In our series Not A Trophy Wife, we ask women how they feel when they earn far less than their significant other. We've chatted with a nonprofit worker helping her pharmacist husband flip houses, a woman who gave up her career in Thailand for her husband, and a marketing analyst dating an investment banker.
In our tenth installment, we chat with a 32-year-old woman who makes $28,000—with $100,000 in student loans— dating a 33-year-old woman who makes $175,000.
How did you meet your current partner?
"We met 4 years ago through a mutual friend at a party. I was in this single phase where I was having a lot of fun dating around NYC, as you do. So at the time I was dating this guy and it was on and off, but when I met this girl, I was like, we could totally hang out. She was smart and funny and cute, and I thought, for sure we could be friends. But after we hung out, she made the first move. She asked me, 'Can I kiss you?' And I was like, 'Yes. This is awesome.'
Pretty quickly we realized, oh this is what it’s like to really feel that thing. We hung out for three weeks or so, but she was planning on moving to another state for job. So we said goodbye, thinking we would never see each other again. But after a month apart, I was like, what if… so we decided to see where it would go. She ended up not moving, and we've been dating for four years."
What a story! Where were you two in life when you met each other?
"The entire time we’ve been dating I’ve either been a grad student, or this year, I was an adjunct professor, picking up English classes at various universities in the city. I graduated with a PhD. after six years last May.
My partner has been in tech for the last 10 years or so. She worked at one start up and had super crazy burnout, so she was taking a little time off when I met her, which was awesome because we got to hang out a lot. She pretty quickly got this other job at this small tech startup, and she’s gradually made more and more over the last four years. She definitely makes more money than anyone I know. "
When did you find out how much money she made?
"She took a long time to tell me her salary because she was nervous it would make me feel different. When she finally told me, I was like, oh my god. That is so much money. Back then, she made around $120,000. Now, I don’t even know. I think $175,000, maybe, because she gets bonuses and shit.
Before she told me, I thought she made $80k, which still felt like a lot — it was 4 times what I was making — but she would also talk about investments, and how she didn't have any student loan debt. She also lived alone and had her own place.
The thing is, she doesn't live very lavishly at all. She doesn't want to throw her money away; she doesn't want to go to dinner and accidentally drop $75. She saves a lot of money. "
And what's your financial situation like?
"This year, with teaching, I’m probably going to make around $28,000. But I do have a ton of loans — I got my masters before I got my PhD, came straight out of undergrad, so now I have almost $100,000 in student loan debt. Luckily, I had a fully-funded PhD. program, but you can’t live on $20,000 a year in NYC. And since I haven’t been paying it, because I haven’t made enough money and I’ve been a student, it’s been ten years of that ballooning, slowly accumulating into a massive amount of money. It's super stressful. I graduated last year, and it's like, oh shit, I have to figure this out. Thank god I have my partner, because I'm terrified."
How did you tell her about your student loans?
"I rage cried the first time we talked about my student loans. One day, she came home and was like, you should read this book. It was an awesome financial book that tells you how to save and think about investments, but I was like, 'I don't think you understand. I don't have positive income. I'm so terrified about how much debt I'm in, I can't even have this conversation.' In some ways it totally mirrors how she didn’t tell me how much money she made. I was worried to tell her that I have $100,000 in debt.
And you know, I don’t know why she reacted the way she did, but she has just been so compassionate. She understands that the system I’ve been in is a shitty one and it doesn’t value what I do. Honestly, I took less time in grad school than most, and worked while I did it, and taught while finishing my dissertation. This is what I’ve always wanted to do, and I’m good at it, and she gets that. Mostly, she’s amazed by how much student loan debt can balloon. My interest rates are insane. No one would have a mortgage rate at 8.5%."
How has she helped you with your loans?
"When I started realizing that my loans were real and I had to start paying it all back, there was so much information about what to do about it. Her strategy has just been to figure it out. She’s like, 'Knowledge is power,' and I'm like, 'Knowledge is the realization that I’m going to be in debt forever and die penniless.'
I finally said, 'Hey, I need help in doing this research, and I need us to sit down with our computers and do this thing together. So we had this long Google doc that we both contributed to, and we went through everything. She realized that dealing with debt isn't just an emotionally fraught thing, it’s also a huge amount of labor to sift through all this information."
How did you two manage splitting costs in the relationship?
"I think the real conversations about how splitting would work was when I moved in, a year into our relationship, and we needed to figure out the rent situation. We don’t split it down the middle, because of our different salaries. So we just decided on a number ($500) for me to pay her, because I moved into her place. But we figured it out by income later, and it would have been like, $200 a month for me.
There have been months where it was like, can I not pay this month? But it takes so much for me to ask for help or ask for what I need. Part of the shame of not having a lot of money is being like no, no, no, I got this, I got my own way. I was trying to pay $500 a month, but after I graduated, I was like, hey listen, we should talk about this. I wasn’t sure if I could get a job, and I kept wondering, how should I think about this? Are we a unit? Are we a partnership? Or am I own my own? Do I have to move? It forced us to have those conversations early on, and I think we’re really strong because of it."
How did those conversations about your job prospects and the idea of you moving home go?
"She basically understood that our jobs are different. She knows what I do is really important, and she respects my desire to be a teacher. It’s not that I don’t work hard, or that I’m lazy, it’s just that society values what we do differently. She’s always been like, I make this much money, and I know it’s not fair that you don’t make as much. She doesn’t want me to move home or move away, and she said, 'I can provide this. Just let me do this because I love you and I want to help you and I have the means to do it. And maybe one day it will reverse and you will have to help me out.' She trusts that I would do that in a heartbeat if I could.
There are also different sorts of labor that you can do. She works longer hours away from home, so I end up doing the laundry a lot more, and doing the dishes and cleaning up the house because I’m home more, and I realize she’s out making the money that pays most of the rent."
Have you started to plan for the future, financially?
"We got domestic partnered yesterday, for health insurance purposes, since we’re planning to move to another state and I'm going to lose my insurance. We have talked about getting married, but I feel weird about ever having her take care of my loans. It’s not something she ever had anything to do with; it’s not something she’s planned for.
I don’t have any savings at all. I’m not even living paycheck to paycheck. But she knows exactly how much her retirement account has — her aggressive one and her regular one — and has a marriage and wedding fund, a house fund.
I definitely understand that her savings is beneficial to me, if I’m the one, but we’re in a holding pattern right know because I don’t know what my longterm job is going to be. In the next year, I’m going to have to get that decided — whether I end up being a public high school teacher that has a retirement and a pension, or something else. So many of our conversations are like, ‘Well when you get a job, then we can have this conversation.’"
Would you ever date someone like yourself?
"I would be a deal-breaker for me. I would never date someone like me, that would be terrible. I don’t know how she’s okay with it, but thank god she is."
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity. Have a story you'd like to share? Email us here.