Welcome to Taking Stock, a space where we can take a deep breath and try to figure out what the COVID-19 economy really means for our finances. Every month, personal finance expert Paco de Leon will answer your most difficult, emotionally charged questions about money. This year has forced many of us to reprioritize our finances, and there’s no clear road map for getting through the pandemic yet — but Taking Stock is here to help us figure it out together.
Last time, we talked about how to approach splitting money if one person in a relationship makes more than the other. This week, we asked Refinery29 readers not only how they define what feels equal for them, but also how they calculate what to contribute to a relationship — both financially and otherwise.
Do you have a question or dilemma you’d like to see answered as part of Taking Stock? Submit it here or send us an email at email@example.com.
Mallory, 24, New York
"I'm pregnant, so I reduced my work to 15 hours a week, which means $379 take-home pay," says Mallory. "My partner makes $110,000 before tax. I used to make $45,000 take-home before reducing hours."
"We split groceries and rent down the middle, which honestly doesn’t seem fair to me based on what we make," she continues. "He says he wants to feel like we're a team, but I'm left with so much less at the end of the day. He is also so frugal and won’t spend money on nice things, so I end up doing that 100% myself. He gets to enjoy them, but pay nothing."
She and her partner have been in a relationship for four years. She notes that they don't talk regularly about money. They've argued about how much to spend and save before. "He's focused on saving, and I understand saving, but also believe in living in the moment, too," says Mallory. "I feel resentful that we don’t split this proportional to income. I guess I’m mad at myself for not bringing it up directly."
Ariana, 29, South Carolina
"I make $127,808 and he makes $127,800," Ariana says. She has been dating her partner for six years.
Currently, since their income is practically the same, they split expenses evenly. "But we haven’t always made the same amount — in fact, at one point, I was making almost $40K less than he was, but we still usually split everything 50/50," she says. "The only thing he paid more on was our car, but that was because I had a student loan. Now that my student loan is paid back, I split the car payment with him. I couldn’t before because, by the time our bills were paid, I had basically zero dollars leftover. It was just too much pressure and anxiety to not split things 50/50, though, and it didn’t feel fair. It’s not my partner’s fault I made less, so why should he have to subsidize my lifestyle? We sometimes will charge things on one of our (individually owned) credit cards for the points. So upfront, one of us foots the tab, but then we’ll pay the other back."
Ariana says they don't argue about money. "We each are in charge of our own finances, and we're both responsible about having the money needed to cover our bills and lifestyle. If one of us didn’t have the money, that’s when a fight could happen. I don’t ask about his spending and he doesn’t ask about mine," she says.
"I do spend more money on 'us,'"' she admits. "As in, I furnish our home, I treat him to gifts, I take us out to eat. He rarely spends money on me or us. And that can bother me — I want to be spoiled sometimes, too. Or, at the very least, I’d like him to contribute more to our life. But, he thinks material things are a waste of money, so if I want a nice home or wardrobe, I have to build it for myself out of my own pocket."
Lauren, 49, Massachusetts
Lauren has been married to her husband for 21 years. She currently earns about three times what he earns. "We have a joint account that we use for all expenses," she says. "When we got married I basically took over all the finances. My husband hates dealing with it, so I handle everything money related. We talked about it more when we were younger and made less money."
Although they don't argue over money, there is an aspect that Lauren feels frustrated by. "I sometimes do feel a bit resentful that not only do I bring home the majority of our money, but that I have to manage it, too. It means that I’m the one who does all of the worrying about money."
Kylie, 23, Wisconsin
"I make $52,800 per year, and he's currently unemployed," says Kylie. "We both graduated from college in May 2020 and I've been working at my current job since June 2020. He worked part time remotely for his college job until April 2021, making roughly $500 per month. He has been unemployed, but actively looking for work and interviewing since mid-April." Kylie has been with her partner for four years.
"We both pay for our share of rent, and he pays for his own car payment and insurance. I pay for everything else. I agreed to pay for groceries/utilities/meals out until he found a full-time, salaried position. I didn't realize it would take over a year to get there. Thanks, COVID!" she says.
"We haven't had any huge arguments, but we have had some disagreements about at what point does he bite the bullet and get a job at, like, Target or Chipotle or something," Kylie continues. "For example, if the roles were reversed, I would have gotten a job somewhere, even if it wasn't related to my degree or very well-paying, just to have some income — whereas he thinks that taking a minimum-wage (or slightly above) job with a college degree is degrading or embarrassing."
"Once he gets a new job, we will most likely split things 50/50, as that was what we did when we lived together in college and both of us worked part time," she says. "I think that if one of us ends up making $50,000+ more than the other, then at that point we would switch to a proportionate split."
"I sometimes feel a lot of resentment for having to pay for almost everything. On the flip side, I then feel guilty about spending money on buying clothes or beauty products for myself because he truly has no money to spare for those little luxuries," Kylie says. "And then I feel guilty for not offering to buy him more things, but then I remember I pay for most of his basic needs, and then feel resentment for having to pay for everything, and the cycle repeats itself over and over and over."
Shannon, 24, California
"I earn $133,500 with a 5 to 10% annual bonus and $25,000 yearly in restricted stock units (RSUs). My partner receives a $15,000 stipend," says Shannon, who has been in a relationship for two years. "We split things proportionally with base salary income, so I pay for 90%+ of items."
"We met in university when we both were making similar salaries with work study and summer jobs, so we split things pretty 50/50," she says. "We're both savers and have similar spending habits — pretty conservative unless it comes to books and coffee. When I started my job and my partner entered graduate school, it was only fair for us to start contributing based on our incomes. I earn more than 10 times what they do, and I was the one scared of financially abusing them, so we have monthly money dates and talk through purchases often."
"Because once-upon-a-time we both were making meager salaries as college students, I often need to check myself when I start feeling resentful about paying for so much," Shannon says. "On top of living in a high-cost-of-living area, seeing everything add up at the end of the month is eye-popping."
"However, I'm more scared of unintentionally financially abusing my partner," she continues. "My dad has done this with my mom, and the huge pay difference between my partner's field and mine (high school teacher vs engineer) is making me extra vigilant about making sure my partner and I have consistent conversations about money. I do feel guilty about the fact that I can save and invest so much, so quickly, and my partner won't get that opportunity until maybe a few solid years into their teaching career — but nothing compared to what I'll be making in tech."
Emma, 27, Arizona
Emma has been with her partner for two years. She makes $93,000, while he makes $36,000. Despite the income difference, they split things evenly. "We talked about it, and we decided on 50/50," says Emma. "As we changed jobs and roles, I offered to adjust based on a proportion of income but my partner wanted to keep it 50/50. I think he’s prideful, and there’s a sense of machismo there. He’s a very good saver, though, so I ultimately think he’s comfortable."
"I spend more casually but also invest more aggressively," she says. "I used to feel guilty about it, but now I don’t. My partner just doesn't ‘want’ things as much as I do, so he chooses not to spend, even if he has the money."
Julia, 28, California
Julia has been in a relationship with her partner for seven years now. "I make $55,000 and my partner brings home $100,000," she says. "My partner takes care of the large items like the mortgage, renovations, travel, big spending purchases, and I take care of everything within our four walls, including all utilities, food, subscriptions. We have a joint account for 'family purchases' for expenses for our son."
"My partner and I chose to keep our main finances separate due to both cultural and spending habit differences. We speak of finances very often and are transparent with our accounts, goals and spending," she says. "My partner grew up in a third-world country, whereas I've only ever lived in the U.S. Naturally the way we choose to spend money is very different. While our long-term goals are the same, our day-to-day spending habits are vastly different. My passion as an equestrian hunter/jumper can be a hefty investment due to horse ownership and care. My partner chooses to live way below our means in order to have full-financial freedom in the future, and I do the best I can with allowing for some flexibility. It was difficult at first to accept that we would keep our finances separate, but now I wouldn't want it any other way."
Julia's goal is to eventually make over six figures and create more of an even split. She says she sometimes feels guilty about her spending on horses. "I've tailored and cut back my expenses as best as possible to be able to justify, in my mind, what I spend," she says.
*Names have been changed to protect identity