In our series Not A Trophy Wife, we typically ask women how they feel when they earn far less than their significant other. We've chatted with a literature professor struggling with debt while her girlfriend saves for retirement, a woman who gave up her career in Thailand for her husband, and a marketing analyst dating an investment banker.
This time, however, we chat with a 29-year-old woman making $75,000 a year, with her boyfriend making $35,000.
So tell me about your relationship.
"My boyfriend and I started dating in high school. We met my senior year, and dated into my freshman year of college. He’s a year below me in school, so we were doing long distance, and we broke up during my freshman year. You know, we were young, and it wasn’t quite working out. So we were apart for almost 5 years, but then one day I was moving and I found an old photo of us. We started texting and meeting up for drinks, and we’ve been back together for about 6 years.
"When we got back together, he was still in school. He switched his degree several times so he ended up being in school for five years, while I was already out and working full-time in corporate retail in Madison."
How much were you making at the time?
"At the time, I was making $43,000, and he was interning at the company he works at now, and he was grossly underpaid at his internship. It was like, $10 to $12 an hour."
So you work in corporate communications — what does your boyfriend do?
"He’s a graphic designer at a small family-owned interior design firm. He’s a total right-brained creative. He just wants to enjoy life and enjoy what he does, and he’ll just make what he makes. He doesn’t take finances that seriously, and doesn't think about finances the way that I do. He was raised in a family that never talks about money; his parents were always in debt and never trained him to be responsible with money, so that carried through with him. So he and I see things very differently."
How do you mean? In terms of career or finances?
"Financial independence is very important to me. I grew up in a very middle class family, and I’m an only child — my parents were very generous in providing for me even though it was probably beyond their means. You know, the spending wasn’t elaborate, but it was very generous — my parents purchased my first car when I turned 16. When I graduated college, they bought me half of my second car and took out a loan in my name so I could build my credit. They taught me to be very responsible with my money, to never carry any debt, to diversify my money through different savings accounts. And my parents fully-funded my college education; it was right about that time when I realized what a significant investment that was.
"My father is the hardest-working man I know, and he often commented on his struggles with money. I would hear about how much things cost, and expenses, and watching him speak so negatively about finances after seeing how hard he worked, so it really triggered something for me. I realized I never wanted to live a life where I was constantly stressed about money, especially after providing for someone else. I would like to provide for someone and be generous and not have to moan and groan. I want to be able to take care of my parents, which is something I’m worried about given that I’m an only child. So as a result, I’m probably a little too frugal."
How has this shaped your goals for yourself?
"I have pretty significant goals for myself. I really want to be a self-supported woman. I would like to be well-off enough that I would eventually be able to retire a bit early and not have to worry about expenses in retirement, and I’d like to be comfortable enough so I can travel each year and purchase a nice home. And I’ve always enjoyed the freedom that money brings — it’s not about buying a Rolex or a BMW. It’s just about being able to enjoy my life, and knowing that I’m self-funding my dreams and my future goals.
So my plan is to make $100,000 by my 31st birthday. I set that goal sometime in high school. That’s something that has always stuck with me. It’s definitely not the ceiling that I want my salary to be. I’d like my comprehensive net worth to hit $1 million someday, and I know that’s really aggressive, but I’d love to see that million number some day. It could even be a goal for me and my husband in the future. I’d really like to start playing in the stock market soon, it’s just I’m a little intimidated by it at the moment. I recently started working with a financial adviser and I’m about ready to start exploring."
How have you seen a partner playing into that?
"Hopefully, whether it’s my boyfriend or whatever our plan is to get married, but hopefully my partner’s income would complement mine, and I wouldn’t have to depend on him."
Do you see that happening?
"He’s been actively saying that he is going to get a new job for years, he is aggressively working to get a raise. He is in the process right now of negotiating with his bosses for that potential raise, which would be fabulous, but that conversation has been on and off for a year, so I’m not holding my breath."
It does seem like you and your boyfriend have very different goals with money.
"My boyfriend and I are in totally separate places. He is fully supportive of my financial goals and being very aggressive with savings. He just chooses not to adopt the same model for his own personal finances. And for that reason, when we do get married, I don’t think we’ll merge our finances unless he has a dramatic change of heart. Our retirement finances, though, would definitely be combined. I have a really strict budget in place, and we also worked together to get him set up as well. I recently took out a pretty significant life insurance policy, so the cash value of that might help fund our retirement.
"And it's not just about money, to be honest. I have tried to lay off and take a more kind approach and not sound like I’m nagging, but my whole perspective is — I don’t really care how much he earns. I just want him to push himself to the best of his ability in his career and really to do work he loves. If he’s working at a company doing work he doesn’t enjoy, that doesn’t scream inspiration or drive to me."
Has the difference in ambition caused issues with your relationship?
"It’s certainly has caused its share of issues — and we’ve broken up and gotten back together several times, and I knew and accepted his stance when we got back together. I’ve dated very wealthy men, and I’ve had relationships where we were equal, and I knew getting back with my boyfriend that I wouldn’t be dating a millionaire. But I also knew I would be with someone who enjoys the little things in life, someone who can make me laugh. I do find, on occasion, that I get very frustrated with his lack of ambition. But it’s okay."
The two of you have lived together for four years — how do you manage finances?
"Right now we split the rent 65/35. We’ve been living together for a few years now, and we recently moved into a brand new apartment complex. When we moved here, we had a conversation about the rent. I brought to the table what I wanted to pay and what I thought was fair, based on my current income, and he came back and said he’d like to contribute a little bit more. I said, if you think you can make that work, let’s talk through your budget and make sure you have a little bit more saved. So that’s what we ended up on. Everything else is 50/50.
"But typically we managed our finances entirely separately. I don’t watch his budget; I only watch my own. When we go out, I typically cover things, and occasionally, he contributes because he likes to. We do try to split things 50/50 as much as possible, though, my boyfriend doesn’t like to discuss finances, and I like to discuss them a bit too much. So sometimes I'll just grab the check before he can and say, 'There’s no argument. I’ll take care of it.' And if he buys drinks, then I buy dinner."
Has anything changed since the two of you moved in together?
"After we moved in together the first time, they discovered black mold. And I’ve discovered a whole host of health issues — things that are affecting me neurologically. It’s been a huge financial expense and emotional drain. It’s been going on for 2.5 years. It started totally out of the blue. One October day, the entire left side of my body went numb. I was rushed to the emergency room and I thought I was having a stroke, but they did a CT scan and an EKG and both came back fine. Ever since then it’s been a total mystery — no one seems to know if it will get better or how.
"So it’s been really complicated but it’s been a total learning experience as I plan for my future and keep trying to aggressively grow my career while also managing serious health consequences and taking care of our finances and financial planning."
Can you talk about the finances of your health issues?
"I’m working with a lot of naturopathic and functional medicine practitioners which is all out-of-pocket, so my health expenses range anywhere from $1,000 to $2,500 a month, between supplements and practitioners. That’s been a huge strain because it’s coming directly out of my savings. I easily could have saved twice as much in the past three years without these expenses. I had absolutely no idea this would cost so much."
Has your boyfriend been able to help?
"I’ve always managed on my own. And I would never take his money for my own illness. You know, if the circumstances were swapped and he had more money, maybe I would let him help me. But given the fact that he really needs to focus on building his career and building his financial strength, I wouldn’t.
"But it’s very, very stressful for me. I feel like I have a lot of pressure to get well and continue providing for the both of us, and the illness adds a different dimension. In a typical situation, I wouldn’t mind being in control of our finances, and being in control of our financial planning, and being the breadwinner. But when you add in the illness, it adds a certain level of helplessness from my perspective. It would be nice to be able to relax a little bit and trust someone else to pick up saving for retirement, or even just saving for our rent."
Has your health issues changed how you might view the future of the relationship or your financial goals?
"I had always imagined that my relationship would be pretty equal, but it wasn’t until I got into my health situation that I realized that it might not be. You know, it probably will never be equal — and I’m okay with that now. It took some adjusting, but as long as I know that he’s giving his best effort and that we stay on the same page with our goals, it will work. I want to be able to freely travel the world and not have to drain our savings account to do it, and if he is in line with that and working really hard to make that happen too, I’m okay with it.
"After a lot of years and a lot of conversations, it seems like we’re on the same page. We just need to get him there. Or, if he just decides that he doesn’t have the same goals that I do, that’s fine. I’ll re-adjust in some areas. As long as we keep having those conversations."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Have a story you'd like to share? Email us here.