For all of our five-year marriage, plus the several years we lived together before that, my husband and I made roughly the same amount of money and so split household bills and savings 50-50. This went into our joint account. The remainder went into our personal accounts for personal stuff, which included clothes, toiletries, trips we took separately, etc. This worked just dandy.
I went back to school during the pandemic and will graduate this spring into a much higher paying but very demanding field. We’ve lightly but not definitively discussed changing the split of joint bills to be proportional to income. In theory, this sounded fair, but as we get closer, I find myself feeling a little resentful about the idea. Yes, I will be making more money. But I will be, and have been, working my ass off for it! It doesn’t feel quite fair to be paying 75 percent of something I still only use 50 percent of! (If that: My husband works from home, is self-employed, and watches a lot more TV than I do.) I want the full benefit of that bigger salary I’m busting my butt for. I haven’t gone on a girls’ trip in three years, I haven’t bought a new purse, I’ve deferred car maintenance, I stopped getting manicures and massages — I want all those things back! And it’s not just luxuries. I want to pay off my credit card in full and pay off student loans and max out my 401(k). Paying this much bigger chunk of the joint bills takes a big bite out of my ability to do those things. But it also doesn’t seem fair to split things 50-50 when I make so much more.
I know this is sort of silly and selfish, but it’s lingering. How do I talk to my husband about it in a constructive way and figure out a solution that leaves us both feeling good? Is there a solution?
I love your question because it cuts to the heart of everything that makes sharing finances difficult. How do you split expenses when one person earns more or works harder (not always the same thing), or when one person gets more use or enjoyment from that expense? What is “fair,” and what do people “deserve”? Most important, how do you protect yourself from the creeping, relationship-killing snake in the grass that is resentment?
First of all, congratulations on all that you’ve accomplished; I’m thrilled you’re being rewarded for it. I can understand why you’re having some, shall we say, reservations about sharing such a big chunk of your new paycheck with your husband if doing so will infringe on your ability to put money into things you value and have had to sideline during the past few years (like paying off debt, saving for retirement, and treating yourself to things you enjoy).
I also agree that neither of the options on the table (a 50-50 versus an income-proportional split) sounds right for your current situation. But luckily for you, there are infinite other solutions. And you don’t have to pick just one — if something isn’t working, you get to change it.
Reading your letter, I was curious about how your husband feels about all of this. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he cares deeply about your feelings and doesn’t want to freeload off your new, hard-won paycheck. But there’s only one way to know for sure: You have to talk to him about it.
“A lot of people think they must have a solution in mind before they bring up issues like how money should be allocated or how financial boundaries make them feel,” says Amanda Clayman, a financial therapist based in Los Angeles. “In reality, it’s more helpful to think of a resolution as a series of steps that begins with an open-ended conversation.”
First, acknowledge that you’re grappling with this and that you want to explore it with him. “Start by articulating the problem and trying to establish a connection with your husband,” says Clayman. “You want to feel like you’re both looking in the same direction, facing the problem, as opposed to facing off against each other and seeing the other person as the problem.”
I also want to emphasize that you are not silly or selfish for having this problem in the first place. (However, it would be silly — and even a little selfish — to stew and complain about it instead of doing the challenging, self-reflective work of finding a compromise.) A more constructive approach is to frame the discussion as an act of faith in your partnership, says Manisha Thakor, a certified financial planner and the author of MoneyZen: The Secret to Finding Your “Enough.” “Left unaddressed, this issue will fester,” she explains. “Bringing it up actually honors the importance of love and harmony in your marriage.”
You could say something like, “I know we initially talked about splitting our expenses in proportion to our incomes. But the more I think about it, the more it makes me feel uncomfortable. I really don’t want this to become a source of conflict in our marriage, so I was hoping we could explore some other paths. How does that sound to you?” (For more tips on initiating money conversations with a significant other, see here.)
You should also mention exactly what you told me: You have some important financial goals you want to focus on. A critical point is that these goals don’t benefit only you; they’re good for your marriage, too. Even if your credit-card debt and student loans are in your name and don’t directly affect your husband, they do spill over into your household finances. For instance, paying off your credit cards will save you a bunch of money in interest, thereby freeing up more cash for individual and joint costs. Your debt also influences your credit score, which affects your ability to make major purchases as a couple. And maxing out your 401(k) reduces your collective taxes (assuming you file together). It will also serve both of you in your golden years when you’re living off a bigger savings.
I want to know what goals your husband has, too. “Whenever we’re working with couples, we stress that it’s important to have individual goals but also to communicate about them and be on the same page about them,” says Chidozie Ibeabuchi, a money coach who provides financial-counseling services with his wife, the financial therapist Jasmine Ramirez. “Regardless of whether it’s your goal or my goal, it will impact the household overall, so you want everyone to be aware and onboard.” While you’re at it, what are your joint goals? Do you want to buy a home, invest more, or take a cool trip? Get those down too.
Your second step is to enlist some support. You’ve begun this process already (by reaching out to me, for starters), but it may also help to talk to friends or classmates from grad school who are in a similar boat of earning significantly more or less than their partner does. “Creating a network will help you get information and ideas for how other couples and households deal with this,” says Clayman. “It will also destigmatize these topics. And your husband could benefit from doing the same.” You could even try speaking to a financial therapist individually or together if you feel you need additional scaffolding.
Third, it’s time to brainstorm ideas and workshop them. “There won’t be a linear fix,” says Clayman. “Instead, you want to compare different options. Like, ‘What would it look like to split joint expenses 60-40? Or maybe I could take an extra $10,000 a year for my individual goals and then we split housing 75-25?’ These can be as broad or as granular as you want. The point is to talk through the pros and cons of each so no one feels trapped into saying “yes” to something they’re not sure about.”
Another option I’d put forth: What if you were to spend your new paycheck exactly as you want (on travel and luxuries as well as maxing out your 401(k) and paying down your debt) and continue dividing household finances 50-50 for a limited period of time — say, six months or a year — and then commit to reevaluating? Presumably, your husband is still making the same amount of money he has all these years while you had equal incomes, so keeping the status quo for joint costs won’t put him at a financial disadvantage. Then, after you’ve gotten some spending out of your system and are feeling more financially secure, you may be ready to pay a bigger portion of the joint expenses. (Or not, but at least you’ll both know what that looks like, which will be helpful for guiding your decisions.)
Another option is that you could cover more “extras” while your joint expenses remain equally shared. For example, my husband and I always split the rent 50-50, but when I was making more money, I paid for most of our discretionary expenses, like going out to dinner, travel, etc. Now we split our household expenses by category (he covers child care, I pay for food and other home purchases), rather than dividing anything in half.
Ultimately, none of your solutions will be permanent, and the most essential part of this process is that it will be iterative. “Jasmine and I have been together almost eight years, and during that time frame, we’ve done a major overhaul of our joint finances three different times,” says Ibeabuchi. “We had one system when we were dating but living separately. Then we created a new process when we moved in together and then again when we got married. It’s an open and fluid dialogue. We can try something out, whether it’s structured around a time frame or a specific goal, but then we can always pivot.”
Resentment typically builds when couples feel as if they’ve signed up for something they can’t get out of, he adds. (Sound familiar?) The key to solving this isn’t just about calculating a split that’s perfectly “fair” (whatever that means) and sticking with it forever — it’s about checking in regularly, hearing each other out, trying new ideas, and changing things up when they stop working.