Sylvia, 31, is a high-school English teacher in Austin, Texas, and about to move in with her boyfriend, James. They’ve been dating for a little over two years. She wants a future with him, but she’s already anxious about the next steps of their relationship because — well, put simply, he’s very wealthy and she’s not. James not only makes more money than Sylvia (he works in real estate), but he also has a large family inheritance; his siblings don’t even work at all. Sylvia, on the other hand, has two roommates, lives frugally, and is still paying off her student loans.
She’s stressed about apartment hunting; he’s used to paying a lot more in rent than she is, and she doesn’t want to seem cheap, but she also doesn’t want to bankrupt herself just to keep up. He has offered to cover more than half — in fact, he suggested it — but she takes a lot of pride in her financial independence, and she wants to pull her own weight in the relationship. Still, a nice apartment would be … nice. What should she do? She’s scared of looking like an opportunist, or becoming dependent on his money. How can she share a life with James when there’s such a huge gap between them, financially?
Perhaps there are some women who’d love to be in your situation, Sylvia, but your concerns are well-founded: No one wants to be a cliché. You’ve been with James long enough that you’ve surely encountered a jerk or two who assumed you’re after his money, and I bet that stung. You might even have a chip on your shoulder about it, and be extra eager to prove that James’s money has nothing to do with your relationship. And that’s commendable, but it’s also not true. James’s money is part of your relationship, because it’s part of him.
Over the next couple of months, you and James can do one of two things: (1) You can ignore the elephant sitting in the middle of the apartment you’re guaranteed to fight over, or (2) you can engage with it. “I call this ‘the financial three-way,’” says Manisha Thakor, the CEO of MoneyZen Wealth Management and author of Get Financially Naked: How to Talk Money With Your Honey. “When a couple is dating, money is in two buckets — it’s just ‘yours’ or ‘mine.’ But once things get more permanent, a third bucket is introduced: It becomes ‘yours,’ ‘mine,’ and ‘ours.’ That transitional phase can be a horrible gray area, but I believe that truth is the best disinfectant.”
Thakor recommends a mathematical approach, at least for the big stuff — like, say, your apartment. “Tactically, a clean way to handle it is to do an income-proportionate split,” she suggests. “Take your two incomes, add them together, and that’s your denominator. If he makes $80,000 and you make $20,000, then he pays 80 percent of the rent, and you pay 20 percent.” There’s no need to adhere to this division across the board, but it provides a good baseline.
But no matter how carefully you allot your expenses, you may still find yourself grappling with the deeper psychological aspects of shacking up with a wealthy man. This is like being the proverbial frog in hot water: the temperature starts out nice and warm, but how do you keep perspective when the new normal keeps rising? My friend Daphne jumped into that pot over a decade ago, when she met her boyfriend (now soon-to-be husband) in New York. “On our second date, he said that he had something to tell me that I might not like. And I thought, ‘Oh god. He has a girlfriend,’” she recalls. “He said, ‘ have a trust fund.’ And it was definitely a turnoff. But I also loved that he knew I would feel that way. We’ve both been very honest with each other from the beginning.”
Daphne grew up in a working-class family, so her boyfriend’s lifestyle was jarring at first — and still is, at times. “I’d had jobs since I was 13, and I went to a private high school on scholarship, so I was used to being the non-rich person among rich people, and I had a lot of confidence attached to being the hard-working, scrappy kid,” she says. “Then, all of a sudden, I could eat out at all of these nice restaurants and go on these cool trips. It was more of an identity crisis than a relationship conflict.” She tried to keep up, and then realized she couldn’t. “A word of warning: When you start dating someone with money, you pay for things you really can’t afford, just out of pride,” she says. “It’s very easy to lose track of what your actual expenditures versus earnings are.”
Like you, Sylvia, Daphne struggled with the rent quandary: When she and her boyfriend moved in together, she told him that she wanted everything to be even, but then decided to go with the income-proportionate route. Daphne feared the same judgment that you do, Sylvia: “I remember my relatives being very disapproving that it wasn’t 50-50,” she says. “And there was always the understanding that if we broke up, I’d be the one to move out.” And then, of course, there’s the dilemma of ownership — exactly how much should you appreciate this money? “I never want to be too comfortable,” says Daphne. “It’s like, ‘How much am I allowed to enjoy this if I didn’t get it for myself?’ There’s that weirdness every day, all the time. It doesn’t really go away, at least in my case.”
She and her partner are getting married in the fall, and they’re currently putting together a prenuptial agreement that will provide for her retirement, as she hasn’t contributed to a 401(k) since her partner started supporting them both. She’s always kept an emergency fund (balance: $12,000), and she sets small financial boundaries within the relationship (she pays her own student loans, and whenever they travel, she manages their budget and buys her own plane ticket). “I still have a lot of pride in being able to provide for myself, even if I don’t,” she says. “The most important thing is that my personal relationship with spending has never changed. I still buy my clothes at H&M, and $10 is still $10 to me — there’s been no inflation in my view of money. I’m still a cheapskate at heart. The rest is just padding.”
For Andrea, an elementary-school teacher married to a partner at a law firm in Pennsylvania, the income disparity between her and her husband was more of a gradual development. They met in college and lived together while he was in law school; she taught and waitressed while he lived off of student loans, and they split every bill down the middle. However, once he graduated and got a job at a law firm, their incomes began to divide sharply. “As his salary continued to increase, his bonuses were sometimes equivalent to an entire year’s teaching salary, and we started talking about what would make more sense for him to pay for,” Andrea says. “At first, I felt less in control of our finances, and that I didn’t have an equal say in financial decisions — like whether we should spend our money on vacations versus home renovations. Through lots of open and honest conversations, we are now at a place where we feel equal.”
Their sense of parity also comes down to a mutual respect. “I think part of my peace with this comes from my line of work versus his,” says Andrea. “I don’t make much money, but the work I am doing feels more significant than his (he works in investment management, and agrees with me on this). Also, we both usually ‘work’ about the same amount, so it’s not like one of us isn’t doing anything while the other works his or her butt off.”
As with all relationship issues, communication is your number one weapon against mounting anxieties and their byproducts (bad financial decisions, fights, and worse). But just as important: Be confident in the money bucket you’re bringing to the table. Chances are, your shared finances will include more of his funds than yours (or none of yours at all), and that’s just fine — it doesn’t make you any different as a human. And finally, remember that James probably feels weird about this, too. “You need to understand that the person with more money has a complicated relationship with it as well,” says Daphne. “It’s not necessarily easy for them, either.”