would each put our respective bills money in as agreed to cover direct debits. One day the tv and Internet were not working, they told me that the bill hadn’t been paid so we were cut off. I checked our account and he had withdrawn money for a so-called emergency, never put it back and I ended up paying an admin fee out of my own pocket for that. He has been hiding income from me from investments I made for us both with my money. Some money problems can be worked out but we all need to recognise a freeloader when we see one.

  • Get real

    I have an issue with point 6. Personally I’d like to have low paying job with no responsibility and easier hours and less stress and earn the same as my spouse – it would be much easier than my current career, which i’ve worked at for ten years, which will ultimately pave the way for a house and children and education of those children and retirement and so on. I’d like nothing more than to work part time and put my feet up and just chill out. So why in god’s name should i be compensating for somebody who takes this exact route? Is it fine not to have ambition and and forward thinking point of view and some proactive contribution to this desired lifestyle? You talk about equality of housework but when the medical bills arrive, or the mortgage needs paying or whatnot, where’s the equality then? I make sacrifices for the sake of our family unit. If she can’t earn as much because she’s make bad choices then she should pick up the slack elsewhere.

    “Teammates”, until the taxman arrives eh?

    • nrw

      You sound like a horrible husband. Talk about harboring resentment. Jeez.

    • Geoknyda

      I agree with your viewpioint. There are many men and women like you and I who feel the same way. And many whop don’t. After having worked hard in school, struggled and committed to securing a good job, income and future for ourselves, why should we be forced to share that with someone who hasn’t worked so hard to achieve the same thing for themselves? Wouldn’t it be best to share your accomplishments and wealth with someone who has obtained an equal amount of success in their life? Of course the deinfition of “success” varies from person to person and our definition seems to be those things. For others it could be physical fitness or a cohesive family. The point is why sacrifice your future – everything you have worked so hard to build – to try and change someone into something they have not tried to be? Or even worse: to “put up” with what you percieve to be a handicap? No one deserves to be “put up” with and that’s not right. I believe the answer lies in awareness and choice.
      Some men and women choose willingly to share their money and wealth with their spouse, children, and family. Others choose not to and that’s okay. The problem is when people commit to a marriage, relationship, and children without figuring out how they feel about sharing their money – or how much they feel comfortable sharing with them. Rushing into a marriage and children without having taken the time to explore and understand your own values and feelings is the primary cause of “resentment” from primary income earners.
      The best advice I can give is take the time to test the waters. Go slow. Date. Try living with a girl or guy for a while and see how money affects the relationship. Then you will know more about your own feelings towards income inequality and if you are comfortable with it. Watch out, though. Some parents will pressure you to marry their child before you are comfortable – they will corner you and before you know it you will be stuck in a marriage without having tested the waters. I’ve noticed this from lower income families more so than higher income ones. Good parents don’t pressure their kids into marriage. Go slow. Enjoy life and continue learning about yourself and others, but don’t let anyone or anything pressure you into doing something you are not comfortable doing. If you are unsure, go even slower!
      With that advice you will avoid causing problems with other families and eventually find someone you are comfortable with. The chances of resenting your partner at that point will be low because you will have taken the time to truly find out who you are and what you want and how you will be comfortable sharing things. Good luck!

  • DesperateWife

    I’ve been looking for some kind of ‘fair’ budgeting system. Like a worksheet or something. My husband is the top earner in our household by a long shot. We argue about money all the time. We both work full time, and usually the same number of hours per week, however his job has more opportunities for overtime than mine does. I feel like I am always indebted to him because he makes the most therefore he can afford the most, therefore he deserves any extra money we have during the month. I have tried to explain to him that I dont feel like I should be responsible for half of the monthly expenses because I dont make half of the monthly income. I feel that it is only fair that I am responsible for the same percentage of expenses as the percentage if monthly income I contribute. The truth is,i can’t afford his lifestyle, and he dosent want to be held back living the lifestyle he feels he deserves because he makes such great money. He is in control of paying all the monthly bills by choice…i used to do it and he didn’t like how I did it it because I paid things before they were due, like when we got the bill in the mail. So he took over, the only problem with that is he pays things that are important to him first, my bills are at the bottom of the to do list…like my credit card (which I use for my gas-his idea), my medical bills, childrens child care, etc….things that I feel are equally as important. So in the mean time, my bills get the minimum payment due, and get paid late out not at all. Because I make less (contribute less) all of my money has to go to bills, because he makes much more he is the one who gets what ever is left over after his money is applied. He feels this is only fair since he already has to pick up my slack for not bringing in more income. How is this fair? Am I crazy for not agreeing with him? Maybe I need a wake up call or something, because I still dont get it. He resents me for not bringing in enough, and I resent him because he constantly makes me feel like I owe him and should be grateful for the life we live-made possible by him and only him with no help from me. I get no credit. Can anybody give me any input on how they have overcome an impossible situation like this, or know if a way to make a family budget that is more fair for both spouses so we can eliminate the resentment? Or tell me what I’m doing wrong? We’ve been married for 5 years now and this has only become a problem since we bought the house we live in 2 years ago, he started making the money he makes now 3 years ago. I also need to mention the fact that right after we bought the house I was unemployed for almost a year, although I did watch kids from home and made pretty descent money until the parents of some if the kids I became undependable, and slowly but surely I lost more children and income, which is why I went back to work full time. Also, my sons father (from a previous marriage) completely stopped paying child support almost 2 years ago, even though we have child support enforcement. Which is another thing my husband has a huge problem with….picking up the slack of my sons dead beat father. I’ll take any advice and helpful hints that are out there!

    • DesperateWife

      Sorry,i wrote this from my phone and theres lots of typing errors…

      Corrections: if …. Means ‘of’ , and ‘…..I became undependable….(in reference to watching kids from home) is supposed to say the parents of some of the kids I watched became undependable… Lol! Sorry for the typos…

  • JustAGuy

    I totally get the issue raised, but there are different situations that exist. I make a lot more than my wife. Part of that is because of my time int he workforce. Part of it is because of my line of work. At this point, we share household tasks (shopping, cooking, cleaning, kid duties, etc.). Our kids our teens. I work from home, so I am able to do more than most husbands. The issue I have is that my wife actually has had “control” of the money for years. I have tried to work on a budget with her, but she has gotten defensive. She has chosen to work part-time and not pursue a job that utilizes her degree. Her mom convinced her that if we can cover all the expenses with my pay then she shouldn’t work full-time. I’m concerned about how lower income now affects our future. College expenses will be huge. I also see this decision to make less now as a direct impact on when I can retire. Even worse is that this is not a team decision, so we definitely have to improve that. I’m trying to figure out how to “feel” okay with not knowing how much is available to spend, not knowing were we even stand financially. It’s all about communication. I am planning to assume more control and force the team effort through weekly meetings with reports on the budget. PLEASE do not assume that the person making most of the money is the “bad guy”. Sometimes we’re the one being taken advantage of. I see this more as a place to improve the relationship in my situation.

  • Annie McKillop

    In reading this article, I disagree, and I see your point given you have one child and are 10 years younger. I made 100k 15 years ago. My husband made less. Today I’m a SAHM. I can tell you society was happy to take away my power. My husband as a matter of fact was encouraged while I was discriminated against. Any man who thinks he deserves to lord over his wife, and that he justifiably earns more is a joke. Society will always drive the woman down. A traditional life as a mother is a sure path to humiliation. I hope you go back to work and have a contingency plan for retirement/divorce.

  • Desperate

    My husband and I are divorcing after 14 months of marriage. I came into an inheritance at the beginning of the marriage and now all the money is gone. From the money I purchase a van, which is in his name as I do not drive. We had a trailer given to us and I purchase many items and paid to have it renovated. We both make the same amount of money which contributed to the regular expenses, we also did a lot of travelling with that money. Once the money was gone, so was he. He is living in the trailer and driving the van. I am suing him for divorce and put all these belongings in the agreement. I sure he is going to contest and this will end up costing me, yet more money? Do you think I will win?

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  • Fair is a myth

    Have housework make up for the balance. I wish. I make 100% of the money (6 figures), I do 100% of the cooking and cleaning. Help the kids with their homework, volunteer on my kids teams AND I am getting my MBA at night. Meanwhile my wife doesn’t work, but is very happy as she enjoys being a philanthropist with my money and everyone loves her because of how much money she donates. All the while I drive a car that is falling apart and my kids wear clothes that are too small. Some people just SUCK, no matter what system you put in place. My wife takes advantage of my religious beliefs of not engaging in divorce, so I am just stuck with a horrible person.

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