Money can’t buy happiness, they say. But what about love? Can financial inequality ruin a relationship?
There’s no getting around it—income inequality is everywhere. It’s in the news, on our streets, and unfortunately, it’s in our relationships. While it’s true that financial inequality doesn’t always spell disaster for a relationship, it can put a strain on even the strongest of partnerships.
A 2017 psychology journal reports that income inequality, rather than absolute income, is a significant predictor of happiness in human relationships. The study argued that a couple’s financial equality ratio has an inverse relationship with their happiness and satisfaction—in other words, the less equal the financial situation, the less satisfied the couple is.
Financial inequality in a relationship may lead to feelings of insecurity, jealousy, and resentment. It can get even worse when planning and decision-making are thrown into the mix.
What causes financial inequality in a relationship?
Financial inequality is often a reflection of different financial backgrounds.
For example, let’s say one partner grew up in a well-to-do family while the other came from a more modest background. Chances are, the partner from the well-to-do family is used to a certain lifestyle and may experience difficulties adjusting to a more modest lifestyle.
On the other hand, the partner from a modest background may feel financial pressure to keep up with the other’s lifestyle and end up feeling inadequate.
Varying financial backgrounds can also lead to different financial goals and values. One partner may prioritize saving for a rainy day, while the other may prefer to splurge more often.
Another common cause of financial inequality in a relationship is different levels of financial literacy. While one partner may have a solid understanding of financial concepts and principles, the other may be entirely in the dark.
What happens next? The financially literate partner ends up making all the financial decisions, and the other feels left out and powerless.
It’s also possible for one partner to shoulder financial obligations that the other isn’t aware of. For example, while both partners could be at the same income level, one may have student loans, but the other is debt free.
In another scenario, one partner may be responsible for supporting an aging parent while the other doesn’t have any dependents. These different financial obligations can quickly strain the relationship, especially if expectations aren’t openly discussed and managed.
Lastly, different income levels can lead to financial inequality in a relationship. We’re not just talking about a small income gap here—but a significant difference in earnings.
10 ways to handle income inequality in a relationship
1. Talk about it
Yes, we know—money can be a touchy subject. But if financial inequality is putting a strain on your relationship, it’s important to address it head-on. Open and honest communication is vital to managing the health of your relationship.
Schedule a time to sit down and have a heart-to-heart talk about your financial situation. Discuss your financial backgrounds, values, and goals. See if there are any areas where you can compromise.
It’s also important to talk about financial expectations early on in the relationship. For example, will you be splitting expenses equally? Who will be responsible for what financial obligations?
By having these conversations early, you can avoid surprises and disagreements down the road.
2. Decide on your spending plan… together
You’ve had the money talk. Now it’s time to put your money where your mouth is and create a spending plan.
Of course, this spending plan should be tailored to your financial situation. But more importantly, it should be a joint effort. You and your partner should be involved in every step of the process, from setting financial goals to deciding where every dollar will go.
There are different ways to approach a spending plan. You could use the 50/30/20 rule, which allocates 50% of your income to essentials, 30% to wants, and 20% to savings and debt repayment.
Or you could use the envelope system, which involves dividing your cash into different categories/envelopes (e.g., housing, food, transportation) and only spending what’s allocated for each category.
3. Contribute the same percentage of your earnings to shared expenses
If you and your partner have different income levels, you may not be able to split expenses evenly down the middle. But that doesn’t mean you both can’t contribute.
For example, if you earn $50,000 per year and your partner earns $100,000, both of you could contribute 10% of your income to shared expenses. In this case, you would be responsible for $5,000 (10% of $50,000), and your partner would be responsible for $10,000 (10% of $100,000).
4. Have separate bank accounts + a joint account
It’s essential to have some financial independence in a relationship, so you’re not entirely reliant on your partner for financial support. At the same time, it could be useful to have a joint account for shared expenses like rent, groceries, and utilities.
Then you’ll have your own money to spend on whatever you want while contributing to, and benefiting from, shared expenses.
5. Give each other financial “allowances”
To maintain financial independence, some couples give each other financial “allowances.” For example, you could agree that each partner gets a certain amount of money to spend every month without having to account for or justify their purchases.
This allowance can be a fixed amount or a percentage of your income.
6. Have regular financial check-ins
Like any other aspect of a relationship, financial matters should be discussed regularly. We’re not saying you need to go over your financial situation in detail every day or week. But you should touch base every now and then to make sure you’re both on the same page.
During financial check-ins, you can discuss your financial goals, review your spending plan, and talk about any financial concerns you may have.
#7. Be mindful of financial jealousy.
Yeah, financial jealousy is a thing. If you find yourself feeling jealous of your partner’s financial situation, take a step back and ask yourself why.
Are you feeling jealous because your partner makes more money than you? Or because they have a superior money mindset? Maybe they always seem to have money for fun while you keep struggling to pay the bills.
Whatever the reason, financial jealousy is toxic and can inflict severe damage on a relationship.
If you’re feeling financial jealousy, talk to your partner about it. See if there’s anything they can do to help you feel more secure. And if you can’t seem to shake the feeling…
8. Seek professional help
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to financial inequality in a relationship. But seeking professional help is a healthy place to begin.
By consulting with a money coach or therapist, you can get unbiased, expert advice on how to navigate various financial hurdles that you face as a couple—whether it’s financial infidelity, student loan debt, or simply learning how to communicate about money.
9. Remember, money isn’t everything
It’s easy to get wrapped up in financial matters and forget what’s really important—a happy and fulfilling relationship. So, take a step back every now and then and remind yourself that money isn’t everything.
Understand that financial inequality is just one aspect of your relationship, and there are many other ways through which you can show your love and commitment to each other.
10. Avoid assumptions
Finally, avoid making assumptions about your partner’s financial situation. Just because they make more money than you doesn’t mean they’re financially secure. And the fact that you earn less doesn’t make you financially incompetent.
Making incorrect assumptions about your partner’s financial situation will further widen the relationship gap and lead to financial infidelity.
Communicate openly and honestly about your concerns, and be willing to hear your partner’s side of the story. These conversations will go a long way in building trust and intimacy—both of which are essential for handling financial inequality in a relationship.
At the end of the day, income inequality shouldn’t be a dealbreaker in a relationship. With effective communication and a willingness to compromise, you can overcome financial disparities.
Also, remember that money isn’t everything—so don’t let it come between you and the one you love.
If you and your partner are struggling to set up a monthly budget, download the Stackin app and take control of your money!