We've talked to many women about what it's like to make less than their S.O. — but there are also plenty of women (although not as many) who earn more than their male partner. Ahead, we chat with one such couple — names changed to Michelle and Chris — about money, med school, and what happens when kids get into the picture.
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On How They Met
Michelle: "Chris was one of the few guys on Match.com who actually asked me out before the 27th email. That was the first reason he caught my eye.
"He was also one of the few guys who didn't seem intimidated by me. We were 27 and 28, and it was getting to the point where everyone I was dating at my age was intimidated by the fact that I was a physician. Once, I was dating a guy who wanted to get into med school. He took the MCATs, and when he got his score back, we broke up two weeks later. It was weird — I asked how he did on the test, and he said he didn't want to talk about it. Next thing I know, we're not talking as much, and then he ghosted on me.
"Chris was different. When Chris and I first met, we could talk about everything. He genuinely seemed interested in what I had to say about work and would ask me really insightful questions, like how I would feel after a bad patient interaction. I think his background definitely helped him; he's a firefighter, so it was interesting to see the other side of things."
Chris: "We met the Thursday before Labor Day of 2013, so that was August 28, at 7 p.m. When I met Michelle, I didn't feel intimidated — I was actually more intrigued. She was a physician, and sure, with those types of jobs, you know the money thing is second nature. But for me, it was more about how she could hold herself in a conversation. She could actually challenge me and teach me things I didn't already know.
"So we saw each other for the whole month of September, and then Tuesday, October 3, we decided, hey, we're not going to see other people. It's just going to be you and me. I proposed to her March 29, 2014, and we got married on the first Friday in January.
"I know the next question is: Why did we get married so fast? Well, we were in our late 20s, on the cusp of 30, and at that point in an individual’s life, you know who you are, and you know your preferences, what you like, what you don’t like, and we just kind of knew, honestly."
On Their First Talk About Money
M: "We didn't really talk about money at first. Until about a year and a half ago, I wasn't making that much. I was a resident, so my salary was about $45,000 a year, about the same as his. When we talked about marriage, even before I started making more, we agreed that it would be silly to separate our spending since we would be living together and sharing a life together. So we decided that all our money would go into one pot.
"Then, I decided not to do a fellowship and started working professionally as a physician, so my salary went up quite a bit. I made about $160,000 my first year; this coming year, I'm expected to make $220,000, because we moved to Texas and I have a higher-paying job as a hospitalist."
C: "We had our first conversation in October. We were going down to see Alabama vs. Tennessee, and we had our conversation during the drive. We found out that we were already on the same page, thinking of money as a resource, not as a goal. Without money, you can’t function, you can’t buy needs and essentials or have fun and enjoy life. So as long as we have money, well, does it matter who makes the money? I told her, the way I look at it, when people are married, it’s 50/50. I’ve seen the negative side of that, when couples withhold things from each other, and I’ve seen the success of couples who don’t view things as solely their own, but theirs and their spouses. So as long as we’re open and honest and we have discussions about where the money goes and we make a budget, I don’t really see an issue with someone bringing in more or less."
On The Move — & Michelle's First Big Paycheck
M: "The move from working as a resident to working as a professional, you end up making more money because you’re billing. And then we decided to move to Texas because I was getting very burned out doing primary care, and it was difficult in Alabama for me, and the paycheck went up again.
"I had been working so hard, and was not making a lot of money for so long, so that first big check was a bit surreal, quite honestly. Then reality hit, and I had to make my student loan payments. That was what most of my money reservations were about: whether Chris would be okay with taking on that much debt from medical school. I have about $150,000, and his paramedic school debt is about $15,000. It's an overwhelming number, so we're doing our best to pay that off and also save for other things like a house and retirement."
C: "Her physician's salary wasn’t something I was looking forward to per se, because that meant we would have to start paying the student loans. But I can remember the first time she got the big paycheck. We had combined our accounts by then, and I was curious to see what kind of dollar amount it was — we check our finances pretty regularly. So I look at it, and I remember saying out loud, 'Oh my God, we’re rich.' Three hours later, I see that dollar amount dwindle down to the student loans, and then to the insurance, and it was just like, all right. That was fun while it lasted.
"The move, though, was a really hard decision to make. We had a very honest discussion where she told me she missed Texas, and missed her family, and I said, you know, if you’re not happy, I’m not happy. Yes, leaving my job in Alabama was difficult. I was in my early 30s, and I was walking away from a job that I really loved and was good at. I was rising through the ranks of my department, and I was a couple of years from being my shift officer. But at the end of the day, it was, which is more important? My wife or my career? I kept asking that, and I kept answering: Michelle is more important. Without a doubt. I thought I was done in the fire service, moving out here. I didn’t know if any of my certifications would transfer over. But now I have a new job at the fire department making $40,000 and a part time job as a medic for $13 an hour."
On Spending Habits
M: "I tend to be more of a saver when it comes to our money, and he tends to be more of a spender. I think that’s a good balance because if it were up to me entirely I would save all of our money and we would be living in a crappy place until we were out of debt. It’s a good combination where we’re enjoying our money but we’re also preparing for the future with each other. It’s just an ongoing conversation that we have several times a week, about our goals, how much we want to save and how much we want to spend. It's like, if you're spending more than $150 to $200, just give the other person a heads-up, so we don't go over our account. We're still at a point in our lives where we don't live that extravagantly."
C: "I’ve definitely culled my spending since being with Michelle. She is more future-oriented in terms of spending, and I'm very much in the present, which is reflected in the careers we've taken. But one time, I downloaded a superhero gaming app from Marvel. I was trying to acquire more superheroes, and I ran out of tokens. For $4.99 you can buy more tokens, and I wanted Wolverine on my team, so I kept clicking for tokens. I ended up spending like $70. I didn’t realize it — I just kept hitting $4.99, and I lost track. Michelle was pretty mad, and I was so embarrassed. I would've stopped at $20 had I known. When I saw I spent that much on something so silly, I thought to myself, come on, you’re better than that. It was a wake-up call. Like, I’m no longer single, I can’t just do whatever I want, when I want. There’s nothing wrong with having fun and having hobbies, but it’s gotta be in context. You’re not your own person anymore. It’s you and your partner."
M: "Kids is definitely a conversation we're having. We hope to have children, we're talking about who is going to take care of the kids, and how we’re going to pay for that. I think it’s a given that I’ll continue to work because of the paycheck I’m bringing in. Also, I really enjoy my job, and I am a good physician. I know it’s arrogant to say, but I’m good at my job. I like what I do, and I worked really hard, and a little longer, to get to where I am. The paycheck is definitely a large part of it, but it’s also that I’ve worked a little bit longer.
"At the same time, I know that he enjoys and gets value from his work, and his work is important as well. Hopefully, we can work out a situation with childcare, whether it’s daycare or getting nannies or babysitters, where we can both continue to do what we like to do. It would only be impractical if we ended up spending more on childcare than he is making in his job, but at the end of the day, my husband’s well-being is more important than however much it might cost. As long as he’s happy, and our hypothetical children are happy."
C: "I do know this: Both of us still some way, somehow, want to work when we have kids. From my standpoint, it’s not about making money. I need an occupation, or I’ll go stir-crazy if I’m in my house for more than 12 hours. Luckily, I work for 24 hours on a shift, then I’m home for 48 hours, and sometimes I'll get a shift off so I don’t have to get paid overtime, so I get five days off in a row. I have some coworkers whose wives have full-time jobs, and they figure out how to get supervision for their kids if they’re not there. So I’m aware that it can be done, and once we cross that bridge, we’ll definitely put together a game plan.
"You know, my friend's wife is an ER doctor, and when they had their daughter, they were dead set that she was going to remain working and that he was going to scale back and take care of more of the parental duties. Once their daughter was born, though, his wife looked at her and thought, no, I want to spend every day with her. So what that conveyed to me is to quit speculating. You never know how we will react until we have a kid.
"But yeah. It could happen. I do know that it is a real possibility, and financially it makes sense that I give up my job. I’ve already given up my job once before, and I know I can do it once more. I do feel like I would be reduced, going from having a cool job — you know it’s cool, it’s different, it’s exciting, it’s dangerous, and it’s fun — to playing it safe and being a stay-at-home dad. Not saying I think less of men or women who decide to stay home and raise kids, but I'm afraid that I'm going to be the athlete who can’t handle retirement."
On Gender Roles:
M: "I definitely know that I’m different from a lot of women that I encounter, in that I make more than my husband. I actually feel very fortunate that I’ve found a guy who is secure enough to handle the fact that I’m successful, and he’s not belittled by that.
"I do think there is still a stigma for men who stay at home. It’s not as common, and I definitely know that Chris is afraid of me making him stay at home to take care of our children. He doesn’t want to be a 'mister mom.'
"And you know, I get it, because he’s right. Even if I weren’t making as much money, I would be very upset to have gone through the training I went through, and then have to stay home with kids for so many years until they are in school, when I can get a part-time job. I can see where he’s coming from. I do think raising kids is a very valuable thing to do, and if you choose to do that by staying at home, there’s value in that work as well, and purpose in that work as well. I guess I get frustrated because I think there’s a societal pressure on people who feel like that’s not a man’s job to stay at home, but fathers are just as important as mothers. It irritates me that the mom is the one who is seen as the one who should stay home. I think having someone who loves and takes care of the children is really what your children need."
C: "So I grew up in a very conservative place on the political and social spectrum — on the religious right for sure. Back in Alabama, a lot of people in our church thought that a woman was supposed to stay at home and take care of the kids — which I don't agree with at all. Michelle was one of four independent, financially successful women at the church who didn't have kids. No matter what we did to go out of our way to be a part of the church, a lot of the women in leadership would just say to her, ‘Well, you’re just a doctor. You don’t understand.’ And it wasn't just women; I wasn’t invited into social circles outside of church, and some of the men would say, 'Yeah I got to worry about meeting this deadline, closing this account, but it would be nice to be you. Not to have to worry about money.' It was petty stuff like that.
"You know, Michelle decided to put herself through medical school and residency all through her 20s, she made a 10-year commitment to her career, and I respect that. No one told her to do that. And they decided to get married and have kids, which is fine and that is their choice. What I did not tolerate was the sentiment that 'my choice was more right than yours.' Their responses caught me off guard. I never thought, I’m engaged to a doctor, I’m marrying a doctor. I just thought of it as her job. But I saw it was becoming a problem, so I started to avoid telling people what she does. I would just say, 'Oh, she works at the hospital,' and I would leave it at that.
"I do hope that this reaches people who have the mentality that men should make money and women should stay home. It doesn't have to be like that. Not all women are designed to be a stay-at-home mom. Like Michael Jordan: That man was born to play basketball. My wife, she was born to be a doctor."