Income Inequality In Relationships

To steal the immortal words of a poet, “It’s a long and winding road…”

Recently I wrote about how because of the different types of matching programs that Mr. PoP and I have on our work 401Ks, we could do some tweaking and maximize our maximize our 401K employer matches across both accounts without increasing our employee contributions.  Basically, it would get us about $1.5K/year in additional matching funds without costing us anything – after all, we have combined our finances 100% so it doesn’t matter to us whose name the 401K funds are in.

Part of that analysis showed that Mr. PoP and I are currently earning pretty similar money these days.  But our incomes weren’t always on par with each other, and there’s a decent chance that will change again in the future.  So how does this play a role in our marriage?

The Past: She Earned More Than He

When we first got married, I made a lot more than Mr. PoP, especially when he took a minimum wage job that we saw as a long-term business opportunity.  At that time, I was making just a little less than I am now, which was significantly more than Mr. PoP.  We both knew whose income was paying the bills.  But what was the dynamic like?

Mrs. PoP:  Honestly, I’ve never been the bra-burning feminist type, so I wasn’t viewing my relative paycheck size as a “big win” for womankind.  But at the same time, I’m also not of the traditional perspective that a husband must always out-earn a wife and be a “provider”.  It just was what it was.  Even though I was contributing more monetarily in the short term, we both thought that Mr. PoP’s minimum wage job had great long term prospects, so I really considered his minimum wage paychecks as him working toward funding our future while I was funding more of the present.

Mr. PoP: I was OK with this, but we both knew it was for a limited time-6 months at most. Later on, when I was out of work for a month or so, and then not making any real money at my sales job for the first month, it felt bad. Accurate description below:

I consider myself pretty enlightened about gender roles, but suddenly having no job and letting my DW bring home the bacon was brutal. You would think that I could have relaxed and hung out with the cat or something, but I was pretty depressed during that time.

The Present: We Earn About The Same

When the business opportunity didn’t pan out as we had really hoped, Mr. PoP started over.  And he went from minimum wage to $80K in a year by working his way up through commission sales.  So this is where we are now.  Our paychecks are within 10% of one another – and a good bonus for one of us or the other could determine who comes out on top at the end of the year.

Mrs. PoP:  The drastic change to Mr. PoP’s earnings has allowed us to accelerate some of our savings and investment goals.  Without that, I don’t know how we would have been able to plan out $100K in debt payment in 27 months or less.   The only big spending change I can remember consciously making in our spending with the extra income was increasing the restaurant budget to allow Mr. PoP room to go out for networking lunches with colleagues once a week without cutting into our “restaurant date” budget.  But I don’t remember a big “whoosh” of relief knowing that I wasn’t the main one responsible for our immediate funding needs.

Mr. PoP: While Mrs. Pop may not have felt a rush of relief, I’m pretty proud of my contribution to our financial goals. I’m good at what I do, and relatively highly paid. Pride isn’t always a good thing, but after going through a few years of making little, the difference in earnings feels nice.

The Future: Good Chance He’ll Earn More, But Who Really Knows?

Looking at the next couple of years, if we stay on our current “tracks” at our jobs, there’s a good chance Mr. PoP is going to out-pace me raise-wise and easily make more money than me.  We’re also getting to the point in our lives where we’re going to have to make decisions about whether or not we want kids in the next few years, too.  There are enough open questions at the moment that it’s hard to say who’s going to out-earn the other in the future.

Mrs. PoP:  The next step up on the corporate heirarchy where Mr. PoP works would be a pretty decent pay boost for Mr. PoP.  But again, other than a few more networking lunches that would be expected of him each month, there wouldn’t be a whole lot else that we would forsee changing about our budget… Unless we decide to have kid-lins.  Biologically, we should figure out what we want in that department in the next few years.  If we go that route, it’d be pretty important to me to spend a decent chunk of time with them, so I’d probably end up going part time or go to flex scheduling at work.  Either way, kid-lins would definitely impede my earning potential in the near-term.  But if we decide that’s what we really want, well… who cares who’s bringing home the veggie bacon, right?

Mr. PoP: Flexibility is one of the nicest parts of being responsible with your money. The decision to have kids or not will be made easier because one of us could stay at home with them and we wouldn’t feel any financial strain. If I was the main bread winner at that point (seriously, bacon, veggie bacon, bread, whats with all the money and food analogies?) that would be fine, especially since Mrs. Pop was so supportive of me following my dreams early on!


How has income (in)equality played a role in your romantic relationships?  Has it ever been a bone of contention or has it been a relatively easy obstacle to maneuver?


50 comments to Income Inequality In Relationships

  • All of our funds are in joint accounts so we never really worry about who earned how much. Truth be told, Greg earns more than me…but I do more of the stuff that saves us money. It probably equals out. But like I said, it really doesn’t matter.
    Holly@ClubThrifty recently posted..My Escape from the “Toxic Employee from HELL”My Profile

    • I think that’s a really healthy way to look at it – but my guess is that a lot of people have pretty major stresses when it comes to earning a different amount than their partner.

  • Oo interesting topic! When I was in University, my fiance was the main bread winner. Now that I’m out and he’s starting his own business, the dynamic has reversed. There’s tension sometimes, but I really don’t mind that I’m making most of the money, especially since it’s only short term.
    Jordann @ My Alternate Life recently posted..Why I’m Not Ready to Buy a HouseMy Profile

    • Good luck to your fiance with his new business! Have you guys combined your finances since you’re not married yet? Maybe that will help with some of the tension?

  • It’s never been a real big issue for us. All of our finances are combined, so we view it as a team effort. It helps us not have animosity towards each other and just makes things easier for us.
    John S @ Frugal Rules recently posted..Hi There, What Can You Tell Me About Yourself?My Profile

    • We’re all about the teamwork, too. We joke around and call ourselves Team PoP. (Okay, substitute our real last name in for PoP, but you get the idea.)

  • In theory, all our funds are in one account and we share all of our money with the exception of side hustle money (that’s our spending money).

    However, we are recent weds and finances can be a touchy issue. My husband wants to feel appreciated and so do I. Sometimes without meaning to, either one of us could make the other feel like we are not making enough money. It’s a WIP.
    savvyfinanciallatina recently posted..The New NormalMy Profile

    • Good point that theory is not always the same as what is in practice. But realizing that both of you can do it to each other is actually a big step towards fixing the problem.

  • I think your PoP outlooks here are healthy. It sounds like Mrs. PoP doesn’t care much about who makes more. And it sounds like Mr. PoP, just like me, cares a little bit. I think that’s natural. We’re okay if we’re making less, but it feels better when we make more (or get a paycheck at all) because it feels like we’re “providing.” Maybe that’s old fashioned, but it just feels good. But again, I think Mr PoP and me agree that making less isn’t some death/doom situation.
    TB at BlueCollarWorkman recently posted..Blue Collar Halloween TipsMy Profile

    • I think it probably is a little old fashioned, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t play a role. Mr. PoP’s probably the more old fashioned out of the two of us, I think. =)

  • I will say that I’ve made more money than my husband for the entire 2.5 years we’ve been married and it has been REALLY hard at times. Not just because I was the bigger breadwinner, but also because I was still 100% in charge of doing everything around the house. At one point, he was going to a training academy full-time (no pay for four months), wouldn’t get home til 6:30, had to polish his boots then go to bed early to wake up at 5. With his weird work hours too, I almost always have to carry the brunt of the housework. I would get really resentful that not only did I have my own full time job, but I was still in charge of all the things a housewife would be in charge of, like bill paying, grocery shopping, appointment making, house cleaning…ugh! Only recently has my husband started bringng home paychecks with four figures on them, and let me tell you it has helped A LOT! Yes, we have a joint account, but I find it hard not to get resentful when one spouse makes 70% of the income, but the other spouse SPENDS 70% for all their schooling. I’m happy to say that we’re finally in a good place financially…

    • Glad you guys are finally in a good place, and sorry for all the stress that it caused you guys at the time. We had our own little battles over the housework, and even though I still end up doing most of it, we carved out specific things that are just Mr. PoP’s responsibilities. No matter how busy he is, he’s still in charge of emptying the dishwasher. It doesn’t sound like much, but it makes a difference for us.

  • Seth

    My wife makes considerably less than I do. We have been married less than a year and it has never been a problem. I handle the money and we both know it is our money. I don’t spend more because I make more, we both have an equal amount to spend.

  • I make more than the wife does and we don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon. Our finances have been combined what seems like forever now and it’s all about “our” money. When we talk about finances it isn’t a he makes/she makes thing. We always make decisions together and I can’t see how a relationship could work long-term without doing so. There are times when she feels like she isn’t contributing though but I always try to remind her that we wouldn’t be able to meet our goals if it wasn’t for her income. You know how women are though…….. and really, veggie bacon? ewww
    Stan @DebtsnTaxes recently posted..Life Lessons From My DadMy Profile

    • After I read your post, I thought about it, and it has been more than half of my lifetime since I’ve tasted bacon. So heck yeah, veggie bacon! Give it a shot… It’s basically salty and crunchy and tastes really good on a VBLT or baked into some corn muffins.

      As to the meat of your comment (haha, couldn’t resist), I think it’s great that you remind your wife that even if she’s not bringing home tons of money that her contributions are important. I know how women are and even if she acts like she doesn’t believe you when you say that, it probably still means a lot to her to hear it. =)

  • Derek makes more then me. It doesn’t bother me, but brings to light that the value of a university degree is losing power. He could start his steamfitting apprentice right out of highschool, I spent 5 years getting my teaching degree. It’s a good thing I like what I do, otherwise I might cry over my degree nightly :)
    Mandy @MoneyMasterMom recently posted..Halloween on the CheapMy Profile

    • Haha, I don’t think your degree is so worthless as to be cried over quite yet =) But you definitely make a good point about how jobs that don’t require degrees let you get started without the delay of additional schooling, and can still be pretty lucrative!

  • My husband’s income has always been about 1/3 of mine because he is a teacher. As long as he’s working, he’s fine with it. I think if he had no job, it would be really bad. I really don’t care either way as long as the bills get paid. We have about the same amount of education, about 8 years after high school. It is sad that teachers get paid so little, but he loves his job and will probably get into admin within the next couple of year. He is getting another master’s right now. That will bump up pay quite a bit and I am cutting my work hours, so we’ll see if we are closer in the future. In about 12 -15 years, we hope to have all passive income, so no one will be the breadwinner!
    Kim@Eyesonthdollar recently posted..Halloween Humor: Random Things I’m Scared OfMy Profile

    • I think the fact that he loves his job so much probably makes the lower pay a much easier pill to swallow. If he hated teaching, he might be much more bitter about his pay.

      We’re aiming for all passive income, before too long, as well =)

  • Nice to have both sides of the story! I have made more than my ex boyfriend and didn’t mind paying for two when I wanted to go somewhere nice, but I felt that money was always a source of tension. Now I make less than BF but we split everything in half so I don’t feel like I am taking advantage, and we don’t want more out of life than what we are already paying for. With a marriage and kids, I would consider all money made common and not worry too much about who makes more.
    Pauline recently posted..No income while traveling? No problem! (part 1)My Profile

    • We had a bit of a pay differential when we were dating, but it didn’t really play too big of a role since even though I earned more for most of that time, we had really similar spending levels when it came to how we spent on each other and our relationship.

  • CF

    Brian and I keep our money separate aside from mutual interests. He has his spending money and I have mine. I earn a bit more than he does but its not a huge problem – I have more student loans to pay off so that’s where a lot of my money goes.
    CF recently posted..3 Ideas for a cheap and frugal HalloweenMy Profile

  • Doesn’t make any difference for us, never has. I make more, at one point, significantly more. After I go back to work off mat leave and giving up 1 day/week we will make about the same since hubby’s raise but with everything being joint money goes into the account and we don’t care who’s it was.
    Catherine recently posted..Does Being Frugal Alienate Relationships?My Profile

    • That’s pretty much how I feel – when it all goes into a big pile I don’t tend to mind who’s shoveling it into the pile at a faster rate. And we don’t really track who “spends” at a higher rate since so much of our spending is shared.

  • Ivy

    I’ve been the sole breadwinner for pretty much all of our 12-year old marriage, first this was related to visa situation/lack of work permit, then we transitioned to stay at home dad situation and in 3-4 years once both kids are in school we’ll have to find a steady state solution

    All our accounts are joint, and we rarely quarrel about money. I manage the bills and investments, but it’s more because I am the numbers person in the household, but we decide on big purchases together, and since we have similar values there is no need to discuss smaller purchases. It really has worked out fine, both when we were neck-deep in six-figure student debt and now when we are doing well, we have a good partnership.

    I am sure I can’t put myself entirely in his shoes, and I am pretty sure I have the better deal in our relationship (having a spouse at home is the perfect flexibility). One thing I know bothers him is the lack of some kind of paycheck as a way to quantify the value of his contributions.

    • I’m sure that with little kids at home a SAH spouse makes a world of difference in terms of being able to focus on work. I have some friends that became SAH or part-time, and others who kept working and relied on day care. The stress level from having to juggle with day-care seems like it is incredibly high from what I’ve seen – so your husband’s contribution would to be more related to “quality of life”, which is not to be trivialized.

  • In the early years I made more than and then for quite some time the same as my husband. When we decided to have a family it was important to us to be there for our kids and since my advancement would require returning to school we felt his career would be our primary income source and worked to make do with one income. So anything I made with my side business would be put in savings or for those extras. We have been blessed with 4 children over a wide span of time through adoption. We also chose to homeschool, so my primary “job” has been teaching, and raising our kids. I maintain our finances as it’s a skillset I’m better at. We have joint accounts and everything is looked at as OURS. It’s been a very wonderful partnership that has now lasted for 29 years and we’re looking forward to and planning for many more. There were sacrifices made with the loss of my steady income over the years, but wise budgeting and mutual decisions on what was most important to us has made our lives rich with many years of the joys and challenges of having a family and caused us to be creative in our ability to travel and do what’s most enjoyable to us as a family. Wouldn’t change the decisions we made for anything. Everyone has to decide what truly works for them, then set that as the goals you work for, and this has been what’s the best for us : )

    • Sounds like your earning history mirrors ours to this point – and may in the future if we end up having children. I hope that in 25 years we, too, look back at a wonderful partnership the way that you can. Thanks for the smile =)

  • In the ups and downs of life, it’s nice to know that you can rely on your spouse when the need arises. My wife have and I have switched roles as main bread winner on occasion, so far without a hitch.

    • It really is a relief to know that we’re okay letting the other lead for a while – and it doesn’t do any damage to our partnership or how we feel about working as a team.

  • I’m glad to see more and more stay at home Dad’s these days, because taking time out for kids really takes a permanent bite out of the salary of whoever stays home with them! It’s just hard to catch back up with peers who have been in there every day plugging away.
    Marie at FamilyMoneyValues recently posted..Clutter, Clutter Everywhere – continuedMy Profile

    • I hope that the permanent salary bite becomes less true over time since my generation seems to put a higher value on both parents spending time with the kids than generations past.

  • I’ve earned more and less than my partner, and right now we are in a similar range, which is nice. But we have different goals, my boyfriend is perfectly happy making a decent income while I want to prove to myself that I can make much, much more than what I currently earn in a salary job. So I think we encourage each other to find what we want in our work but if I end up making way more than him, we’ll both be just fine with it!
    American Debt Project recently posted..How To Be Less Emotional About MoneyMy Profile

    • As long as you’re both supportive of what the other wants, then you should be able to maintain a healthy balance no matter what the income differential might be. Are you guys headed down the marriage path – or am I just being a Nosy Nancy asking?

  • My wife and I combine our money 100%. We make about the same so it isn’t a huge deal. Either way we’re happy when the one of us receives a raise because it’s both of our money.
    It can however, become a major issue when couples keep their finances separate. Some couples have such an in-balance of spending and such that the spouse who makes less feels completely marginalized and yet the spouse making more feels entitled to do what they want with the money earned. That can lead to a disastrous relationship.
    justin@thefrugalpath recently posted..Giving Gifts at Work: Where do You Draw the Line?My Profile

    • We’ve watched this happen with other couples that we know – not only does the one with less feel marginalized, but the one that has more also can tend to spend more thinking “I earned this, I deserve something nice!” (Those are actual words that came out of a friend’s mouth and I tried not to gasp when they did.)

  • I’ve never been married, but I have an ex who I met when we both worked the same minimum wage job. I left the job for a full-time office gig and he eventually quit the minimum wage job and was unemployed, occasionally bringing in $50 on a writing gig. We were living together and I ended up paying the rent on more than one occasion, which was okay since he usually managed to pay me back eventually. I tried to be understanding but we eventually came to the point where he revealed he NEVER wanted to have a steady job and there was no way I could deal with the financial insecurity for the rest of my life. We parted ways shortly thereafter. We didn’t want the same things out of life and our income inequality was just a sign of that huge difference between us.

    I was younger and it wasn’t the only thing that killed our relationship, but it was a major factor and made me realize that planning the future that makes you both happy is integral.
    Jackie @ The Barn Cat recently posted..October Saving, November GoalMy Profile

    • Yeah, that’s tough. I’ve wondered about a boyfriend that I had before Mr. PoP who was very much anti working “within society’s norms” and didn’t seem to have aspirations. It didn’t matter much then, I was 20 and he was cute. But in hindsight, if we hadn’t broken up for other reasons, I’m sure our differing aspirations would have done the relationship in eventually.

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  • T made more than I did while I was studying but ever since I started working full time I’ve outearned him.

    It’s only really an issue because he’s a spender – he makes less but wants to spend more on things.
    eemusings recently posted..Link love (Powered by custard pies and strawberry milk)My Profile

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  • A couple of times I’ve gotten overly sensitive about not bringing in a lot of money while I’m in school, but it’s been because of my own insecurity rather than any injustice on his part. I’m really lucky. He’s amazing in so many ways, and not being a jerk about money is one of them.
    femmefrugality recently posted..Help me earn a $10,000 scholarship!My Profile

    • It stinks to have that kind of insecurity, but it sounds like your hubs is a great one for not capitalizing on the opportunity to be a jerk =) Besides, I think that school is a bit of a special case since your education is probably going to pay dividends for many years in the future!

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