Mind the gap: overcoming wage differences in a relationship

The Momentum UK Team 14 February 2014

For some couples, one partner earning significantly more than the other can be a source of tension and difficulty. Problems can arise around how the household expenses are divided, and feelings can be hurt if one partner is unhappy with the arrangement. Finding the right option for you as a couple can help you to ease the tension and make the most of your finances together.

What’s the problem?

A wage gap in a relationship can be difficult for a number of reasons. It could be that one partner feels insecure about the amount they earn, or that they feel a pressure to “keep up” with the one who earns more. This can also work the other way, with the higher earning partner feeling under pressure to restrict their spending to the other person’s level. Fortunately, none of these problems are necessarily unsolvable, and a lot of it can come down to the way you choose to organise your finances as a couple. Below we’ve outlined some common methods of dividing household expenses.

Mind the Gap

The proportional method

Jane and Mike live together. Jane earns £3,000 per month, and Mike earns £2,000 per month. As a proportion of their monthly income, Jane earns 60%, so she pays 60% of the bills and Mike pays 40% proportional to his earnings too.

This option means that your wage gap shouldn’t cause too much of a “lifestyle clash”, as you should both be able to afford your share of the expenses. It could also allow you to maintain some financial independence from your partner, as some of your money will remain separate. However, some couples may find that the higher earner starts to feel resentful about paying more, especially if the gap between your salaries is very large.

Raw contributions

This is when, every time a bill comes up, each partner pays half the amount, regardless of how much they earn. This means that the higher earner doesn’t feel resentful and the lower earner doesn’t feel like they aren’t paying their way. However, if you take this approach you will need to make arrangements for what happens if the lower earner can’t afford to pay their share. If there is a substantial wage gap between you, it may also mean that there are times when you can’t both afford to do the things you want to do together or one partner has a lot less “fun money” than the other. Some couples find that this approach feels too much like “housemates” rather than “partners”, whereas others enjoy the independence.

Complete sharing

This is when both partner’s salaries get paid into a joint account which all the bills are paid out of, and all credit and debit cards are held jointly. In this way, “my money” and “your money” become a single pot of “our money” and - in theory - it doesn’t matter who earns what. This can make you feel more like a unit as opposed to separate individuals, which some couples enjoy. Problems may arise, for example if one of you is a big spender and the other is more frugal, or the higher earner feels that the other partner is spending all their money. If you have similar spending habits, you could take a complete sharing approach whilst still keeping separate accounts - where both partners spend independently and transfer money to each other as needed.

Communication is key

There are a variety of ways to deal with a wage gap, but the most important thing is to communicate clearly with your partner - a recent study found that 1 in 5 people actively hide money from their partners. Discussing money openly is important in any relationship, and if you don’t talk about what’s bothering you it can start to seem like a bigger problem than it is. When it comes to dividing expenses, the options outlined above are not the only way to go; every couple is different, and you may decide to use a combination of different approaches. For example you could split household bills 50:50 but decide that the higher earner should pay for dinners out.

Whatever you decide, talking to your partner openly and making important financial decisions together can help you to make your finances work for you both. If you’re thinking of tying the knot, remember that it is a financial commitment as well as a romantic one - take a look at our guide to the things you may need to consider.