Being in a serious relationship with a partner means taking an active role in each other’s financial lives—and melding your pasts and presents into a shared financial future.
But what if one partner makes significantly more than the other, or if one of you grapples with student loans while the other lives debt-free?
While navigating an income or debt disparity can feel tricky, it's the norm for many couples. A recent study conducted by Morning Consult and Insider found that more than three in four couples had some sort of income imbalance before they started dating. And with the uncertainty of COVID, the ongoing Great Resignation and U.S. household debt at an all-time high, it’s safe to say many couples have had to adjust to new financial dynamics.
As with any issue in a relationship, communication is key. Simply knowing where you and your partner stand on financial issues helps you work together toward solutions. But navigating a significant income or debt gap sometimes requires additional help to keep guilt or resentment at bay.
We spoke to clinical psychologist Dr. Carla Manly, Ph.D., and therapist Dulce Orozco, LMHC for expert insight into how to tackle income and debt disparities as a team—and come out of it stronger than ever.
Lead with compassion and honesty
Income and debt disparities can trigger complicated emotions, including shame, guilt, and embarrassment. Give each other permission to talk about your feelings and finances without fear of judgement.
“The simple acts of acknowledging, naming and sharing emotions can be extremely connective,” says Dr. Manly. “Plus, when partners share their feelings and fears openly, conversations are far less likely to be hijacked by suppressed emotions. Honesty builds a sense of teamwork by increasing trust and safety in the relationship.”
Your language goes a long way to making difficult conversations easier. “Couples who use ‘we’ language are far more likely to feel strongly bonded than those who use ‘I’ or ‘you’ language,” Dr. Manly explains. “It’s better to say ‘We can create a healthy financial future by mapping out a solid plan’ than ‘I can see that you need to get your finances in order.’”
Look beyond your bank accounts
When it comes to supporting your partner, money isn’t everything. Handling a debt or income disparity calls for taking a higher-level look at what you both bring to the relationship, including contributions that don't involve money.
“We have been conditioned to give more value to things according to their monetary connection. Nevertheless, there are other ways to look at what each person offers, such as time and energy,” says Orozco. “I am constantly encouraging stay-at-home moms and dads to stop saying they don't work. In reality, they are continually working—they’re just not getting paid for it.”
Recognizing each other’s contributions helps you appreciate the unique strengths each partner brings to the relationship, helping to keep money matters in perspective. It also helps you decide how to fairly split expenses, even if one partner ends up paying significantly more than the other.
Dedicate time to each partners’ priorities
Navigating an income or debt gap isn’t always easy, but giving each partner a turn to put their needs first can help stave off guilt or resentment, says Orozco.
Break your financial planning down into phases, and set time frames where you’ll focus on one partner's needs, she advises. “After paying one partner's student loan or working on improving one partner's credit for a year, the following year may be a time to invest in the other partner's career by hiring a business coach, for example.”
Set goals (and celebrate your wins)
Major financial milestones can take months or years to reach, but working together to set specific goals keeps you on track, says Manly. “Partners who have specific, team-oriented goals tend to feel more invested in the relationship overall. And when finance-oriented goals are created by both partners, there’s a natural desire to create a successful outcome.”
Strengthen your bond by taking time to celebrate your successes along the way, she advises. Mini-celebrations—like a romantic dinner at home or a fun-filled staycation once you've met a goal—give you a chance to appreciate each other without breaking your budget.
Make financial planning fun
Money conversations can feel heavy, so infuse some fun in the process. Use humor to lighten the mood, or cozy up with your favorite treats while you chat, recommends Manly. “Never underestimate the mood-boosting power of ice cream!”
Wrap up your money discussions with an activity you both enjoy, like a night out at your favorite restaurant or an invigorating hike. “Conversations about finances can feel lighter when partners know that an uplifting reward is waiting,” says Dr. Manly.
Finally, tackle Upwise challenges together to make money management more enjoyable. Upwise is designed to help you form positive financial habits, so you can reach your goals and focus on a bright financial future with your partner.