7 Ways To Make It Work If Your Spouse Earns Less Than You

Don’t let money come between you and your spouse.
Couples<i> can</i> successfully navigate sudden financial and career changes, experts say.
Couples can successfully navigate sudden financial and career changes, experts say.

People in relationships change over time ― and so do their paychecks.

When you met your spouse, you may have been on equal footing financially. But as your career trajectories changed so, too, did your individual earnings.

You may have cheered on your wife when she took a pay cut to work at the startup of her dreams, or been completely supportive of your husband in the wake of a job loss ― but you still might feel uneasy about the financial imbalance.

So how do you navigate your career and maintain your relationship if you’re earning considerably more than your spouse? Below, marriage therapists and financial advisors share seven tips for making it work.

1. Discuss what’s changed, how you feel about it and your financial future.

Times have changed, but rigid gender expectations about who should be the breadwinner are a little slower to keep up, unfortunately. A recent Harvard University study suggested that husbands who don’t have full-time employment face a higher risk of divorce than husbands who work full time.

Ideally, you and your spouse have already talked about your feelings surrounding money and financial roles. If not, now is the time to start, said Beatty Cohan, psychotherapist and author of For Better, for Worse, Forever: Discover the Path to Lasting Love.

“Couples need to sit down and discuss the changes in circumstances and if needed, re-negotiate their financial plan,” she said. “For instance, I have a patient who became a full-time stay-at-home father, to help defray the cost of childcare. You have to be willing to discuss options.”

2. Try not to think of it as “your money.”

Remember that your shared income is just that ― shared income, said Roxana Maddahi, a wealth advisor at Steel Peak Wealth Management in Southern California.

“The most successful relationships I’ve seen are those where the partners value each contribution made to the marriage, with income being one piece of a larger puzzle,” she said. “Each spouse brings in their own contribution, even if one is less quantifiable.”

3. Continue to make decisions together and split responsibilities.

If you earn more money, make an effort to balance power in other areas of the relationship, said Isiah McKimmie, a couples therapist and sexologist in Melbourne, Australia.

“Power imbalance is a killer to passion and intimacy in a relationship,” she said. “Make sure that you’re still making decisions together where possible. Studies show that couples who work as a egalitarian team have higher relationship satisfaction and more sex than couples where duties aren’t shared.”

4. Be fair about expenses.

While couples often share one bank account, that doesn’t always have to be the case, said Alan Whitman, a Morgan Stanley managing director and financial advisor in Pasadena, California.

“If a couple insists on separate accounts, they can try addressing household costs based on the percentage of what each partner makes individually instead of dividing the bills in half,” he said.

For instance, if one spouse brings in 75 percent of the income and the other spouse makes 25 percent, the expenses can be shared in a similar ratio.

5. Don’t undermine your own success.

While it’s important to consider your spouse’s feelings, if you’re currently on a career high and feel totally empowered by it, your S.O. should be supportive of that, said R. Scott Gornto, a marriage therapist in Plano, Texas.

“Stay an adult in the relationship: meaning, don’t bring yourself down if you become successful,” he said. “Stay true to your goals. Listen to your own voice.”

6. Don’t make your spouse feel guilty for bringing in less.

Because of inheritances, settlements and stocks options, overnight financial imbalances happen more often than people realize, said Bradford Pine, a wealth and financial advisor in New York City. The key to navigating the situation is to never make your spouse feel guilty for earning less, Pine said.

“Besides, it’s very possible that fortunes could change in the future and you may need your spouse’s financial and emotional support,” he added.

Instead of arguing over unequal earnings, remind yourselves of your shared financial goals, Pine said.

“Paying off your debt, increasing your net worth and saving for retirement should be done as a team regardless of who considers themselves the breadwinner.”

7. If you are the more successful partner in your relationship, take the Stedman and Oprah approach.

When you and your partner are at odds, pause and think of Oprah Winfrey and her long-time love Stedman Graham: Though Stedman has his own successful career as an author and entrepreneur, he probably realizes he’ll never make as much money as Oprah. (Seriously, who could?)

Still, he’s confident enough to not feel threatened by his partner’s mega-success, said Becky Whetstone, a marriage and family therapist in Little Rock, Arkansas.

“As for Oprah, you can bet she doesn’t rub his nose in it or consider herself better or more worthy of a person than him,” Whetstone said. “Be like O and recognize that it takes a special person to be that humble and comfortable in their own skin. That person is definitely your equal.”

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