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Ask Lizzie: I Make Less Than My Partner and I Just Can’t Relax About It

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Dear Lizzie,

I have always had lower-paying jobs, graduated with close to $50K in student loans, and feel like I will never make the same amount as my partner. He, on the other hand, never had student loans, always found stable, good-paying work, and is now a successful business owner. It’s caused years of imbalance in household finances — and resentment. I want to feel like I am contributing equally to our household and our life, but I always feel like he has the upper hand, and in many ways, the final say. How do I ever compete?

Thanks,

Anxious in Alberta

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Dear Anxious:

We’re going to get into the question of how to live in a relationship where there’s a high degree of income difference. But first, there are two words from your letter that have been rattling around in my brain like a couple of squawking birds ever since I read them. The first is the word “compete.” I know it’s a common turn of phrase, and maybe it just slipped out. But, frankly, reading that you thought about your romantic partnership in terms of competition put a little pit in my stomach. I think of a good partner as someone who makes you feel supported and loved, like you’re working from a place of common understanding (and even common goals). Not someone who is an adversary. Competition can be so pernicious. I know this because I’m a highly competitive person. Unchecked, it can really make you feel “less than.” And boy does that sound like what’s happening to you.

The second word is “years.” How long has this resentment that you mentioned been building? You don’t quite specify in your question, but I’d have to guess that either you resent his “final say,” or because he resents your smaller monetary contributions. And either way it leaves you feeling small. That’s an exhausting way to live, and you don’t deserve it.

You deserve to feel like an enfranchised, worthy partner in your relationship, and if you can’t, I don’t think it’s the right relationship. So today, we’re going to give you some tools to assess where you are, and to start some vitally important conversations with your partner to help you both get on the same team.

To do that, I turned to a very smart woman, Farnoosh Torabi, with whom I went to grad school. Farnoosh is a personal finance expert, author of the book “When She Makes More,” and has studied interpersonal dynamics around money. And she has seen this kind of thing a lot.

Her first piece of advice (and mine) is that you two need to start talking. I know that’s an easy thing to say, and a hard thing to do. So it might be helpful to use these frames:

  • One, make a date for the conversation. These can be heavy chats, so it’s good to do them when you both have energy and focus, not, say, spontaneously at the end of a long dinner. I can get quite defensive when discussing money (see, we all have our issues) so setting a schedule helps me prepare emotionally.

  • Two, use “I” language. This is generic therapy advice, but it’s always important to make sure that you are speaking to your own experience and emotions. Think: “I feel anxious and like I can’t compete,” rather than: “You have the upper hand.”

  • Three, bring in help! If the things I have outlined above sound too daunting, that’s fine. Farnoosh suggests that talking this through with a therapist or financial coach might be really useful, especially at the beginning, and I think she’s absolutely right.

  • Four. Farnoosh suggests putting aside the money part at first and instead focusing on your goals as a couple. “Maybe it’s affording a home together, paying for childcare, investing for retirement, taking a vacation once a year, etc.,” she told me in an email. “Regardless of who is making how much money, you should still be able to define your shared visions for a happy and productive life.” This can help you realize that you are, indeed, in this together.

OK. Now on to the question at hand: how to feel OK about making less. When I was discussing this with Farnoosh, she shared an anecdote from her life that starts to get at one way to solve this. When her first child was born, Farnoosh and her husband realized that there just wasn’t enough time for them — and her especially — to work. So Farnoosh asked her husband to shift his work schedule around so he came home earlier. “I positioned this ask to my husband, who makes less, as, ‘the single most important thing you can support us with right now,’ and he ran with it,” she told me. She went on. “From this I learned that, at the end of the day, your partner wants to play an important role in your lives. And while, traditionally, that has meant providing money, that’s not the only way to do it. There are other resources and contributions that can be brought to the table.”

If you want to feel like an equal partner, maybe something like this can work for you, in reverse. Are there goals the two of you share together that you can help with in a non-monetary way? But there’s a big caveat here. You have to be sure that anything you bring to the partnership is valued as much as money. This is an idea tons of research supports. You need to have a system where those non-financial tasks are rewarded and appreciated. If you bust your butt to run errands or take on bill-paying or fixing up your house or taking care of your kids and it’s waved away as not real work… well that can breed even more inequality and resentment in a partnership.

Now it’s time to talk about how you organize your finances at your house. From your letter, it seems like you pool your resources. That can be great, but it can also lead to secret mental accounting about who is really paying for what. That’s not the only way. I can tell you how it works in my house. I make more money than my husband, but he’s a better budgeter and accountant. So we sat down and had some tough conversations about how to divvy up what we earn. We decided to pay our shared expenses according to the percent of the gross we each bring in. We have a joint bank account, but we each keep separate accounts as well. Farnoosh is a fan of this method too, because it gives each partner the ability to retain some financial independence. You don’t need to feel like he’s calling the shots if you have an account that you know has your money in it, even if it’s not a lot!

One other thing she mentioned that I think is absolutely key — you have to let go of any gendered notions of what you are bringing to the table. I know that’s easier said than done, but if you fixate on some role you were taught as a child, or see in society, it will only set you up for misery. In my own life, I’ve felt like a bad mom when I realized my husband was doing the majority of the childcare pickup and drop-off. I worried people would think I wasn’t involved, or that I was too focused on my job. But guess what? It’s easier for him to do it, and it gives me an extra hour or so to work, which I desperately need. So I’m learning to let it go. “Not to oversimplify,” Farnoosh said, “but at the end of the day, partners want to feel important and as though they are 'equal players' in a relationship.” She added that “There’s nothing wrong with that. The mistake, though, is when we use our paycheques as the exclusive measure of equality in a relationship.”

All of this brings me back to you. You wrote to me about your relationship and money, but I also want to ask about how you feel about you. Are you happy in your career path? Do you feel fulfilled? You mentioned student debt, which can feel endless. But I want to remind you that low interest debt, if the payments are manageable and it is moving you toward a goal, can be worth it. If you feel good about what you’re doing, are comfortable with the standard of living it has provided you, and can see a path for yourself, then you don’t need to compete with anyone. All you need to do is be proud of where you are. And proud of the fortitude it takes to ask these questions. That courage is going to go a long way toward getting your relationship to a more honest and happy place.

I’m rooting for you.

Lizzie

Lizzie O'Leary is a longtime economic and policy journalist. She hosts the podcast “What Next: TBD” at Slate.

Money Diaries

"MY UNDERGRADUATE ADVISER TOLD ME I SHOULD JUST FORGET ABOUT THE WHOLE WRITING THING. ‘YOU SHOULD FIND A GOOD MAN AND GET MARRIED,’ HE TOLD ME."

Margaret Atwood

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